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Rural Afghans have given up on US and want an end to the war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

And in Washington, once again the debate is hot. Why is the United States in Afghanistan? What’s the strategy? What’s the exit strategy? Some people are saying the war costs too much so it’s time to get out. Others are saying for geopolitical, geostrategic reasons the United States cannot get out. And then, of course, in the middle is some supposed planned withdrawal with an enduring presence, whatever that means. But all of this analysis seems to begin from the point of what’s in American national interest. Well, how about what’s in Afghan interest? How about what’s good for the well-being of the Afghan people? How about we start our analysis there?

Now joining us to help us in that is Anand Gopal. Anand is a writer covering Afghanistan. He was there working for several years. He also works in Egypt and other international hot spots for a variety of newspapers and magazines. And he’s currently writing a book on the history of the American-Afghan War. Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: So, Anand, I mean, you’re not Afghan, but you were there for quite a while. How long were you in Afghanistan?

GOPAL: Full-time about three or three and a half years. And I’ve been going back since I left.

JAY: And so from your—first of all, how are people reacting to the killing? And let’s start there. But from this starting point, like, what sense do you have of what’s good for the well-being of Afghans?

GOPAL: I mean, if you look at it from the Afghan point of view, this is just one amongst a long series of killings that have stretched back since 2001.

You know, the way we talk about the killing, the way we frame it here is that it was some sort of aberration, that it was—we’re trying to look for context to this, right? Perhaps he had—the soldier had a mental illness or PTSD or that he was drunk. But, you know, funnily enough, just a few weeks before this incident, an Afghan soldier walked up to some of his American comrades and shot them dead, and this narrative of looking for a context was entirely absent, and literally he was labeled as a terrorist. So when Afghans do it, it’s an act of terrorism; when Americans do it, then we try to understand the context behind it.

But, of course, Afghans have been living under war for 30 years. You can argue that almost the entire country is in a form of PTSD. You can argue a lot of things. But a lot of that is missing ’cause we don’t actually look at it—as you said, we don’t look at it from the Afghan point of view or from the Afghan interests in all.

JAY: There’s no suggestion, do you think, that this would have been an actual ordered act, do you? Like, go out and kill some Afghan civilians. This is more about a context that allows such stuff. I mean, what’s your read on that?

GOPAL: Well, yeah, I mean, I don’t think they would have ordered this, nor would they have benefited from having this—from ordering this. But I think that it speaks to the sort of environment that these people are in. I mean, they are trained to be killers, at the end of the day. And, you know, when I was out there, I was out in a village very close to where the massacre happened a few years ago, with U.S. soldiers, and a lot of them were frustrated that they weren’t able to go outside the wire and engage in combat. And, I mean, this is what they’re trained to do, and they’re not able to do it very often, because, you know, it’s a guerrilla war, it’s a lot of hit-and-run tactics, you don’t often see your enemy. So it’s frustrating for the soldiers. So it’s not surprising to me that, given the sort of indoctrination and training a lot of these soldiers have, that this—you know, you may get this sort of response from certain people.

JAY: What is your sense of the different points of view from the Afghans about what they want?

GOPAL: Well, it’s complicated, because, of course, the Afghans are not a homogenous entity. If you look, it’s a broadly—if you look in two camps, right, one is in urban areas in the north. In areas where there isn’t really a war going on and where the Taliban isn’t present, people by and large prefer the American presence to continue, not so much because they love the Americans as such, but because they see them as a buffer to the Taliban, and perhaps to the rule of other ethnic groups, whereas if you go look in the Pashtun countryside in those areas where the war is being fought, most people don’t want the American presence to continue, because they’re living under a war and they’re caught between these two sides.

JAY: And that’s sort of shifted over the years. Early in the war, I think there was a loya jirga where a lot of—this is right after the fall of the Taliban. My understanding: there was a loya jirga, a meeting of all the elders, about a year into the—after the fall of the Taliban, that actually met and told the Taliban to get out of their villages or to lay down their arms, and they wanted to give this reconstruction a chance. And then, apparently, several years later they met again and say, okay, we give up on this reconstruction; it’s really foreign occupation. So has there been a sort of a tipping point now, that dealing with the Taliban’s better than dealing with the war?

GOPAL: Well, absolutely. I mean, if you’re dealing with the Taliban at this point, then, you know, you’ll have a whole host of problems, but you’re not going to be caught in the midst of two sides fighting each other, nor will you be caught with the night raids or airstrikes or anything else.

But you’re right that in the early years up to 2001, really, the support for the Taliban was minimal across the board, and people welcomed the Americans with open arms and they had hope for what would come. And they were remarkably patient. I mean, if you go back and look at some of the incidents that happened in 2001 and 2002, there was a lot of civilian casualties, some of which I detail in my book. And despite those, people were remarkably patient, and it took—really took a lot for people to start to change. I mean, it really only started happening around 2004 or 2005.

JAY: Now, you talk about rural Afghans, but urban Afghans are quite a different story. I know when I was in Afghanistan making a film there in the spring of 2002, urban Afghans were telling me and colleagues of mine that they actually—even the bombing of Kabul was worth it to get rid of the Taliban, the hatred of the Taliban was so profound. So what are you hearing now from urban Afghans?

GOPAL: I think now you still have this sentiment, by and large, that the Americans need to stay as a buffer, although there’s a lot more criticism you see of the American actions and presence and of the Afghan government than we saw before. But, you know, these people are really caught between a rock and a hard place, because a lot of them, their livelihoods depend directly on the U.S. presence, through patronage, through patronage from the Afghan government, or they occupy or inhabit spaces which would not have been available if the U.S. wasn’t there. At the same time, I think they recognize that—or some of them are beginning to recognize that there’s no long-term future for this, and essentially what you have is a perpetual war in the countryside and a war economy which is propping up the cities.

JAY: Which seems to be in some ways the long-term U.S. plan, to sort of scale back American presence in Afghanistan. But what they’re calling enduring presence means what? You have bases surrounded by some level of civil war in the countryside and some deal with the Taliban.

GOPAL: Well, that’s right. And adding to that is a proxy war. I mean, they’re training and—the U.S. has been training, for the last couple of years, militias essentially to act on their behalf, especially on the day when conventional troops start getting pulled back. And so there are hundreds of militias running around, especially in northern Afghanistan, who are either armed or trained or funded by the U.S. And a lot of these people are really grave human rights abusers, and I suspect that we’re going to see a lot more of them and hear a lot more bad things about them as sort of the U.S. presence, the conventional U.S. presence, winds down.

JAY: And what do you hear from civil society organizations, Afghan, you can say, activists? Like, some of them are saying they don’t want the Taliban or the U.S., but start with the U.S. getting out, and then they’re going to deal with the Taliban. But is there any plan or vision for a way out for Afghanistan which is neither Taliban nor United States?

GOPAL: One of the tragedies of the last ten years and the underdevelopment of Afghanistan is that there hasn’t really been a robust civil society that’s been able to develop. I mean, there are groups in places like Kabul, but you don’t really have the sorts of forms of politics—you know, political parties, independent organizations, activist groups—the sort that you would need to really be able to have a robust alternative either to the Americans or the Taliban. And this is a direct consequence, I think, of the failures of the occupation. So, in other words, it’s bleak, I think, that there isn’t really a third force. I suspect what will end up happening is a fragmentation of Afghan society into various armed groups, and perhaps a slide back to some of what we saw in the mid-’90s, when various armed actors were fighting against each other throughout the country.

JAY: And there’s even more to fight over now in terms of the growth of the drug trade. And it’s still, I guess, the biggest majority of the GDP of Afghanistan is poppies, and which means there’s a tremendous fortune to fight over. And every so often this issue of the poppy trade breaks through the news cycle, and then it goes away, and then people talk about Afghanistan like it isn’t essentially a narco state. But has anything changed on that? Or is it still the—narcotics is really still at the heart of the economy?

GOPAL: It’s at the heart of the economy. It’s absolutely a narco state.

And, interestingly, the drug trafficking is also wrapped up in a whole different sort of economy of contracting, where, you know, people are also fighting over contracting dollars, trying to get money from—at the end of the day, from the U.S., such as private security companies. And there’s hundreds of private security companies running around, and [incompr.] existence is due—their existence is completely due to contracting. But there’s a lot of fraud, there’s a lot of—you know, there’s behavior that’s happening in terms of human rights violations, all sorts of things that are being fueled by this contracting economy, which is wrapped up with the drug economy as well.

JAY: And the future of the Afghan economy, we’re told, is in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. You know, they’ve dubbed it the Saudi Arabia of lithium and many, many other minerals. How much is that actually a factor in terms of how the various external players—U.S., Pakistan, India, Russia, China—how much is that a factor in their considerations?

GOPAL: I think in the short-term it’s not a huge factor, only because Afghanistan is such a failed state that to be able to extract those resources in any meaningful way is really hard to imagine. I mean, the Chinese have had some pretty significant mining interests in the country, but they’ve been able to do very little with that. I mean, they have contracts. Just because the areas in where these mines are are so insecure, you need to hire mercenary forces to protect them, you need to cut deals with the Taliban to get the Taliban to not attack your mines. I mean, it’s a complete mess. So as it stands now, I think it’s not something that figures prominently into people’s calculations. But, of course, it is a motivation, I’m sure, at the end of the day, to try to get some sort of stability.

JAY: And what about the issue of the pipeline? That’s always been—you know, people have always considered that a factor in all of this. Afghanistan is in theory an important oil pipeline route.

GOPAL: Yeah, again, in theory. I mean, you can’t even build a road in Afghanistan. You know, the main highway going from Kabul to Kandahar is a mess. And so if those basic elements aren’t able to be seen through, I think things like a pipeline are—they’re a pipedream, you know, they’re a long way off.

JAY: And so—I don’t know how you’re going to end your book, but do you get some sense of a vision for what could happen? And one of the suggestions have been to try to internationalize the solution—in other words, not just have a U.S.-dictated solution here, but have a regional—all the various countries of the region, perhaps under the rubric of the United Nations in some way—. I mean, is there any kind of plan or vision? Or people have written Afghanistan off again?

GOPAL: Well, I mean, the conflict is internationalized already. You have Pakistan supporting certain groups; you have Iran involved; obviously, the United States; India’s heavily involved. So, you know, a solution would have to be internationalized as well.

But I think, unfortunately, we’re left with a series of bad and worse options. To me it seems the best that we can hope for is just try to strike some sort of deal or to negotiate with the various armed actors, particularly the Taliban, and try to get as many of them to put their weapons down concomitant with the U.S. withdrawal. And that’s a tall order, you know, and I’m not sure if it’s going to happen, but I think at least striving for that perhaps could yield good benefits.

JAY: Now, we’ve talked to some of the activists from RAWA, the revolutionary Afghan women’s association, and they’re actually against that. They want the U.S. to get out, they want Afghans left to deal with the issues themselves, and they say they don’t want the Taliban—who they describe as a sort of Afghan fascist force—they don’t want them brought into any kind of power-sharing agreement. What’s your sense of that in terms of Afghan public opinion?

GOPAL: Well, I mean, if you look in the south and the east where the Taliban is present and dominant, I mean, they’re a fact of life. Whether people want them or not is immaterial, ’cause they’re there. I mean, essentially the Taliban controls 30 to 40 percent of the country. Right?

And so the question is: do we recognize the de facto state of affairs and make it a [dɪ’Ê’oʊɹ]? Or do we, you know, keep a war going that’s going to try to remove them, which is not going to happen? I think right now we’re following the latter course. And so the Americans are fighting this war and continuing with the hope, on some level, that they’re going to be able to dislodge the Taliban. And that’s never going to happen. And so if you can, you know, recognize the existing state of affairs, then I think that leaves Afghans in a place where they can begin, hopefully, to configure forms of resistance to the Taliban, which will take a long time, but I guess would start with this.

JAY: So—but does that begin with, then—with the U.S. making some kind of negotiated exit and then complete exit?

GOPAL: Well, yeah. I mean, I think the U.S. is not going to leave any other way, because, I mean, we’re not going to see sort of a Saigon moment where, you know, the U.S. is jumping on the back of helicopters and flying off as the Taliban march into Kabul. You know, the Taliban aren’t going to be able to do that militarily or politically. So, in other words, I think the U.S. is never going to be forced to leave purely on military pressure. There has to be a political component to it. And that—I think that means some sort of deal.

JAY: And right now the strategy looks like an enduring commitment to a low-level civil war.

GOPAL: Right. And I think that this is the alternative strategy to some sort of deal and leaving. And I think, unfortunately, that’s the strategy that we’re heading down.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Anand.

GOPAL: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Anand Gopal has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic,Foreign Policy, and other publications.