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Phyllis Bennis Pt2: Afghan people must fight the Taliban and the warlords, US occupation makes it worse

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and joining us again is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. She has a book called Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So we ended part one of our interview, you were suggesting, saying rather strongly, this can’t be about getting rid of 400 al-Qaeda guys in Afghanistan and mostly Pakistan. So what’s it really about?

BENNIS: Well, I think it really started as a political question for then-candidate Obama, who recognized that if he was going to be a serious candidate coming out against the war that had shaped US politics for six years, he was going to have to find some other war that could be his war. He was going to have to be the champion of some war. And he chose the war in Afghanistan as the, quote, “good war”. It was for a while easier to justify. It seemed like it was legitimate. It seemed maybe you could say it was self-defense, maybe you could say it was was supported by the UN. You could say a lot of those things. In fact, none of them were true. In fact, this was never about self-defense. Article 51 of the UN Charter that determines what is and is not self-defense does not apply here. It would have applied to shooting down one of those planes that was heading for the Pentagon or for the World Trade Center. That’s self-defense.

JAY: It might even have applied to going, in a more surgical way, directly against al-Qaeda.

BENNIS: No, because what Article 51 says is not only that it limits against whom you can do it and when, but it says you can only do that until such time as you can come to the Security Council of the UN with the request for assistance.

JAY: But they did get a UN resolution.

BENNIS: No, they didn’t. They got a UN resolution within 24 hours, and it was, of course, not only unanimous, but every ambassador there stood to—they were all frightened. They all lived within a few miles of the World Trade Center. Many had their own family, friends, children in the area. I mean, it was a terrifying moment for anyone in New York, just like in Washington. But the resolution that was passed, drafted by the US, and not questioned for a moment did not authorize the use of force. It was very carefully drawn, not because they were afraid they wouldn’t get the approval, but because George Bush did not want to acknowledge that the UN Security Council has the authority, according to the Charter, to determine when force can be used.

JAY: ‘Cause in President Obama’s speech, he specifically refers to this and says that it did authorize.

BENNIS: And he was wrong. It did not. It did authorize a global campaign. It identified things like going after the money, collaboration among police forces. It did not authorize the use of force, and it was not taken under Chapter 7, which is the method of—it’s in Chapter 7 that the UN Security Council can authorize force, and any resolution that’s going to authorize force has to use that language, taken under the terms of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

JAY: And there’s been nothing from the UN since?

BENNIS: There have been other resolutions, yes.

JAY: That authorize force?

BENNIS: That authorize—yes, that authorize the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] to be created, etc. So there was a period—there is a period now where you could say there has been authorization. You can talk about what kinds of pressures were brought to bear to force that to happen, but yes, that did happen. But at the time the war was waged—. And when President Obama referenced this, he said—and I found this a very sad, ineffably sad moment in his speech, when he said, “I wish we could return to that moment of great unity when the war began.” And what he missed was a small detail of the timing. He’s right that at the time of the attacks of 9/11 there was enormous unity, not only across the United States but around the world. For the first time, people were saying, you know, the Americans are like us, they can be vulnerable. And there was a kind of human solidarity that flew around the world. You had the French newspapers headlining, “Nous sommes tous Américains maintenant”—we are all Americans now. From the French! You know, from the French. That’s amazing. But as soon as the war began, as soon as George Bush made clear that he was going to answer this terrible crime with a war, that support, that solidarity, that unity began quickly to erode. And that’s what President Obama missed when he said, “I wish we could go back to that unity.”

JAY: Well, even amongst 9/11 families there is a not-in-our-name movement that was developing.

BENNIS: And one of them was on a phone call with the White House today, a woman from 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who asked a question. And it was a difficult one, I think, for the NSC [National Security Council] people to answer, because they knew who she was and what she represented. So there has been from the beginning a divergence of opinion on this war. This was never a unified war, as some would like to portray it.

JAY: But before we get into the geopolitical bigger picture of why Obama might have made this decision, let me take you back again to this question [Bill] O’Reilly keeps posing to [Dennis] Kucinich. Every time Kucinich would come up with an answer, O’Reilly would say, “But are you okay with the Taliban coming back into power in Afghanistan? And what are the repercussions of that?” So let me pose it to you, ’cause I thought it’s a legitimate question that the antiwar people have to answer.

BENNIS: It’s a legitimate question. I absolutely agree. That’s why I wrote a book, Ending the US War in Afghanistan, done as frequently asked—

JAY: A Primer.

BENNIS: —A Primer—done as frequently asked questions, including things like, “What would happen if the US pulled out?” And I think that we have to be very broad about this. It’s not enough to say, “We’re wrong to be there. We should get out. It doesn’t matter what happens.” It matters a lot. We have a lot of obligations in that country that date back 25 years to when we first started supporting one side, started setting up a situation that brought the Soviet Union in in the first place. This is what Brzezinski later bragged about. He said, “We knew the Soviets would have to respond this way. We wanted them in there.”

JAY: And it’s all been replicated, the rearming of the jihadists, setting the conditions for a horrible civil war.

BENNIS: That’s the starting point; that’s not the end point. But we have to start recognizing that set of obligations that we bear because of our role in creating so much death and destruction in that country. So, yes, we do owe a huge debt. But the question then becomes: is it fine for the Taliban to come back to power? I would say no, but, number one, it’s not my call. Is it fine for a corrupt US-backed president who came to office in a thoroughly corrupt process, which even President Obama had to knowledge but then went on to say that he now is a president who reflects the Afghan Constitution?

JAY: Yeah, I thought you were talking about Bush to start with, but we’re talking about Karzai.

BENNIS: No, no, we’re talking about Karzai. We can talk about Bush later. But we’re talking about Karzai in Afghanistan. This was a terrible remark from the president when he said, well, yeah, we know it was all corrupt, how he came to power, but now he’s there and he reflects the Constitution. I mean, that is similar to George Bush, but it was not a good moment. But I think that what we’re dealing with here is a very real scenario, where it’s a question of weighing bad scenarios. It’s not okay right now for us to be responsible for supporting a corrupt dictatorship that has ties with the drug lords and whose warlord backers are among the most misogynistic haters of women and oppressors of women in that country. If I had to pick the single most vicious attacks on women, it would probably not be from the Taliban. It would probably be from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorites. He was the guy who got all those Stinger missiles, and he was known for throwing acid on the faces of women students when he was a student at Kabul University way back in the ’70s.

JAY: But he’s now allied with the Taliban.

BENNIS: He’s now—he’s not allied with Taliban. He’s allied against the US. He’s not fighting with the Taliban. He fought against the Taliban for five years. He only turned and stopped fighting against the Taliban when the US invaded, and he now is fighting against US, on the same side as the Taliban in a certain way, but not fighting with them. They’re fighting each other. None of these are good situations. Afghan women have faced terrible legacies of culturally based oppression for a very long time. The reality is that eight years of US occupation, eight years of military forces being there, supposedly to help the women, to liberate the women, Afghanistan today still has the second highest level of maternal mortality—women dying in childbirth—of any countries in the world. The only one who has more is Niger. Afghanistan is second in that horrifying list. Women in Afghanistan today live to be an average of 43 years old. UNICEF two weeks ago announced that Afghanistan is one of three worst places for a child to be born.

JAY: I think that one of the stats is a woman dies in childbirth every half an hour in Afghanistan.

BENNIS: Something like that. And it was changed not at all with the presence of the US occupation [inaudible]

JAY: So how does the US get out without leaving a horrible civil war in its wake?

BENNIS: I don’t know, and I don’t know that anybody can know that. I don’t know that there will be a horrible civil war, because a huge part of the Taliban has been—the rise of the Taliban, the increasing strength of the Taliban has everything to do with the presence of foreign troops. With the troops leaving, and certainly once they’re out, many of the people who joined the Taliban to fight against the foreign occupation are going to stop fighting. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re going to become like Switzerland overnight—actually, I think we’re going to have stop using the example of Switzerland after they passed a horrifying anti-Muslim referendum the other day. But they’re not going to become Sweden overnight. But it’s going to set a very different set of conditions for Afghans to fight for themselves. A colleague of mine was talking the other day to an Afghan women who had been here in the US briefly, just before she went home, and said to her, “Aren’t you really worried if the US pulls out? What if the Taliban comes back?” And she said, “Look, we have three huge sets of enemies right now. The US occupation is killing civilians, the Taliban are killing civilians, and the warlords, backed by the Karzai government, are killing civilians. It would be better for us to have two enemies rather than three.” And they said, “Well, what if the Taliban won?” And she said, “We’re Afghans. We’ll fight them.” That’s the answer. We can’t wage a battle when the result of that, if we win, it’s just as bad.

JAY: The problem with that is that the last time this happened, one million to two million Afghans died in a civil war.

BENNIS: That’s right.

JAY: And it’s nice to say we’ll fight them, but there’s no precedent—there is no fighting force outside of the warlords or the Taliban right now. All the actual people with guns are either in the employ or have a loyalty to one of these fiefdoms.

BENNIS: These tribal elements, many of them. But there are civil society organizations. There are—

JAY: But not with guns.

BENNIS: Well, some of them are connected to the people with guns. You know, the people with guns live there. They’re not—.

JAY: But there’s another alternative, which is—I interviewed Larry Wilkerson earlier, and he and some others have put forward this idea that the only real solution is a regional solution.

BENNIS: Absolutely. But [inaudible] regional diplomacy that we need, not regional arms. We don’t need to broaden the war, to bring the neighbors. We need to broaden the diplomacy. The US needs to recognize that there are countries in the region that border Afghanistan that have a lot more right to have something to say about what goes on inside Afghanistan that might spill over their borders than we do, who live 8,000 or 10,000 miles away. You know, that’s China, that’s Iran. These are not countries that we necessarily like the idea that they have so much influence, but hello, that’s the geography. That’s where Afghanistan is. Afghanistan is one of those terribly faded countries. To not have lots of great oil and natural gas and gold and all those things—it has bits and pieces of it. Doesn’t have much. But it has the terrible luck to be in a neighborhood surrounded by countries that do have that stuff and want it.

JAY: Well, one of the surrounded by, obviously, is Pakistan, and a lot of people are saying, suggesting rather obviously, this actually is all about Pakistan and it really isn’t much about Afghanistan.

BENNIS: It’s really a lot about Pakistan and India.

JAY: So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about Pakistan and India. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Phyllis Bennis.

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.