me, I confess, [countries] are pieces on a chessboard upon which
is being played out a game for dominion of the world."
Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, speaking about Afghanistan, 1898
I had suggested
to Marina that we meet in the safety of the Intercontinental Hotel,
where foreigners stay in Kabul, but she said no. She had been there
once and government agents, suspecting she was Rawa, had arrested
her. We met instead at a safe house, reached through contours of
bombed rubble that was once streets, where people live like earthquake
victims awaiting rescue.
Rawa is the
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which since
1977 has alerted the world to the suffering of women and girls in
that country. There is no organization on earth like it. It is the
high bar of feminism, home of the bravest of the brave. Year after
year, Rawa agents have traveled secretly through Afghanistan, teaching
at clandestine girls’ schools, ministering to isolated and brutalized
women, recording outrages on cameras concealed beneath their burqas.
They were the Taliban regime’s implacable foes when the word Taliban
was barely heard in the west: when the Clinton administration was
secretly courting the mullahs so that the oil company UNOCAL could
build a pipeline across Afghanistan from the Caspian.
understanding of the designs and hypocrisy of western governments
informs a truth about Afghanistan excluded from news, now reduced
to a drama of British squaddies besieged by a demonic enemy in a
"good war." When we met, Marina was veiled to conceal
her identity. Marina is her nom de guerre. She said: "We, the
women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following
11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official
enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not
unique, and we have resented the silence in the west over the atrocious
nature of the western-backed warlords, who are no different. They
rape and kidnap and terrorize, yet they hold seats in [Hamid] Karzai’s
government. In some ways, we were more secure under the Taliban.
You could cross Afghanistan by road and feel secure. Now, you take
your life into your hands."
the United States gave for invading Afghanistan in October 2001
was "to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators
of 9/11." The women of Rawa say this is false. In a rare statement
on 4 December that went unreported in Britain, they said: "By
experience, [we have found] that the US does not want to defeat
the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because then they will have no excuse
to stay in Afghanistan and work towards the realization of their
economic, political and strategic interests in the region."
The truth about
the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that
the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable
response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months
prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington
was not the Taliban’s links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect
of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable
mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed
by the CIA to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet occupiers
in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had
been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the "jihadi
card" could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban
were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were
admired for their "discipline." Or, as the Wall Street
Journal put it, "[the Taliban] are the players most capable
of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history."
in history" was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs
had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal.
However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached
further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom,
as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the "stability"
required of such an important client. It was the consistency of
this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support,
regardless of the Taliban’s aversion to human rights. (Asked about
this, a state department briefer had predicted that "the Taliban
will develop like the Saudis did," with a pro-American economy,
no democracy and "lots of sharia law," which meant the
legalized persecution of women. "We can live with that,"
By early 2001,
convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring
their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid
of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan’s two
Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in
Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against
him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans.
Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf
vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister,
Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it
had been decided to dispense with the Taliban "under a carpet
the first "victory" in the "war on terror,"
the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 and its ripple effect
caused the deaths of thousands of civilians who, even more than
Iraqis, remain invisible to western eyes. The family of Gulam Rasul
is typical. It was 7.45am on 21 October. The headmaster of a school
in the town of Khair Khana, Rasul had just finished eating breakfast
with his family and had walked outside to chat to a neighbor. Inside
the house were his wife, Shiekra, his four sons, aged three to ten,
his brother and his wife, his sister and her husband. He looked
up to see an aircraft weaving in the sky, then his house exploded
in a fireball behind him. Nine people died in this attack by a US
F-16 dropping a 500lb bomb. The only survivor was his nine-year-old
son, Ahmad Bilal. "Most of the people killed in this war are
not Taliban; they are innocents," Gulam Rasul told me. "Was
the killing of my family a mistake? No, it was not. They fly their
planes and look down on us, the mere Afghan people, who have no
planes, and they bomb us for our birthright, and with all contempt."
There was the
wedding party in the village of Niazi Qala, 100km south of Kabul,
to celebrate the marriage of the son of a respected farmer. By all
accounts it was a wonderfully boisterous affair, with music and
singing. The roar of aircraft started when everyone was asleep,
at about three in the morning. According to a United Nations report,
the bombing lasted two hours and killed 52 people: 17 men, ten women
and 25 children, many of whom were found blown to bits where they
had desperately sought refuge, in a dried-up pond. Such slaughter
is not uncommon, and these days the dead are described as "Taliban";
or, if they are children, they are said to be "partly to blame
for being at a site used by militants" — according to
the BBC, speaking to a US military spokesman.
military have played an important part in this violence, having
stepped up high-altitude bombing by up to 30 per cent since they
took over command of NATO forces in Afghanistan in May 2006. This
translated to more than 6,200 Afghan deaths last year. In December,
a contrived news event was the "fall" of a "Taliban
stronghold," Musa Qala, in southern Afghanistan. Puppet government
forces were allowed to "liberate" rubble left by American
this? Various fables have been spun — "building democracy"
is one. "The war on drugs" is the most perverse. When
the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they had one striking
success. They brought to an abrupt end a historic ban on opium production
that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described
the ban to me as "a modern miracle." The miracle was quickly
rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai "democracy,"
the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the
country’s entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32
provinces instantly went under cultivation. Today, 90 per cent of
world trade in opium originates in Afghanistan. In 2005, a British
government report estimated that 35,000 children in this country
were using heroin. While the British taxpayer pays for a £1bn
military super-base in Helmand Province and the second-biggest British
embassy in the world, in Kabul, peanuts are spent on drug rehabilitation
once said memorably: "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment.
We will not walk away . . . [We will offer] some way out of the
poverty that is your miserable existence." I thought about
this as I watched children play in a destroyed cinema. They were
illiterate and so could not read the poster warning that unexploded
cluster bombs lay in the debris.
five years of engagement," reported James Fergusson in the
London Independent on 16 December, "the [UK] Department
for International Development had spent just £390m on Afghan
projects." Unusually, Fergusson has had meetings with Taliban
who are fighting the British. "They remained charming and courteous
throughout," he wrote of one visit in February. "This
is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality
towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy
can rely on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that
malmastia affords is unique."
"opportunity for dialogue" is a far cry from the surrender-or-else
offers made by the government of Gordon Brown. What Brown and his
Foreign Office advisers willfully fail to understand is that the
tactical victory in Afghanistan in 2001, achieved with bombs, has
become a strategic disaster in south Asia. Exacerbated by the assassination
of Benazir Bhutto, the current turmoil in Pakistan has its contemporary
roots in a Washington-contrived war in neighboring Afghanistan that
has alienated the Pashtuns who inhabit much of the long border area
between the two countries. This is also true of most Pakistanis,
who, according to opinion polls, want their government to negotiate
a regional peace, rather than play a prescribed part in a rerun
of Lord Curzon’s Great Game.
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.
John Pilger 2008