Sep 18 2008

Afghanistan: Civilian Deaths, Druglords, and US Policy

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afghanistanDefense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday during his visit to Afghanistan expressed regret at civilian deaths in a recent US air strike – and then used it to justify sending more troops to Afghanistan. On August 22nd, a US air strike killed 90 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, according to on-the-ground reports. The US has vehemently denied that claim saying instead that 30-35 Taliban militants were killed and only 4-5 civilians. After mobile phone video footage contradicted those claims, the US now plans to open a joint investigation along with the Afghan government into the incident. One US military official was quoted in an AFP report that approximately 4,000 air strikes have been conducted in Afghanistan this year alone. That’s more than an average of 15 strikes a day! Meanwhile, a suspected Afghan drug lord named Bashir Noorzai is being tried in New York on charges of attempting to smuggle tens of millions of dollars of heroin into the US. Noorzai and his lawyers claim that in fact he was an ally of the US, and helped defeat and disarm the Taliban. The case highlights the political compromises the US has repeatedly made in Afghanistan.

GUEST: Conn Hallinan, Senior Analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus

Rough Transcript

Sonali Kolhatkar: So first let’s talk about the civilian deaths in this particular incident on August 22nd. It doesn’t seem that the United States really has much of a moral position to be in after making a particular claim and being defied with serious evidence. I understand this has happened before in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has killed civilians, denied it, sometimes even denied that it happened, only to be proven wrong.

Conn Hallinan: Well, one of the things that the U.S. does is it sort of defines anybody that they kill are Taliban, and anyone who the Taliban kill are civilians. So it goes back to the same kind of terminology they used during the Vietnam War. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then you are an insurgent. And they said well, when they went into the town, they found weapons. Well, everybody in Afghanistan is armed and in this particular case it was a group of local militia that were not associated with the Taliban. So the kind of claims that, you know, that killing Taliban and all these kinds of things, this is standard and it goes back to really to the air war that originally the U.S. launched in the Korean War and then eventually in Vietnam. And the numbers of civilian deaths have really accelerated and it is related to the fact that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan. And they don’t have the troops, NATO doesn’t have the troops to do anything about it and so what they are trying to do is make up for that by using air power. And they can do an enormous amount of damage, but air power by definition is, you know, it’s not selective. It kills whoever gets close to it.

Sonali Kolhatkar: So by nature of the changing tactic to use more air strikes and air power in Afghanistan, the U.S. has essentially escalated its civilian deaths?

Conn Hallinan: Absolutely. I mean there is a one-to-one relationship between those two. The U.S. has this kind of, you know, all wars have a story. World War I was the war to end all wars. WWII was the war to defeat fascism. This is the good war, so Iraq is the bad war and this is the good war. And so as a result, you know, there is pretty much support both on the Republican, well, certainly on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side.

Sonali Kolhatkar: I was looking at the Wikipedia entry on Afghan civilian deaths. It has an interesting tally of all of the various sources, quite reliable sources – Associated Press, Human Rights Watch, United Nations – on the deaths caused by so-called insurgents since 2001 and those caused by U.S.-led military operations. The numbers are quite interesting. The deaths as a result of the “insurgent” actions are between 2,000 to 2,500, while the U.S.-led military actions are basically about 4,000 to almost 5,000 deaths. That’s nearly twice as many being killed by U.S.-led military operations. I mean, if you go by this measure alone, what is it saying?

Conn Hallinan: Well, I also think you have to be careful even with that figure for the Taliban killing civilians. There is a couple of different wars going on in Afghanistan. And it sort of depends on where you are, in what particular war. There is a war going on between a large number of the Afghans and the U.S. occupation forces and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But there is also a civil war going on between the Karzai government and the Taliban. And then there is various other wars going on between the drug dealers and the war lords and militias and all that kind of stuff. So it is a multiple sort of thing. It is just that every time the Taliban kill someone, that’s a civilian. Every time the U.S. kills someone, it’s Taliban. So even that figure for the number of civilians that the Taliban have killed, I mean, I would take that with a grain of salt. I’d be careful about accepting that figure.

Sonali Kolhatkar: And it is likely then by that measure that the U.S. and NATO have probably killed far more civilians, because the Taliban aren’t wearing uniforms and the U.S., as you have said, often will name anybody they kill as a so-called militant or Taliban.

Conn Hallinan: Well, the official designation of potential enemies is anyone from age 15 to 65. That’s a pretty significant portion of the Afghan population.

Sonali Kolhatkar: So they are just using age as a measure?

Conn Hallinan: Yes. In other words, basically, what they are doing is they say any male, you know, who is a young teenager to an old man, is a potential insurgent. Of course that is correct, because what has happened is that this is rapidly morphing into a national liberation struggle. And no one has ever won a national liberation struggle. And Afghanistan is really not a place that you want to get into a war.

Sonali Kolhatkar: Conn, do you think that U.S. policy is changing? I mean aside from tactics, right, aside from changing it mostly from a ground war to a primarily air war, are the goals changing? If at all they were ever clear. Do you think that the U.S. policy in the last few months of the Bush administration are either expanding or changing in a particular way?

Conn Hallinan: I do think that, as you say, there is a military step-up. I think what is not being done is that the position of the U.S. is that it will not negotiate with the Taliban. And one of the things it does is it talks about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as if they are the same organization, and they are not. Not even close to the same organization. It’s hard to even call Al-Qaeda an organization per se. And this flies in the face of what the Afghans want. I mean, the Canadian Globe and Mail did a poll about six months ago. And what they found was that 74% of the Afghans wanted negotiations, and 54% of them even supported a coalition government with the Taliban. 52% want all foreign troops out within a maximum of 5 years. So what is happening is the Bush administration, and I’m worried for whatever administration comes in with the next election, is pursuing basically a military solution. There is no military solution to what is going on in Afghanistan.

Sonali Kolhatkar: And all we have been hearing coming from Bush and from Gates yesterday, from Obama and McCain, is more troops. I mean, that’s essentially their answer to this problem.

Conn Hallinan: Exactly. And also, a very disturbing development, which is that the U.S. is deploying death squads in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The recent book by Bob Woodward, The War Within, he alludes to this. That they have been using these extrajudicial hit squads in Iraq and they have. But it is also going on in Afghanistan. Philip Alston, who is the United Nations Human Rights Council Director in Afghanistan, has been investigating and protesting a number of these extrajudicial killings. There were two brothers that were murdered in Kandahar in January. And what he has hit is just a solid wall. I mean, nobody will take responsibility for it, nobody says they are doing it, etc. So these death squads are operating in both countries. In Iraq they killed the 17-year-old son of the Governor of Salah ad Din province, which is north of Baghdad. And they hit, and his nephew as well. This is the kind of thing which of course generates enormous opposition, not simply to the murder, but particularly in Afghanistan, this sets off blood feuds.

Sonali Kolhatkar: I mean, basically we are talking about Afghan forces at the behest of the U.S.?

Conn Hallinan: No, no, these are American forces. American Special Forces that are accompanied by local Afghans. But these are American Special Forces. And the description of the hit in both Kandahar and Salah ad Din province was these were American Special Forces, they came in in the middle of the night, came in with night goggles, they came in with automatic weapons, you know, this was a real high-tech sophisticated operation. This is absolutely illegal. I mean, this is in violation of the Geneva Convention and politically it is a disaster.

Sonali Kolhatkar: Conn, let’s talk about drugs and the role they play inside Afghanistan, but I also want to bring up this drug lord who is currently being tried in New York. First, Afghanistan, under the U.S. and NATO occupation, has once more become the world’s largest heroin producer. What does this say about how the U.S. has been conducting its occupation vis-à-vis drugs?

Conn Hallinan: Well, over 90% of the world’s opium now comes from Afghanistan. And drugs make up 30% of the gross domestic product in Afghanistan. Now this could only happen if the United States was working hand in glove. I mean, basically, what happened was the United States came in and they overthrew the Taliban, who suppressed the drug trade. When they overthrew the Taliban, they had to rely on the Northern Alliance and the war lords. And of course the Northern Alliance and the war lords were deep into opium production and heroin production. So we basically cut them a deal. And we would turn a blind eye and they could deal, but then they would support us. This is exactly the same pattern as what happened in Laos with the heroin dealing in Laos and the U.S. Secret War against North Vietnam and South Vietnam and Laos. It’s exactly what happened in Central America with the cocaine trade. I mean, the U.S. has always been very closely associated with drug lords.

Sonali Kolhatkar: So let’s talk about this fellow in New York, Bashir Noorzai, who claims that he was working with the U.S. I mean, initially he was a mujahedeen fighter during the 1980’s and the Soviet occupation, then supported the Taliban because he thought that the war lords were destroying Afghanistan, but then again changed allegiance to the United States after the U.S. began its invasion. Now, he is being tried in a U.S. federal court for drug smuggling, but he says “Hey, I used to work with you guys.”

Conn Hallinan: Absolutely he used to work with us. And there is a whole range of people who are deeply involved in the drug trade that we have worked with. And I am sure that this guy feels like he has been double-crossed, and of course he has been double-crossed. Because this is a show trial. The U.S. is doing nothing to suppress the drug trade. Of course they can’t do anything to suppress the drug trade, because they would lose their base in Afghanistan. So they get a show case trial like this. You know, they go after him. There are certainly not going after Ahmed Karzai, the President of Afghanistan’s brother, who is also rumored to be one of the biggest drug lords in Afghanistan. This kind of corruption, this kind of fundamental corruption is just standard. And it’s been going on for years and years and years. And people say “Shocking, shocking,” sort of like that line from Casablanca “oh, gambling going on, shocking, shocking.”

Sonali Kolhatkar: An interesting addition to that is that Izzatullah Wasifi, the current head of Afghan government’s anti-corruption authority, apparently once spent more than three years in a Nevada prison for selling heroin in Las Vegas.

Conn Hallinan: Shocking, shocking.


Sonali Kolhatkar: And this is a central government backed by the United States.

Conn Hallinan: There is one little sideline here that I do find interesting. The current American Ambassador to Afghanistan is William Wood. I don’t know if listeners remember that name, but he used to be the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. And he was the guy who brought in DynCorp’s private mercenary group to conduct spraying of the cocaine, you know, of coca fields in Colombia, which by the way not only didn’t work, but there is actually more coca being grown now than there was when the spraying started in 2001. He is the new ambassador and he is pushing the Karzai government to begin spraying the poppy fields. What is interesting is that he is pushing the Karzai government to spray, the military that is both the American and the NATO military is saying under no circumstances can you spray. If you spray, the whole country is going to come to pieces. I mean, the farmers are going to have nothing. So, in a sense, what you have is, you have the military saying look, we have to protect the poppies. They are the only thing which keeps this entire operation from unraveling. At the same time, you have this guy William Woods, who is pushing this DynCorp private mercenary organization to do this spraying. I mean, it can’t get any crazier.

Sonali Kolhatkar: And none of this gets covered in the mainstream media. I mean, the issue of drugs comes up and all you hear is how the U.S. is very upset with the heroin production and how the heroin sales are fuelling the Taliban’s insurgency, but you don’t hear the other side of the story. I want to finally ask you, Conn, to comment a little bit about next year’s elections in Afghanistan and in particular one interesting figure who may be running for the seat of President and to replace Hamid Karzai. Listeners may recall Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, then became U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and now is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He is an Afghan-born American and one of the original signers to the Project for the New American Century, so he is a neo-con through and through. He is running for president of Afghanistan next year.

Conn Hallinan: And remember also before that he worked for Unocal Oil. So I think he probably will be the next president. Karzai is referred to in Afghanistan as the President of Kabul, because that’s as far as his authority reaches. And more and more of the country is sort of out of control. I think it is perfectly possible that the current UN ambassador will end up being president of Afghanistan. I think what it means is that, I know this isn’t going to have any effect on what the effect of the war is, but it does mean that there is going got be a stepped up operation aimed at creating permanent American bases. And if you look at where the permanent American bases are in Afghanistan, they exactly parallel the pipelines that are planned to run through Afghanistan; natural gas and oil pipelines. So, partly, you know, this is the oil man making certain that Afghanistan is going to fit into the overall pattern that they see as controlling the strategic resources in Central Asia.

Sonali Kolhatkar: I mean this is essentially a high-level member of the Bush cabinet who could become president of one of the countries we are occupying. Very interesting twist to the story. It remains to be seen if it will play out. Conn Hallinan, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Special Thanks to Claudia Greyeyes for transcribing this interview.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Afghanistan: Civilian Deaths, Druglords, and US Policy”

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