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Mike Skinner and Hamayon Ragstar spent one and three months, respectively, in Afghanistan in the late spring/summer of 2007 on a fact-finding trip investigating the effect of the Canadian and International mission on Afghan civilian life. Mike Skinner is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of political science at York University and is also a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Hamayon is an Afghan-Canadian who experienced a foreign occupation under the Soviet Union first hand. He is finishing his last year as a political science student at York University, and has a thorough understanding of Afghan politics and history. They have, along with fellow-researcher Angela Joya, recently formed the Afghanistan-Canadian Research Group. Their fact-finding trip represents the first phase of their work.
Kabir Joshi-Vijayan recently interviewed Skinner and Ragstar in Toronto for The Dominion about their reflections and conclusions coming out of the fact-finding mission.
The Dominion: To begin, what was the objective of this trip you undertook to Afghanistan? What were you hoping to investigate?
Mike Skinner: The principal objective was to do an activist documentary film that asks Afghans what they think of the international intervention. We really wanted to listen to Afghans who don’t get heard in the West. We listened to people on the street, we listened to students in the university and in teachers college, shopkeepers, and teachers. That was really the intent, to hear Afghans who don’t get heard.
And what parts of Afghanistan were you able to visit?
Hamayon Ragstar: We spent lots of time in Kabul city and walked around the neighbourhoods. We went to Kabul University a few times. Mike and I went to Bamiyan – we spent about a week in Bamiyan. From Bamiyan, we also went to Yakaolang (which is a few hours away from the Bamiyan valley) – and we went back to Kabul from there. We spent one day in Ghazni, and before Mike’s arrival I went to Ghazni and Jaghori. Later I also went to Mazar and Kundus and I spent about 4-5 hours in Khandahar
Did you have any direct interaction with any of the foreign forces present (ISAF, NATO, the US-coalition) and were you able to speak particularly with any Canadian soldiers or commanders?
MS: Our most direct personal experience is when we almost got killed at one point.
We were in a taxicab in downtown Kabul and our cabdriver wasn’t looking as he pulled out into an intersection and almost ran into an ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) convoy. As he said, fortunately they were Turks. If they had been Canadians or Americans, they would have shot us if we had gotten as close to a convoy as we did. My door was literally a few inches from this military vehicle that almost hit us, so that was our closest experience with ISAF.
In Kabul itself ISAF is always visible, but it’s not an overpowering presence either. The Afghan Army and National police are far more evident in most places. We were staying on a main highway from Kabul to Khandahar and we’d certainly see Afghan army and ISAF convoys regularly coming back and forth on that highway. Just a few days after I arrived, we actually saw in the distance, a couple of kilometres away, one of the ISAF convoys hit by a remote control explosive device that blew up a vehicle. So as we were having breakfast we saw the smoke cloud from the explosion. A few seconds later we felt the concussion shake the building that we were in. The reports were that an American was killed in the convoy and that other soldiers in the convoy opened fire on innocent civilians who were just passing by the residential area where the convoy was hit.
We would have actually liked to meet some of the Canadians there. I tried to arrange something, to try and meet with some of the Canadian soldiers, but it was a difficult situation. Also it is hard to cross the line from talking to Afghan people and then talking to soldiers. So we really didn’t have any direct contact with Canadian troops or any other western forces. In a number of informal situations, we were able to talk with military contractors who were quite informative, but talked off record.
What did you see/hear of civilian deaths while there?
MS: I think on a daily, or almost daily basis during the time that I was there, there were news reports of civilian causalities. By far, the greater number of those casualties were caused by western forces in a number of different ways. I already mentioned the hit convoy – where by retaliation or fear or reaction in the moment, the soldiers blindly fired into a crowd. There have also been many cases of deliberate targeting from the air or air attacks – this is often when there’s a ground battle going on and the ground troops call in for air support; air support comes in and they are not necessarily firing at the right targets. There was one case when I was there where a mosque was targeted in Paktia. It was one of the two eastern provinces where there were several young girls that were killed in a mosque. So we were hearing these reports on a regular, probably a daily basis.
We also need to keep in mind that our military is causing far more damage than just civilian deaths. Many people who are injured do die later or suffer miserably. Many people are forced to become refugees when their homes and livelihoods are destroyed. Large areas of the countryside have become uninhabitable because of the war. We were told that the Canadian military is forcing evacuations of villages. Many people also suffer human rights abuses such as home invasions, arbitrary arrest and detention.
We occasionally hear about some of the worst cases of civilian deaths in the Canadian media, but most of the damage our military is doing remains undocumented.
Through the interviews and discussions you were able to have with regular Afghans - what were their perceptions of the international mission? How did they view the initial invasion, and how do they see the current military occupation?
MS: There were mixed reactions. When we were doing the actual interviews, some people wholly supported the invasion and occupation, and there were people that didn’t. There were some people that were fully against it from the beginning –and they had a really good analysis for that. There were also a large group of people –now I haven’t gone through the tapes and added up the numbers- but I think that probably the largest number of people actually had some really mixed feelings; a lot of people said initially they’d hoped there would be some progressive change. The Taliban were a repressive regime, certainly an incredibly anti-woman regime so people held out hope for some progressive change. But that hope has dissipated in the past 6 years because those changes have not occurred.
Conflicts between various colonial and imperial powers have been key in shaping Afghanistan’s history- whether this was colonial Britain and Russia, or the social imperialist Soviet Union against the US in the 70’s and 80’s. Do inter-imperial rivalries have a role in the current conflict?
MS: There are certainly many indications that they do, and there are a number of players in the mix now. Russia is still very important in the region, China is aggressively moving beyond its borders and Afghanistan is a neighbour of China, Pakistan and India which are all regional players in this. Iran is very important, there is also Saudi Arabia, which has been a big player in Afghanistan for a long time. The United Arab Emirates are very influential as well, along with all the western states aligned with the United States that are playing a big part. And certainly Canada has some real interest, and I expect particularly economically in mining in Afghanistan – because there are some very rich mining resources that are largely unexploited. I’m sure Canadian mining companies would love to get in there and get their hands on it. However, that is not what was driving the invasion. It’s one of those side benefits; while we’re there, let’s make some money by developing those mines.
A number of ‘progressive’ forces in Canada and elsewhere, such as the Senlis Council and the NDP, often draw a distinction between the ‘developmental’ and military role Canada plays in Afghanistan- claiming that the re-construction and developmental aid we are lending is playing a positive role. What evidence did you see of Canadian developmental projects while you were there- and do you agree with this distinction?
MS: There’s a new developmental concept, a 3-D approach. It’s supposed to balance defence, diplomacy, development- and actually this concept of provincial reconstruction teams that is being applied in both Iraq and Afghanistan is supposed to do this- where you have the military and development agencies actually working hand in hand in the same base going out and working together.
We asked for a list of CIDA projects from the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan and they said they would contact us and we never heard back from them. We stumbled across one CIDA project that was an artificial insemination project – with a sign on an office – it was closed and the windows were broken. That was the only CIDA project we actually found on our own, but we didn’t go looking very hard, we kind of stumbled across it.
There was an interesting situation in Bamiyan. A New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team- a PRT base, a typical military base- a well-fortified military base, had a large airstrip so that planes could come in and out and it was on a high point of land, a plateau above the town of Bamiyan, about 8 km out of the town. And they did build a development project; they built a high school for girls. But they didn’t build it in the town of Bamiyan; they built it immediately below the base so that the workers at the base would be protected by the military. Bamiyan has been one of the most stable regions since the invasion. This is the town where the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of the Buddha. But since 2001, the Taliban has been gone. It’s a Hazara ethnic area - and the Hazara have really acquiesced to the occupation, and there’s been to my knowledge no attacks on coalition forces or ISAF in this area, so there’s not a big security problem - it’s as stable as it’s going to get. The school was built immediately beside the base below this plateau so as to provide security. It’s a clear shot from the base down to this area, with a clear view of the surrounding valley and a good secure place to build this thing. However, it is a 16 km round-trip walk for the girls from Bamiyan to get to the school and back, and you get pretty severe winters in this area as well. It’s not the ideal place to put the school; it should have been in town.
The university student who pointed it out to me said that this is just typical of the way these projects are – it was obviously considering the interests of the people who built this and not considering the interest of the Afghans who actually have to use it – and it was done without the consultation of the people who live in the area.
Along with development, the Afghan government is also constantly used as a justification for maintaining the occupation. We are told that the current government represents a vast improvement from the time of the Taliban- and that international troops are needed to support and help it. What changes in the government have we actually seen since the Taliban?
Hamayon Ragstar: I don’t think anything substantially has changed since the time of the Taliban – the Taliban was representing the feudal comprador ruling class of Afghanistan – especially the Pashtun ruling classes. This current government is again representing the ruling classes of Afghanistan and is directly at the service of an imperialist occupation. There have been some very minor cosmetic changes. This government is giving some positions of power to the non-Pashtun nationalities - the Taliban didn’t. This government is giving some symbolic positions to women – the Taliban didn’t bother with those kind of things. But I would say all these changes are cosmetic changes, there is nothing substantial. For example, the imperialists during the invasion talked a lot about the issue of women and in that regard have given to some women individuals and groups some positions in the ranks of the puppet regime; this has nothing to do with rights of women of Afghanistan, rather it is purely for the purpose of turning the question of women a political tool at the service of imperialist occupation. It’s still a chauvinist government - a male chauvinist government, an ethnic chauvinist government. It’s a theocratic government. Taliban was a single party theocracy; this government is a multi-party theocracy.
This government also states in its constitution that no law shall be put into place in Afghanistan that is in contradiction to Sharia law – and Sharia law is obviously not very friendly towards women or religious minorities. I would say there is no change substantially from the time of the Taliban. On so many levels this government is worse than the Taliban. For example, this government is more corrupt. There was no bribery during the Taliban’s time- it was much cleaner on those issues. However, in this government, from the President to the very low ranking officials of the government, everyone is taking bribes – so it is much, much more corrupt than the Taliban ever was.
To read the dispatches written by Mike from Afghanistan and to learn more about the Afghanistan-Canadian Research Group visit: http://www.tuaw.ca/other/dispatch0.html
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.