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This war is not about Human Rights


The sad truth about the human rights issue in Afghanistan is that it has always been trumpeted by foreigners who intervene in the country, not as a way of appealing to Afghans, but as a way to bring their own people on side. 
In the West, the Afghan War has been widely depicted as a struggle between forces representing democracy and human rights — including the rights of women — on one side, and an authoritarian 7th century style theocracy on the other. While the Taliban regime was certainly ferociously anti-women in its policies, the record on the other side is far from being a clean one. 

In many parts of the country, Afghan women remain severely restricted in their activities and girls are often not allowed to attend schools. Human rights reports, over the last several years, have documented a worsening situation for women in many parts of the country that are not under the control of the Taliban. The Kabul regime is far from liberal and only backed away from executing a man guilty of converting to Christianity from Islam in the face of enraged public opinion in western countries. 

As we have seen, the struggles that have occurred for control of Afghanistan in recent decades have broken out and have been pursued for reasons that have nothing to do with human rights. 

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a pro-Moscow regime that was in trouble. The Soviets intervened in Afghanistan for geo-strategic reasons. They wanted to shore up the southern flank of their empire against potentially hostile forces. They were already concerned about the rise of militant Islamic movements and the potential they had to disrupt the Soviet Union itself, as indeed, they were soon to do. 

Everywhere the Soviets went, from Eastern Europe to Africa, to Central and East Asia, they always talked about human rights and never practiced them. It was not, therefore, unusual for the client Soviet regime in Kabul to promise human rights and national elections. 

For what it is worth, the Karmal government in Kabul was certainly less hostile to the idea of girls being educated and women working in various sectors of the economy than the Mujahideen who were later to drive them out of power. And unlike the Taliban who were one element among the Mujahideen, the pro-Soviet government did not require women to wear the burka. 

The education of girls and the place of women in the workplace and in Afghan society have long been vexing questions. Under the country's 1964 constitution, free and compulsory education was supposed to be provided at primary and secondary levels for males and females. This concept of schooling, based on western models, did not deliver what it promised, much if not most of the time. While in Kabul and other larger towns, there were primary and secondary schools, in many parts of Afghanistan, which is about seventy per cent rural, no schools existed at all. 

Nonetheless, there was education for girls, delivered in this highly uneven fashion. During decades of war, prior to, during and after the Soviet occupation, and in the subsequent struggle that propelled the Taliban into power, the educational system was ravaged. Tens of thousands of educated Afghans fled the country. Then, of course, the Taliban came to power and abolished education for girls and drove women out of the workplace. 

Today, education for girls and the right of women to work have been re-established in principle and to some extent in practice. It is estimated that about one third of girls now attend school, and most boys do. This puts Afghanistan back where it was on this issue in pre-Taliban days. It is estimated that, at present, about 51 per cent of males and 21 per cent of females in Afghanistan are literate. 

Before this is taken as a sign that the West is on the side of the angels in Afghanistan, it needs to be remembered that when the Carter administration took up the cause of the insurgents against the Soviet client regime in Kabul — Jimmy Carter talked often about injecting concern for human rights into U.S. foreign policy — he aligned the U.S. with the Mujahideen, the forces in Afghanistan that not only had no interest whatsoever in democracy, but were the most repressive element in Afghanistan on the issue of women's rights, and the education of girls. 

In addition, the U.S. had no particular difficulty with the Taliban after it came to power. Regarding the Taliban as potentially useful in the region against other players, Washington continued to provide aid to the Taliban regime in Kabul as late as four months prior to the September 11 attacks. 

The two sides in the civil war in Afghanistan pit tribal and regional power groupings, including those disaffected due to the crackdown on poppy growing, against one another. A major complication in the Afghan struggle is that the country remains the centre of the world's opium and heroin trade. 

Much of the resistance to the West's intervention has nothing to do with the Taliban, or Al Qaeda for that matter, but has been provoked by the insistence of the Americans and the British that poppy cultivation — the main source of income in much of the country — must be halted. (The trouble is that the former Taliban regime cracked down on the drug trade, but now the insurgents, including the Taliban, are using the resentment of poppy growers — and funds from them — to sustain their cause.) 

Since the U.S. invasion in 2001, poppy production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed. A U.S. State Department official estimated that in 2005, Afghanistan was the source of 86 per cent of the world's heroin. The same source reported that poppy production increased appreciably in 2006. 

In a country with one of the lowest living standards in the world, in which about 80 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, the drug trade is the major backbone of the productive economy. The highly organized international drug cartel has close ties with corrupt local officials, who profit handsomely from the drug trade, as well as with elements in the Taliban. 

The war in Afghanistan is in large measure a struggle about the future of the world's leading narco-state. A clear cut struggle between good guys and bad guys, this is not. 

The appalling human rights record of the Taliban government was reviewed in Chapter four of this report. The opponents of the Taliban, with whom the United States made common cause in the autumn of 2001, also committed violations of human rights on a massive scale. The Northern Alliance (also known as the United Front) was composed of a number of anti-Taliban organizations, some of them Islamist factions, others representing ethnic and tribal groups. 

During the struggle that resulted in the Taliban taking power in 1996 and after that date, there were well-documented abuses perpetrated by members of the Northern Alliance including: warfare that indiscriminately targeted civilians, burning of houses, torture, looting, rape, summary executions sometimes carried out in front of victims' relatives, and the recruiting of children under age 15 to fight against the Taliban. 

Ethnic Pashtuns, who formed the largest base of support for the Taliban, were frequently the targets of these abuses. In January 1997, aircraft controlled by one faction of the Northern Alliance dropped cluster bombs on residential districts of Kabul. Later that year, about 3,000 Taliban troops were summarily executed in and around Mazari Shari, when the town fell into the hands of anti-Taliban forces. 

A 1996 U.S. State Department report on human rights abuses in 1995 reported that when forces of the Jamiat-i Islami (a Northern Alliance faction), under the command of Ahmad Shah Massoud captured a neighbourhood in Kabul “Massoud's troops went on a rampage, systemically looting whole streets, and raping women.” (Massoud was killed in a suicide bomb attack two days before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.) 

The sad truth about the human rights issue in Afghanistan is that it has always been trumpeted by foreigners who intervene in the country, not as a way of appealing to Afghans, but as a way to bring their own people on side. Westerners will have no difficulty appreciating this in the case of the Soviets, whose human rights record was abominable, both at home and abroad. To make the case to the world communist movement that the Soviet Union was on the progressive side, the Soviets always made much of their belief in the rights of women, in the rule of law and free elections. 

On the latter two points, Soviet propaganda was almost always the exact reverse of the truth. On the issue of women's rights, the Soviets, who were anti-religious, were no more inclined to discriminate against women than men. In that negative sense, the Soviet client regime in Kabul was a boon to women, certainly so in comparison to the regime that came afterward, with American backing. 

The American attack on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 was not provoked by the miserable Taliban record on human rights, miserable though it was, but by the terror attacks on New York and Washington. The decision of the Bush administration to invade Afghanistan grew out of the outrage of Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Even as that attack unfolded, the key members of the administration were already thinking ahead to the next and larger conflict — the invasion of Iraq. 

From the beginning, the Bush administration trumpeted the human rights issue as a central feature of its global War on Terror. The portrait of the world painted by George W. Bush in the weeks following September 11 was etched in black and white. Al Qaeda had attacked New York and Washington because the terrorists hated the freedom Americans enjoyed and wanted to snuff it out. 

This line of argument became the watchword of the administration. The world was divided between the friends of liberty and its foes, and America was the global leader of the friends of liberty. In his second inaugural address in January 2005, Bush took this to extremes when he declared: “America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof.” 

Sadly, for the Iraqis and Afghans, the president's edict delivered little apart from death, ruin and fear. The human rights question in Afghanistan does not solely turn on the records of successive Afghan regimes and political groupings. It also has to do with the behaviour of occupying forces in the country. 

The Soviets, as we have seen, sowed ruin and destruction in Afghanistan during their years as an occupying force. The Americans, notwithstanding the insistence of the Bush administration that it stands on the side of liberty, have been responsible for one of the great human rights atrocities of this new century — the holding of prisoners captured in Afghanistan at the U.S. detainment camp in Guantanamo, Cuba. 

Since 2002, the U.S. has operated a detainment camp at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, which houses prisoners captured in Afghanistan, whom American authorities claim are Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives. The Bush administration claimed that the detainees at Guantanamo were “enemy combatants,” not soldiers of a regular military, and that, therefore, they were not entitled to the treatment accorded to military prisoners under the Geneva Conventions. 

In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the administration's notion of the status of the prisoners was invalid. The following month, the U.S. Defense Department issued a memo indicating that henceforth the prisoners would be accorded treatment specified under the Geneva Conventions. 

Of the original 775 detainees, 340 have been released. One hundred and ten others are said to be about to be released. Another 70 or more prisoners will face trial, leaving about 250 prisoners who could be held indefinitely. Since the detainees were first housed at Guantanamo, there have been widespread calls for the facility to be shut down. It is alleged that in the camp, prisoners have been tortured, their religion has been insulted, prisoners have been denied visits from outside agencies and the legal rights of the detainees have been denied. 

The record of his administration aside, George W. Bush's liberty pledge was more than a mere exercise in bombast. It was aimed at widening public support in the United States and elsewhere in the West for the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rhetorically at least, Bush was aligning himself with the American liberal tradition, with its deep attachment to freedom. 

Bush's crusade for liberty did succeed in bringing on board a group of intellectuals who were generally regarded as liberals. One of these, who supported both of the Bush invasions, was Michael Ignatieff, who is now the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Ignatieff portrayed the United States as an Empire Lite. “The 21st century imperium,” he wrote “is a new invention in the annals of political science….a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” 

On Afghanistan, he observed that “it is at least ironic that liberal believers … someone like me, for example — can end up supporting the creation of a new humanitarian empire, a new form of colonial tutelage for the peoples of Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.” In January 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “the case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.” 

This “missionary position” has been adopted by thinkers such as Ignatieff who have been stirred to passion by the drive to remake the Middle East and Central Asia according to American values. In a narrative the emperor Hadrian would have understood, these new liberal imperialists warn that the civilized world is threatened by barbarians who lash out at it for a variety of reasons. 

Exploiting the situation in “failed states,” where human catastrophes brought on by civil war, natural disaster, disease, genocide and religious persecution have destroyed the possibility of viable states, the enemies of civilization take root. In the world's string of failed states, which can be likened to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter where planets failed to form, drug smugglers, traffickers in human chattels and terrorists have set up shop. From these safe havens, they lash out at the rest of the world. 

Most dangerous in our age of instant communications and weapons of mass destruction are the terrorists, with Al Qaeda the generic name for terrorists committed to Islamic fundamentalism, who have the capacity to strike the first world as fiercely or more fiercely than they did on September 11. 

In Longitudes and Attitudes, prolific author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, states it frankly: “How the World of Order deals with the World of Disorder is the key question of the day.” And Friedman is clear that the forces of civilization, led by the United States, must strike at the sanctuaries of the barbarians, just as the Romans did in their time, to make the world safe. 

The people of Afghanistan have long been the victims of outside powers. Like previous invasions of Afghanistan, the American assault in the autumn of 2001 was driven by motives that had nothing to do with the human rights of the people of that country. When the geo-strategic wheel shifts and American interests drive them in a different direction with rethought priorities, the rhetorical concern for human rights in Afghanistan will also vanish. 

That does not mean that there will not be true believers. Perhaps among those will be Michael Ignatieff who will continue to assert that the missionary cause in Iraq and Afghanistan is a good one, while regretting that the Americans have botched the job. Unlike Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, Ignatieff voted in the House of Commons to support the two year extension of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. 

What is happening in Afghanistan is a civil war. The West's armies are ranged on one side in that conflict. In Afghanistan, Canadians are not fighting against an external invasion or even against the invasion of one part of a country by another as was the case in the Korean War in the 1950s. Does it make sense for Canada to send its troops into harm's way halfway round the world in such a conflict? 

One clear eyed observer of Afghanistan is Eric Margolis, the Canadian foreign policy analyst who has spent a great deal of time in Central Asia and has written widely on the issue. His book War at the Top of the World should be required reading on the subject. In an article in the spring of 2006, entitled “Three Big Lies About Afghanistan,” Margolis wrote that “most foreign journalists” don't see the truth behind the government and military handouts about the struggle for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan. 

“They get the Cook's tour,” he wrote, “led around by their noses by government or military PR specialists, and fed handouts. Call this blinkered news ... Few reporters get away from the military and go see the reality beyond. Even fewer know about Afghanistan's tortured history. That's why we have been getting so much disinformation and so little honest reporting about Afghanistan.”