Ann Jones is a writer, photographer and social activist. Over the years, she has been
particularly vocal about the rights of women. Kabul in Winter was published in 2006. Welcome to
OpEdNews, Ann. When you first headed to Afghanistan, did you imagine that
you would be there for so long?
Kabul in Winter
When I first went to Kabul, I hoped to stay just a few months. That seems to be the plan of every invader. The Soviet army planned on a few weeks and stayed a decade, and the US seems well on the way to outstripping that terrible record. In my case, I saw that there was a pressing need for a little help, and I was drawn to Afghan women who were thrilled to have been released from Taliban captivity and eager to take up their public lives again. So I kept going back, year after year, doing my small part--only to witness the sad dashing of Afghan hopes and the rising disappointment, and anger, at all things American.
I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, planning to spend a few months helping Afghans pick up the pieces after the American bombardment, of which I deeply disapproved. (That bombing, by the way, killed more innocent civilians than were lost in the attack on the World Trade Center, while leaving Osama bin Laden untouched.) I found work as a volunteer with a couple of small NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that worked with women; one that helped widows earn some money by sewing and gardening, and another that worked with women survivors of personal violence in the midst of war.
That last one plunged me into the prisons, the
ultraconservative courts, and the hospitals where women and girls who had
failed at suicide lay hoping to die. In all my years of working with
women survivors of violence, I'd never been so immersed in such systematic
abject misery. But I also taught school. I taught English to
Kabul's high school English teachers, women and men; and the determination with
which they undertook hilarious adventures in English kept my spirits up.
It was the misery and the courage that kept me coming back.
Please talk a little about why the Afghans initially welcomed us but later became suspicious and untrusting. How exactly did we disappoint them?
Although the US had abandoned Afghanistan before--after the departure of the Soviet army--and left the country to civil war, Afghans actually believed that we wouldn't do it again. They accepted Bush-administration promises to help them rebuild their country; they were eager to get started. But American aid money went into overhead costs--the best accommodations and offices, SUVs, and the like--and huge chunks of it walked off in the pockets of incompetent private for-profit contractors.
After a year or so, Afghans asked, "Where is the money you promised us? Where is the help?" As years passed with few signs of real assistance--something like 75 percent of US expenditure in Afghanistan is for military purposes--most Afghans realized that we'd gone back on our promises again. Many have concluded that it was never our intention to help them, but merely to set up permanent military bases--as we are in fact doing.
Given the long time you spent over there, what would you like to add to the recent Congressional debate about sending additional troops?
There was a time when sending more troops might have done some good. For example, they might have captured Osama bin Laden. (Remember him?) But that was long ago, and the moment has passed. To send more troops "now" is impossible because it would take them a year or so to get there, even if we had any more troops to send who were not already walking casualties of war. But even to think about it is loony.
American troops do in Afghanistan? They stir up local Taliban, recruiting
new "enemies" wherever they go. They apply one-size-fits-all
theories considered a "success" in Iraq --Sons of Iraq, The
Awakening, etc.-- to Afghanistan, a country utterly different and unreceptive.
They spend huge bundles of money on so-called "development" projects,
thereby fueling massive corruption among canny Afghans who take them for fools.
Trying to win hearts and minds, they deal only with men, thus affirming the popular belief that women need not be consulted about anything; and their mere presence causes Afghan men to protect their women by locking them up, just as the Taliban did for so many years. (So much for democracy.) They also train the Afghan National Army, which is theoretically supposed to replace US and NATO troops eventually, if only the trainees would stop deserting in droves, shooting their trainers, or turning out to be Taliban just checking out the latest US training tips. Our troops loyally do all these things to the best of their ability at the command of generals who do not seem to be up to the job.
whole debate about troop levels is deeply misguided. It has entirely
monopolized public discussion of the war--long after many respected military
men voiced the widespread opinion that there is no military
"solution" to the problems of Afghanistan. Real questions of
what we're doing there have devolved into a numbers game. And those
observers who, like me, feel real concern for the Afghan people and
responsibility for the false promises the Bush administration made, are at a loss.
What about the concerns of civil society--for education, health care, clean water, electricity, uncorrupted courts of law, good governance, democracy composed of women and men? What about all that? The stock answer is that those concerns are not what this war is about. Nevertheless, they are the fundamental concerns of peace. And isn't peace what we're looking for? Well, no. Not really. Too many people are profiting from this war to let peace get in the way of more troops, more weapons, more private contracts, more patriotic billions transfered from the public treasury to the pockets of the already rich.
Harvey Wasserman wrote an op-ed piece last month, calling this an LBJ moment. He meant that Obama was on the cusp of making Afghanistan the quagmire that Viet Nam became. What do you think of Wasserman's assessment?
commentators have noted eerie resemblances to the war on Viet Nam, but I think
there is much more at stake than an LBJ moment. Afghanistan, already a
quagmire, is not just another one. Since 1945, the year Europeans decided
to give up war and work at peace, the US has been involved in armed conflict,
overtly or covertly, almost without cessation, and often--as now--in multiple
places at once.
We are now, by any measure, far and away the most militarized and warlike nation on the planet. The US has become the country President (formerly General) Eisenhower warned us about when he said: "God help us when someone sits in this [president's] chair who doesn't know as much about the military as I do." The question before us is: Are we so firmly in the grip of the military-industrial-congressional complex that we cannot change course? (Obama, you will recall, is the president who promised change.)