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Canada's Debt to Afghanistan

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April 13, 2006

Canada's Debt to Afghanistan

Canadians needs to "undo the damage": visiting activist

by Dru Oja Jay

Kolhatkar in Montreal. photo: Ehab Lotayef
MONTREAL--In the midst of a public debate about Canadian troops in Afghanistan, a Montreal audience heard a stark message about what the majority of Afghani people want, but aren't getting from occupying forces: disarmament, justice and reparations.

Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the US-based Afghan Women's Mission, and radio host on Los Angeles' KPFK Pacifica Radio, was the messenger.

"Afghanistan," Kolhatkar told a crowd at Montreal's Sala Rosa, "is a broken country," that has "endured decades of continuous war." Much of that war, said Kolhatkar, was funded by "billions and billions of dollars" from the US, which trained, funded and armed the fundamentalist Mujahideen to fight against Soviet forces. After the Soviets left, the well-equipped warlords fought amongst each other, brutalizing populations with killings, rape and oppression of women. This violence was simply "formalized" by the Taliban when they seized power in 1996 with promises of a reprieve from war and corruption, said Kolhatkar. While the autocratic Islamist regime provided some stability, it also systematized the oppression of women in Afghanistan.

"The rapes of Afghan women, the forced marriages, all of that started under [what is today known as] the Northern Alliance.

"The Taliban institutionalized into law, in a more organized fashion what the Northern Alliance and the Mujahideen had already begun. What the Taliban did was the same, but with less killing. [The two] are ideological twins," said Kolhatkar.

The Northern Alliance, of course, was a key ally in the US-led 2002 invasion of Afghanistan, receiving additional millions in arms and financing from the US government.

Today, Kolhatkar told The Dominion, many of the feared warlords occupy high offices in Afghanistan's government and benefit from US and Canadian aid.

What nearly all Afghans agree on, said Kolhatkar, is that democracy and security cannot be achieved without disarmament; "Survey after survey shows that they want disarmament.

"This is something people brought up over and over again [during Kolhatkar's recent visit]. 'We want pens not guns, pens not guns.'"

There is a UN program, known as Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), but Kolhatkar says it is "very underfunded, very selective and not at all comprehensive."

"People want absolute and complete disarmament," she said.

The International Crisis Group, a research NGO, reported in February that

the central government and its international supporters have, to some extent, been complicit in the maintenance of power by militia commanders. The US-led coalition has relied on militia commanders in its military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, empowering its local allies militarily and economically and helping them to resist central government control.

Kolhatkar proposed that the US and its allies need to reverse this policy. However, she insists that disarmament is only the first step towards reconstruction.

"Many people identify as victims of war crimes and they want some sort of war crimes tribunal," said Kolhatkar. "Not," she added, "of the kind that the US has carried out in the former Yugoslavia or in Iraq, but something that is led by Afghans, that is created by Afghans, but that simply needs some sort of foreign support.

"If you have justice and take these men to court, you might also have to indict [US presidents] Carter and Reagan and the men who supported these warlords.

"[A war crimes tribunal] is something that Canada, the UN and NATO could at least support," she added.

Kolhatkar also criticized one-sided North American media coverage of Afghanistan, saying that few journalists venture outside of Kabul, where the country's minimal wealth is heavily concentrated and where warlords are not in control. She also cited the little-heard-of case of Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman, who interrupted the loya jirga (a constitutional forum) to point out the Mujahideen warlords in attendance and their responsibility for the civil war that destroyed what was left of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. For this, and subsequent acts of bravery, she has been the victim of four assassination attempts and countless demeaning insults and death threats, but she has also received enormous grassroots support. Now a member of parliament, she often says she does not expect to live out the year. The Canadian- and US-backed Karzai administration removed funding to her security detail in March, but the North American press ignored her story in favour of a man sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, said Kolhatkar.

What can be done?

"This is a crucial moment for Canadians to be questioning the war, but I don't think it's as simple as 'troops out now,'" said Kolhatkar. Most Afghans, she said, believe that if troops leave, the result will be deadly: "The warlords that we armed will plunge the country into another war and tear the country apart, piece by piece."

However, Kolhatkar believes that the conflicting messages coming from Canadian commanders—alternately, "our job is to kill people" and "winning hearts and minds"--are damaging, and their actions are making things worse. Military "Provincial Reconstruction Teams" (PRTs), she said, are an extremely ineffective and expensive way to rebuild infrastructure. Additionally, Kolhatkar said the existence of PRTs has made all aid workers potential targets for Taliban attacks, as they are no longer distinguishable from the military. She cites the case of M_decins Sans Fronti_res (MSF), which pulled out of Afghanistan after maintaining a constant presence for over two decades and three wars. MSF said that the situation is now too dangerous for its workers.

The fact that US-funded warlords are as powerful as ever "does not justify our war fighting, or really even our presence, but the damage has been done."

"Canadians need to call for an undoing of the damage," she said.

In addition to disarmament and justice for warlords and criminals, Kolhatkar said that the US, Canada and their allies must pay reparations to the people of Afghanistan.

"We need to pour just as many billions of dollars into rebuilding the country as we put into destroying it." Kolhatkar said that Afghans need "no-strings-attached reparations, not loans."

In Afghanistan, Canada's annual military budget is roughly four times as large as its aid budget.

The aid money that is being spent in Afghanistan either "goes into the warlords' pockets, because they're the ones in charge," or it goes to expensive and often misguided Western firms or NGOs.

Kolhatkar cited one instance where a foreign NGO used aid money to dig 100 wells in the Farah province. The only problem: "within a year, the wells dried up." The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a group that Kolhatkar works closely with, later went in to speak to farmers, who had begun fighting over scarce water resources. They realized that the best solution was to build a canal that would divert the water equitably through all of the villages.

"They built a canal with funds from donors in the US, through the Afghan Women's Mission," said Kolhatkar. "I visited that canal last year, and now the area is getting enough water to irrigate farms that feed 35,000 people.

"Ultimately, the Afghan people know best how to rebuild their country. They don't need our expertise, they don't need our advice, but they need money.

"It's really crucial for us to figure out how we can best support grassroots organizations in Afghanistan that are doing the hard work of rebuilding."

According to Kolhatkar, there are hundreds of groups, experts and local councils that are struggling to build schools and hospitals, provide education (especially to women), resist warlords and find alternative work for farmers who are forced to grow opium poppy to feed their families.

For now, she said, the situation remains grave for the majority of Afghans who live outside of Kabul, with literacy rates between four and 10 per cent, debilitating poverty, insecurity, rule by feuding warlords and war-ravaged infrastructure.

"There is a sense that the war is over, that we just need to mop up the insurgents and that women are liberated and on their way to freedom.

"Because media coverage has gone down, donations have literally plummeted and groups have been forced to close down schools, orphanages and literacy projects," she said.

The solution, Kolhatkar told a few hundred Montrealers, is not for Canada to withdraw, but to begin to take responsibility for its actions and rebuild the country that has suffered so much at the hands of foreign powers.

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