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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Afghanistan on Life Support

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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You've undoubtedly had the experience of pulling on a tiny, fraying thread and discovering, to your shock, that the larger piece of clothing you're wearing suddenly begins to unravel. The equivalent seems to be happening in Afghanistan right before our eyes. There, "the pride of Afghanistan's financial system," Kabul Bank, with more than a million customers, is undergoing a slow-motion collapse.

Part of a fledging banking system proudly mentored by American experts and Treasury Department officials, that sinkhole of a bank now threatens to take down far more with it. In 2001,according to the Washington Post's David Nakamura and Ernesto Londoño, the Americans arriving in Kabul wanted to create a "Western-style banking sector... that would make it more difficult for terrorists to get money, while promising Afghans that a regulated financial system would be more reliable and trustworthy." And, in a perverse sense, they succeeded.

We don't yet know whether or not Kabul Bank is "too big to fail" and so will prove to be the Goldman Sachs or the Merrill Lynch of poverty-stricken Afghanistan. At the very least, it represents a fraying Afghan cloth woven from just about every disastrous thread of the American war and occupation: the deep corruption of the ruling elite, the looting of what wealth the country has and its squandering abroad, the tens of billions of dollars of drug money and reconstruction/aid funds that have washed over a land with a gross domestic product of only about $27 billion, and finally Washington's whole project in Afghanistan, which, as TomDispatch regular Nick Turse indicates below, promised so much and delivered so desperately little. (Of course, the very fact that the Taliban, the discredited former rulers of that country in 2001, should be experiencing a renaissance, tells you everything you need to know about the American disaster there.)

To provide protection for themselves in the snake pit of Afghan politics, the Kabul Bank's two owners brought in (that is, bought) a brother of President Hamid Karzai (who has been living in a $5.5 million villa in Dubai purchased with bank funds) and a brother of Vice President Muhammad Fahim (to whom it loaned a mere $100 million). Its top officers also evidently loaned out millions to themselves, splurged on 18 "villas" and other property in Dubai just as the real estate market there was preparing to take a nosedive, while playing fast and loose with the bank's deposits. Since Kabul Bank holds government funds for salaries to be paid to the Army, police, government workers, and teachers, the possibility for popular discontent runs deep. In Kabul, the only remaining branch of the bank still open is now surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by security forces prepared to beat back Afghans besieging the place desperate for their money or simply their salaries.

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The Kabul Bank collapse is a genuine Afghan nightmare that threatens to engulf the major politicians of that land and possibly the rickety, rotting political system the Americans helped build over the last decade. It may, in the end, prove a symbol of everything the American war delivered to a tiny slice of Afghan society and almost no one else. Nick Turse's newest book -- he's the editor --The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan(Verso Books), is just out and how could it be more timely? The impressive war reporter Patrick Cockburn calls it "a fascinating and essential guide." As we watch the American project in that country unravel, isn't it the moment to finally put withdrawal on the American agenda? After all, we don't really need to oversee the collapse of Afghanistan's banking system when we've done so well here at home.

(To catch Turse in Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview discussing why withdrawal from Afghanistan hasn't been on the American agenda , click here or, to download it to your iPod,here.)Tom

How Much "Success" Can Afghans Stand?
The American War and Afghanistan's Civilians

By Nick Turse

With the arrival of General David Petraeus as Afghan War commander, there has been ever more talk about the meaning of "success" in Afghanistan. At the end of July,USA Today ran an article titled, "In Afghanistan, Success Measured a Step at a Time." Days later, Stephen Biddle, a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, held a conference call with the media to speak about "Defining Success in Afghanistan." A mid-August editorial in the Washington Post was titled: "Making the Case for Success in Afghanistan." And earlier this month, an Associated Press article appeared under the headline, "Petraeus Talks Up Success in Afghan War."

Unlike victory, success turns out to be a slippery term. As the United States approaches the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, pundits have been chewing over just what "success" in Afghanistan might mean for Washington. What success might mean for ordinary Afghans hasn't, however, been a major topic of conversation, even though U.S. officials have regularly promised them far better lives and trumpeted American efforts to reconstruct that war-torn land.

Between 2001 and 2009, according to the Afghan government, the country has received $36 billion in grants and loans from donor nations, with the United States disbursing some $23 billion of it. U.S. taxpayers have anted up another $338 billion to fund the war and occupation. Yet from poverty indexes to risk-of-rape assessments, from childhood mortality figures to drug-use stats, just about every available measure of Afghan wellbeing paints a grim picture of a country in a persistent state of humanitarian crisis, often involving reconstruction and military failures on an epic scale. Pick a measurement affecting ordinary Afghans and the record since November 2001 when Kabul fell to Allied forces is likely to show stagnation or setbacks and, almost invariably, suffering.

Almost a decade after the U.S. invasion, life for Afghan civilians is not a subject Americans care much about and so, not surprisingly, it plays little role in Washington's discussions of "success." Have a significant number of Afghans found the years of occupation and war "successful"? Has there been a payoff in everyday life for the indignities of the American years -- the cars stopped or sometimes shot up at road checkpoints, the American patrols trooping through fields and searching homes, the terrifying night raids, the imprisonments without trial, or the way so many Afghans continue to be treated like foreigners, if not criminal suspects, in their own country?

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For years, American leaders have hailed the way Afghans are supposedly benefiting from the U.S. role in their country. But are they?

The promises began early. In April 2002, for instance, speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, President George W. Bush proclaimed that in Afghanistan "peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works." He added, "We're working hard in Afghanistan: We're clearing mine fields. We're rebuilding roads. We're improving medical care. And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs."

When, on May 1, 2003, President Bush strode across the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver his "mission accomplished" speech, declaring an end to "major combat operations in Iraq," he also spoke of triumph in the other war and once again offered a rosy picture of Afghan developments. "We continue to help the Afghan people lay roads, restore hospitals, and educate all of their children," he said. Five years later, he was still touting American aid to Afghans, noting that the U.S. was "working to ensure that our military progress is accompanied by the political and economic gains that are critical to the success of a free Afghanistan."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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