Dependency on Warlords Led to U.S. Attack on MSF Afghan Hospital
Sonali Kolhatkar tells Paul Jay that the American perpetual war strategy has created a criminal narco-state and generated support for the hated Taliban
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
In Afghanistan the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan has killed at least 22 people. Since the Taliban took various parts of the city NATO forces, mostly American, and Afghan army forces have now retaken the city. Now joining us to discuss the significance of this attack on the hospital as well as the Taliban attack on the city is Sonali Kolhatkar. She’s a founding director of the U.S.-based solidarity organization Afghan Women’s Mission, which raises funds for social and political women-led projects in Afghanistan. She’s co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. She’s also the host and executive producer of the radio show Uprising, heard on Pacifica Radio.
Thanks for joining us, Sonali.
SONALI KOLHATKAR: It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.
JAY: So there’s quite contradictory reports about why this hospital was hit. At first the Americans have said the Afghan government called it in. The Afghan government’s denying they called it in. Do we know any more about why this hospital was hit?
KOLHATKAR: Right. The initial reports were that the U.S. fired back after they were fired upon. Then the U.S. changed its official line, saying it was actually the Afghan forces that were fired upon, and they asked the government to respond on their behalf. And if you listen to the acting governor of Kunduz, that hospital compound, according to him, was being used by the Taliban. They were operating from there, they were firing. However, Doctors Without Borders, which has been operating that hospital, who gave coordinates of the hospital to all parties involved so that it would be spared, they say none of their staff saw anybody operating from inside the compound.
Now, this is a very common thing that has happened throughout the 14 years of the Afghan war, where the U.S. has relied on intelligence from its allies on the ground in Afghanistan. Most of these are Afghan warlords. They might be drug lords, local militia heads, who have a beef with someone and who have given on many occasions false intelligence to the U.S., and for the U.S. to continually rely on that kind of intelligence shows how poorly this war has been fought, and it does that today. So very clearly, lines were crossed somewhere. But in the end what matters is that it was the U.S. that dropped the bomb that killed 22 people, three of whom were Afghan children.
JAY: And it’s not out of the realm of imagination that the governor is somehow even in cahoots with the Taliban, or as you say have some beefs. But your point here is that the U.S. should be verifying these things themselves before they’re bombing hospitals.
KOLHATKAR: Absolutely. The U.S. was given the coordinates of this hospital being run by one of the top international aid organizations in the world. This is a foreign-led aid agency. This isn’t some small, local hospital that the U.S. can claim they didn’t know anything about, not that it would justify it then. But this is an agency with a major global reputation. They know what it is like to operate within active war zones, because they do it all the time. And now this is actually, this attack represents the second time that MSF has been, has had its aid workers killed in Afghanistan. In 2004, after 33 years, MSF left Afghanistan because five of its aid workers were killed by U.S. NATO forces. And then five years later they finally brought their operations back because the need in Afghanistan is so–again, MSF is being targeted because of U.S. brutality and this ongoing war.
JAY: But there’s no suggestion the Americans would have deliberately targeted the hospital. It’s the negligence involved in not checking what they should be doing. And I think we should also point out how important this hospital is. My notes I have is something like 5,900 surgeries performed last year and 22,000 people treated. It was, like, the major hospital in this area of northern Afghanistan.
KOLHATKAR: Absolutely. This was one of the–continues to be one of the world’s most impoverished nations. Fourteen years of war have brought very little progress by way of healthcare, education, any of those other social indicators. And not only do people have to contend with an ongoing war, I mean, there’ve been 30-year-olds who have known nothing but war in Afghanistan. And here the U.S. goes and targets, unknowingly it obviously seems, this hospital, and destroys it. It’s a huge embarrassment for the U.S. on a global scale. So yeah, I don’t think they did it on purpose. But it just goes to show the negligence of those [inaud.].
JAY: Now, when President Obama was elected, not long after he was elected and announced his Afghan strategy, there was as we know a surge in troop levels. President Obama made a big point that there would be another surge, a civilian surge, an NGO kind of surge to help rebuild infrastructure and create social services. What happened to that surge?
KOLHATKAR: There’s been so much money poured into Afghanistan. And so much so that the women that I work with have jokingly renamed their country NGO-istan. And most of that money has gone right back into the pockets of the top aid agencies that are American agencies. They have funded luxurious villas, high-security compounds in cities like Kabul. Very little of it has actually trickled down to ordinary Afghans. And honestly, even when it has trickled to ordinary Afghans they might be concentrated in certain parts of a country. There might, they might attend a school that might have been built which then the Taliban burnt down or a local warlord burned down.
In the context of an ongoing and continually escalating war it doesn’t really matter if you try to rebuild these sorts of things. Most people don’t realize that this year, 2015, has been one of the deadliest years of the Afghanistan war. You know, there’s been a lot of attention paid to Syria and Iraq, and deservedly so. But in Afghanistan, which remains the longest war the U.S. has ever waged, was supposed to be wrapping up this year. Obama promised that troops would start withdrawing, and then signed a status of forces agreement with a new president, and now that–not only are troops remaining but violence has escalated. Deaths have gone up.
JAY: Right. Well, why do you think the Taliban would have attacked Kunduz? Now, this is in the north, the stronghold of the Taliban has always been in the south where the Pashtun people mostly live. And they must have known they really couldn’t hold the city. On the other hand they’re trying to send a message. But what’s the message? Because it seemed on the face of it the message is, look what, what would happen if the U.S. troops all pulled out. But why don’t they want the U.S. troops to pull out?
KOLHATKAR: Well, that’s a really good question. Of course the Taliban draw their popularity from being the force that fights the United States in a population, among population who is so tired of corruption, of warlordism, of drug trafficking, and of war. So they draw their popularity from them, from that.
Now, you mentioned that the, their stronghold has traditionally been the south. But they also have had a strategy in the past of trying to draw out Afghan forces and trying to draw out U.S. forces. And by going to the north of the country they are demonstrating their strength, they’re demonstrating how far they have come, that they still retain control and can retain control over huge parts of Afghanistan. However, even in, at the height of the peak of their control in 2001, before September 11 and the U.S. war, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country. The 10 percent it didn’t control was in the north. So this is a very deliberate message that the Taliban are sending both to the Afghan government, and to the United States. [inaud.] people of much more.
JAY: But, but–but it seems that message would actually strengthen the hand of American military generals and and those people in Congress who want to keep U.S. troops there, and perhaps even increase the troop levels there. The message on the face of it is, you know, if it wasn’t for the Americans we would have taken this town, which is more or less the truth.
KOLHATKAR: The Taliban aren’t interested in the war ending. None of those who have weapons in Afghanistan are actually interested in ending war. It’s ordinary people who have been caught between the U.S., Afghan warlords, corrupt government, and the Taliban. And now the Islamic State which has reared its head as well, in parts of Afghanistan. Ordinary people are the ones who want to see this war end, and none of the actors who are actually involved in this 14-year-old war really want to see it go.
JAY: I mean, maybe it goes to that point. But let’s not forget something like 65 percent and perhaps more of the Afghan economy is poppy-based and opium and so on, and Afghanistan still provides I believe something like 90 percent of the source for heroin in the world. Does, does the war, perpetual war in Afghanistan, one of the things I assume it does, it helps–it actually helps in terms of the drug industry. Because as long as there’s that kind of chaos there the Americans certainly look the other way, quote-unquote, in the sense they almost encourage warlords to participate in the narco trade. Is that, is that another reason for keeping this thing going for everybody? Because the–all the various forces are cashing in on this now, including the Taliban.
KOLHATKAR: Absolutely. The New York Times recently did this very important piece where they interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been seeing Afghan, their Afghan allies, for example, abuse little kids. These are the same people who are also growing poppies. You know, U.S. soldiers have been told to look the other way at the dirty deeds of their allies on the ground.
JAY: Yeah. Which, which was very overt pedophilia. Which has been going on amongst warlords–in fact if I remember correctly, that was almost the beginning of the Taliban, it was saving a kid who was being brutally abused by a couple of Mujaheddin commanders.
KOLHATKAR: Yeah. And so the U.S., U.S. soldiers have been told to look the other way. There was, you know, there have been many reports that have been able to show how Afghanistan went from being a country where drug production had been cut dramatically under the Taliban because of UN sanctions pre-9/11 because they were actually, you know, they were benefiting from higher prices and lower supply. And then after, of course, the U.S. war began, both the Taliban increased their drug production as a source of money and Afghan warlords, who had traditionally also overseen large fields of poppies. And now Afghanistan today is once more the largest supplier of heroin to the world. And this has all happened under U.S. watch. This has all happened during this war that the U.S. claimed it was fighting to, you know, either save Afghans from the Taliban, or save Americans from the Taliban.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of ironic. You wage a supposed war on drugs at home throwing thousands of, tens of thousands of people in jail for drug crimes, mostly people of color. And then the place you’re actually waging a war you’re collaborating with the people that are creating the source of most of the heroin.
But that, all that being said, if the U.S. foreign policy was actually based on what’s good for the Afghan people and what’s good for the people of the region, and I think it’s rather clear from the last more than decade that isn’t their objective, but let’s say it was. What, what would that policy look like? And what possible kind of policy do ordinary Afghans want? Because they seem to be so caught between a rock and a hard place. I mean, I think it’s fair to say most Afghans hate the Taliban. But they hate the Americans. And the sympathy that there is for the Taliban now is just, let’s get this war over with. But, but what kind of policy might work in the interests of the Afghan people?
KOLHATKAR: Well, for many years the women that I work with in Afghanistan, especially the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan or RAWA, for years had denounced any dealings with the Taliban. And I know that there’s a bit of a debate on the left about this, whether negotiating with the Taliban means an end to the war, and therefore, you know, at least it’s a lesser of two evils that should be, that should be taken up. Or the Taliban should, you know, not be legitimized by negotiations. And people who have to live and who have had to live under the Taliban do not want the Taliban. They, what they want, is a war crimes tribunal supported by the international community–not just the U.S. but the international community–where all of the actors in Afghanistan, including the U.S., are tried for war crimes. And they want a demilitarization of the entire country. They want an end to the weaponry. I mean, the country is awash in weapons, just because it’s just had one war after the other, and one war on top of the other, starting [inaud.] occupation. [Inaud.]
JAY: That’s, that’s–it’s a nice demand, but you would need–you would need martians with superweapons to come down to create such a tribunal, because you’d be putting the entire political class of Afghanistan and the Taliban and the entire military command of the United States on trial.
KOLHATKAR: Two questions: what is realistic, and what Afghans want. And if you ask me what Afghans want, what they want is peace and justice. And there are not that many ways to create peace and justice. You can create peace by simply handing all the power to the Taliban, because that’s what they had in 2001. They had a peace of the prison, there were fewer people being killed. That’s not what Afghans want, either. If you asked what ordinary Afghans, what they would want, they would want an end to all the fighting, they would want accountability and an end to all the weaponry. Now, will that realistically happen, that’s a different question altogether.
Now, if you want to take into account what the U.S. will allow, what the UN will allow, what NATO will allow, what the warlords and Taliban will allow, none of these actors will enable ordinary Afghans to have self-determination. And so we’re left with ordinary Afghans’ rights or the rights of the warmongers. And so far we’ve seen more than 30 years of the rights of those fighting the wars. So it’s really up to ordinary people who, to have solidarity with ordinary Afghans. To see, to enable this seemingly unrealistic goal to be achieved. But that is the only way forward, otherwise you’re going to leave the criminals in charge of the country, which is what has been going on for the last several decades, or you’re going to leave the U.S. in charge of the country, which has been going on for the last decade and a half. None of that’s worked.
JAY: Well, U.S. in combination with a lot of criminals. There have been some talk about trying to have a Geneva-style conference where all the regional countries attend, and all the various forces including the Taliban and everyone else involved, and try to negotiate some kind of settlement that leads towards an election, which one would think the Taliban would be allowed to run in. What do you, what do, is–I mean, I don’t know how realistic that is, because at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any moves in that direction. But would, would that be a positive thing?
KOLHATKAR: I mean, it really depends, right. There’s a much-touted democracy that came to Afghanistan, you know, free and fair elections, we were told. But all that happened was that the warlords, because they’re the ones who have the guns and ordinary people don’t and don’t want to, the warlords were be able to shut ordinary candidates from running. When they did run and win seats they kicked them out, like Malalai Joya, who is a, a good ally and, and friend of mine. And she is, you know, considered one of the bravest women in Afghanistan. She was a member of the parliament, representing Farah province. And because she actually stayed true to her ideals and her, what her people wanted, the warlords created a, a new law especially designed for her and kicked her out of parliament.
And so as long as you continue to allow criminals who are heavily armed to be part of any process, you can’t really call it democracy.
JAY: But if, if there was an election, do you think the Taliban should be allowed to participate? And–I was told by a senior UN official that, I can’t pin down the date, I’m sorry. But it was somewhere in around 2003, 2004. There was, there was an election coming. And a section of the Taliban came to the UN and said they were, they were willing to break from Mullah Omar and join in the elections and lay down their guns. And, and were told by the UN because of pressure form the United States that they wouldn’t be allowed to run in the elections. And, and they then helped, unified under Mullah Omar and participated in the continuing armed, armed struggle.
But if there was some kind of resolution–and I assume there is some kind of negotiations going on now. We know the Taliban have an office in Qatar. In fact, I’m wondering if the attack on Kunduz is not actually the Taliban trying to strengthen their hand vis-a-vis negotiations of some kind of resolution. But do you think most Afghans would, would want some kind of election, and allow the Taliban to be part of that?
KOLHATKAR: Afghans want elections. There is no doubt about that. There’s been unprecedented participation whenever there have been elections. The question is when you allow war criminals to run–if these Taliban laid down their weapons, literally turned them over, and that should of course apply to all parties involved. And if they were found to not be implicated in, you know, mass murders or rapes or other crimes, then I’m sure, you know, it would be something for Afghans to decide whether or not they would want to elect them to office.
But you know, it’s absolutely true that Afghans love the idea of democracy, which people don’t. And if given a chance, would absolutely run. Most ordinary Afghans would run probably against the Taliban, and probably win, in truly free and fair elections. And then we’d see how the Taliban would react to that. Because look, these are people who have ripped power up, whatever their reasons are. They have, they have gained a hold of power, they have been able to fight with weapons. And it’s unrealistic to expect a war criminal to simply lay down their weapons and say oh, participate in a democratic election, oh, I lost because I’m unpopular. I’ll just go my merry way. That’s not going to happen, either.
JAY: Do you, do you think—given what a horrible set of choices they’re facing, Afghans, what do you think they, most Afghans want in terms of the U.S.? Do they want Americans just to get out? If so, are they not afraid of what would come next?
KOLHATKAR: Well, they know what it’s been like to have the Americans for the last fourteen years. You know, there was that horrific Time magazine cover of the young girl with her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the very, very short-sighted slogan, what would happen if we left Afghanistan? And really, it was so deceptive. Because it really should have read, what has happened while we are in Afghanistan? Afghans have had 14 years of U.S. occupation. It can’t get much worse than it is now.
Now, it also depends on who you talk to. Like for example if you talk to people, ordinary Afghans who live, say, in Kabul. Who might be depending on the NGO economy or the Afghan government in their personal jobs. They might want the U.S. to stay because they rely on U.S. forces to either keep security or to continue paying the bills. But that’s a small portion of Afghans. If you go into the rural areas, particularly those villages that have been impacted by U.S. detentions, by U.S. raids, seeing their relatives, you know, be tortured or killed by U.S. bombs, or the Taliban, it’s very likely that they are going to want the U.S. to leave, because these last 14 years have just made the country so much worse.
JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us.
KOLHATKAR: Thank you so much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
The Real News Network
Recorded October 5, 2015