Do the Afghan Presidential Elections Signify Progress?
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly and IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis discuss Afghanistan’s presidential election in light of corporations profiting from war and unrepresented groups remaining on the margins
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Saturday, an estimated 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 12 million eligible voters cast their vote to elect Afghanistan’s next president. Although results are still coming in, a runoff is likely to occur between two presidential frontrunners, former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Abdullah Abdullah. The very next day, President Obama applauded the elections.
Now joining us to discuss what this election means for everyday people in Afghanistan are our two guests. Kathy Kelly is an American peace activist, pacifist, and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She currently acts as cocoordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence and recently returned from Afghanistan, where she spent most of her winter.
And also joining us is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow and the director of New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also the author of many books, including Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
Thank you for joining us, both of you.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.
KATHY KELLY, COCOORDINATOR, VOICES FOR CREATIVE NONVIOLENCE: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kathy, let’s start off with you. You traveled to Afghanistan 14 times as an invited guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul. What are they saying about this election, the people on the ground?
KELLY: Well, my young friends in Kabul have said that it’s a sad day when the pinnacle for evaluating success or failure in Afghanistan rests on something that happens for one day once every four years. And the tickets of people running as candidates included a warlord on just about every ticket. And, certainly, Ashraf Ghani is running with General Dostum, a very menacing, fearful warlord with a history of horrific massacres.
And the cares and concerns of very ordinary Afghans have been so underrepresented and shut out–I mean, you’ve got a million children suffering from severe, acute malnourishment, one out of every 11 women dying in childbirth. So how are those concerns going to be represented when the elites who are surrounded by heavily armed militias have maintained such control over Afghanistan? And I include the United States in that category of elites surrounded by heavily armed militias.
DESVARIEUX: Phyllis, both of the presidential frontrunners, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, they have said that they will sign the bilateral security agreement. First of all, what’s in the agreement? And why has the current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, refused to sign it?
BENNIS: The bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and the Afghan government is designed to maintain U.S. military presence at a somewhat smaller scale than it currently is for an indefinite period into the future.
The reason, I think, that President Karzai has refused to sign it has to do with internal politics. He’s trying to position himself as the defender of Afghan sovereignty against U.S. pressure.
The reality is there’s a single issue that’s at stake here, and that is whether or not U.S. troops left in Afghanistan after the end of this year would have immunity from being held accountable for war crimes they might commit. This was the exact same issue that led to a decision to withdraw all troops out of Iraq in 2011, something that the Obama administration did not want to do. They wanted to leave, again, a group–somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops behind, but they wouldn’t do it if they could not be guaranteed that they would have immunity for war crimes that they know they will commit. You know, it’s one of these things: why don’t they just make sure they don’t commit any crimes? Then they wouldn’t have to worry about immunity. So far the Afghan position is they will also not sign on to immunity for U.S. troops after the end of the year. The question now is whether the winner of this election, probably in a runoff situation, will sign on to it at a later time.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s switch gears a little bit and discuss money. And if you follow the money, the U.S. government has spent about $750 billion in Afghanistan.
I want to turn to you, Kathy, and talk to you about where the money’s going. Now, where could the money be going if it wanted to really be in the interests of the Afghan people?
KELLY: Well, for instance, the United States has, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan report, spent what is now approaching $100 billion on non-military aid in Afghanistan. Of that sum, only $3 billion ever went to humanitarian aid.
The other $97 billion is distributed over counternarcotics–while 92 percent of the world’s opium is coming from Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem like that counternarcotics money was so well spent. You’ve got drones flying over doing oversight constantly. Don’t they happen to notice the movement of truckloads of opium going across the country every single day? But money was also spent on oversight and on governance. Well, Transparency International says Afghanistan is the most corrupt government in the world. So these are really crucial questions to ask.
And meanwhile, Anatol Lieven in The New York Review of Books says that the United States has been subsidizing the Taliban, because the United States has paid a toll for every truck, and all of the supplies coming into the United States bases and supporting also the military contractors are delivered by truck. And so the money that gets paid to the people who run those roadways, who are warlords and drug lords, and many of them Taliban, both Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, has subsidized the Taliban.
And then the United States people are supposed to believe that we’re protecting women and children. Well, we should be, and reparations should be paid for the suffering caused.
DESVARIEUX: Phyllis, you heard Kathy mention the issue of corruption. What’s your take?
BENNIS: Well, you know, there’s no question that Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt countries around. Transparency International lists it as one of the worst, in terms of doing business in Afghanistan. And that is important.
But I think we also have to keep in mind the far bigger levels of corruption that are endemic in the U.S. process of going to war in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq. You know, we know that the CEOs of defense contractors made more money than almost any other CEOs at various periods in the war.
There’s a direct link if we look at the question of cronyism. President George [W.] Bush’s uncle, William H. T. Bush, was a director of one of the war manufacturing companies, Engineered Support Systems, internationally, who cleared $2.7 million in cash and stock a few years ago in the context of the extra money that that company was making for supplying the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq.
So, you know, the question of corruption is something that we have exported to Iraq, as we have exported violence and sectarianism.
The democracy that the U.S. likes to trumpet we have brought or we have allowed to thrive in Afghanistan is thoroughly based on political parties that are sectarian in nature. Each of the parties is led by someone representing one ethnic group. The big victory is that this time around they’ve each chosen a vice presidential candidate from a different group to try and reach out broadly. But the idea that there could be a president who represents Afghanistan and not who represents a particular ethnic or tribal group is simply not on the U.S. agenda. And that’s one of the big problems of what our definitions have been for what we call democracy in the context of these wars.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kathy Kelly and Phyllis Bennis, thank you both for joining us.
KELLY: Thank you, Jessica.
BENNIS: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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