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War, Warlords, War Crimes

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April 26, 2006

War, Warlords, War Crimes

Afghanistan in context

by Alex Hemingway

photo: Corporal Robin Mugridge, Canadian Forces Image Gallery
When war is waged, multiple factors are suddenly brought into play. An accurate understanding of the ensuing events requires broad, contextual information. Context, however, is frequently denied, obscured and misrepresented by political leaders and wartime media coverage. In this respect, Afghanistan has been no exception. The analysis that follows seeks to provide some of the historical basics essential for an accurate, critical examination of the war in Afghanistan today.

Afghanistan 1979-2001

On Dec. 22, 1979, Soviet forces began to enter Afghanistan. In the decade of war and occupation that followed, over 15,000 Soviet troops and one million mujahideen fighters and Afghan civilians were killed. Yet it was the Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen, backed with billions of dollars in arms and funding by the West, who would ultimately prevail. By 1992, three years after the final withdrawal of its Soviet backers, the government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan fell.

An arduous civil war began, fought between rival warlords of the former mujahideen. The civil war was brutal, and the warlords became known for their rapes, purges, summary executions and repression of women, among other crimes. These actions were condemned worldwide. By 1996, however, the tide had turned against the warlords as another fundamentalist group, the Taliban, began its rise to power, taking control of the national capital of Kabul.

The ruling warlords were so cruel and violent that most Afghans welcomed their defeat at the hands of the Taliban, who were credited with bringing some semblance of stability and security to Afghanistan, as well as improving the economy, which had been crippled by the widespread practice among warlords of demanding payoffs from businesses.

While warlords continued to control many parts of the country for some time, by 2001 most of Afghanistan was under Taliban rule. While the Taliban were swept into power amid widespread disgust with the vicious crimes of their predecessors, they too became known as repressive and brutal. In recent years, they became notorious in the West for their repression of women and authoritarian rule.

Afghanistan after 9/11

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 hijackers (15 Saudi Arabians, two Emirati, one Egyptian and one Lebanese – no Afghans) carried out the infamous terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Following the attacks, focus turned to the alleged mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, who was based in Afghanistan. Amid calls for calm by victims' families and a mourning American public, government rumblings began about possible military attacks against Afghanistan. Aid agencies and the United Nations warned that the threat of bombing would put nearly 2.5 million Afghans at risk of starvation, but the US contended that military force might be necessary to capture those behind the 9/11 attacks.

At the time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair asserted that, "There is no alternative [to a military attack] unless the Taliban regime do what they have so far obviously failed to do and yield up bin Laden." Though largely ignored in the West, the Taliban had stated explicitly through their information minister, Qudrutullah Jamal, that "Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him." Speaking of bin Laden, they agreed to "give him up," on the condition that they be shown evidence of his involvement. The White House rejected this proposal out of hand, promising there would be "no negotiations, no discussions" with the Taliban.

In fact, there had previously been negotiations, well before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and the Taliban offered to extradite bin Laden to a neutral third country. In addition, following 9/11, as Britain's Telegraph reported on Oct. 4, 2001, they offered to give up bin Laden to an international tribunal in Pakistan, even without being shown evidence.

With the offers to turn over perpetrators quietly dismissed, on Oct. 7, 2001, the American-led coalition began its assault on Afghanistan. The military forces of the US, Britain, Canada, and other countries co-ordinated with an Afghan group calling themselves the "Northern Alliance" to overthrow the Taliban.

Between 3,800 and 5,000 Afghan civilians were killed by the initial bombing campaign, and 20,000 to 50,000 eventually died as a result of the invasion (according to investigations by University of New Hampshire economist Marc Herold and British journalist Jonathan Steele). The country, particularly outside the capital of Kabul, transformed into the cauldron of violence and unrest it remains over four years later.

The Northern Alliance Warlords and Afghanistan today

The US-led coalition allied itself with the "Northern Alliance," and one might rightly wonder: who are they?

The answer to this question had been well known to the governments of the invading countries, but ordinary Afghans knew it even better. The Northern Alliance is comprised of the murderous warlords who were finally thrown out of power a few short years before the 2001 invasion. With US backing, they would come to play a disastrous role in shaping the course of events in post-war Afghanistan.

In December 2001, with the Taliban government defeated, an agreement was reached among Afghani exiles meeting in Bonn, Germany. Hamid Karzai, an Afghan returning from exile in the US, was installed to power and would soon be named interim president of Afghanistan.

Following the Bonn Agreement, Northern Alliance warlords were given prominent positions in the interim government, including in key departments such as defence, industry and agriculture.

The leading Afghani women's rights group, RAWA, which is unequivocally opposed to both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, had expressed hope for reform under Karzai. However, they quickly became one of his administration's harshest critics, decrying its corruption and collusion with warlord extremists. While the interim government maintained relative stability in Kabul under the protection of multinational troops, the rest of the country fell squarely into the hands of the despised warlords.

To this day, the warlords wield prominent, even dominant influence in the US-backed Karzai government. Human Rights Watch observed that last December Karzai again directly appointed notorious human rights abusers to Afghanistan's upper parliamentary house, including former defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim. The group also concluded that an astounding 60 per cent of the deputies currently sitting in the lower house have been linked to human rights abuses.

photo: Sergeant Carole Morissette, Canadian Forces Image Gallery
Sadly, this reflects the reality of the human rights situation in Afghanistan today. Approximately 600 children under the age of five die every day in Afghanistan, according to UNICEF, "mostly due to preventable illnesses." While women technically have more rights than before, they are not able to exercise them due to lack of security. Afghans are regularly detained arbitrarily, tortured, and denied due process rights.

Infrastructure is in ruins and rebuilding efforts are made difficult by lack of funding and rampant corruption. Much of what is spent is wasted as contracts go to foreign firms whose bids are, in many cases, 10 times more expensive than their Afghan counterparts. Organizations inside and outside of Afghanistan cite insecurity as the top human rights issue in the country.

Who is responsible for all this insecurity? Groups like RAWA, all the major human rights organizations, and even Hamid Karzai agree that the US-backed warlords are a greater threat to security in Afghanistan than the Taliban.

US Operations in Afghanistan

Throughout its occupation of Afghanistan, under the auspices of Operation Enduring Freedom, in its quest to hunt down Taliban and Al Qaeda members, the US has continued to collaborate closely with the Northern Alliance warlords.

Over the repeated objections of groups like the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, RAWA, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, the US-led military forces have undermined the rule of law in Afghanistan by backing the criminal warlords, arbitrarily detaining and denying due process rights to Afghans, and using "excessive force . . . in residential areas." Amnesty condemns what it calls "grave human rights violations" by US and coalition forces, including "killing of civilians and torture of prisoners."

This kind of conduct has "generated tremendous resentment against the international community" and "made a mockery of respect for justice," in the words of Human Rights Watch. Most critically, it is driving the crippling state of insecurity in Afghanistan.

Canada's role

In recent months, Canada has endorsed and contributed to this counterproductive, ostensibly "counterterrorist" role in Afghanistan by joining Operation Enduring Freedom. The Martin government made the plans to scale down our peacekeeping role in Kabul and join the US-led combat operations. These plans came to a head in February under the new Harper government when 2,200 Canadian troops began to arrive in Kandahar, ready to hunt down and "destroy" pockets of Taliban loyalists in the region.

The Canadian government is certainly aware that this type of mission is doing more harm than good, if they are listening at all to those they claim to be helping. The reality is not unknown to Canadian officials. In an astonishing display of self-contradiction, Major General Andrew Leslie – describing why Canada must be in Afghanistan for at least 20 years – explained that "Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you."

Still, Canadians are told this is what we must do. While Canadian troops are abroad, we must stop questioning our leaders, whose noble aims ordinary citizens cannot fully comprehend. While our troops are in danger, we should "roll up our sleeves" and prepare ourselves for the "inevitable" deaths we must endure on the march for freedom.

Short-term solutions

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has developed extensive action plans and recommendations on transitional justice, women's rights, children's rights, human rights monitoring, and education. Supporting their work is a potential starting point for making a positive impact in Afghanistan.

Human rights groups have stressed the need for security in Afghanistan if the country is to be reconstructed. However, the kind of security assistance they've called for is peacekeeping, not "counterinsurgency" operations, which engender "tremendous resentment" and create scores of "angry young men." According to rights groups and many other observers, what Afghanistan needs from the outside world right now is what Afghani and international rights groups have been calling for all along: an end to support for criminal warlords, an end to torture and other abuses, respect for basic due process rights and the rule of law, support for existing domestic peace initiatives, and the commitment of a sufficient, neutral international peacekeeping force. (Troops from countries that have invaded Afghanistan should be excluded, of course, and if there is any justice, costs would be covered by reparations from those governments.)

Most of these short-term solutions involve no active effort of "aid"; they simply require the US, Canada, and their allies to stop doing harm.

Their own society on their own terms

Afghanistan's woes didn't appear out of thin air. Nor did they begin with the rise of the Taliban, nor even with the rise of the mujahideen warlords. Afghanistan has suffered a long history of foreign aggression and interference by Britain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States (with Canada's help) – interventions rooted in geopolitical manoeuvring and strategic interests more than in any concern for the long-term well being of the Afghani people.

Over 40 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 2131, declaring, "Armed intervention is synonymous with aggression." Article Six of the Resolution affirms "the right of self-determination and independence of peoples and nations, to be freely exercised without any foreign pressure, and with absolute respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Like every nation, the people of Afghanistan are entitled to self-determination and freedom from aggression – the right to develop their own society on their terms.

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