Afghanistan: occupied, ripped off, and raging

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After five years, George W. Bush’s “new era of hope” in Afghanistan is nothing more than a new era of hype.

The U.S. began bombing Afghanistan in 2001, immediately after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, in an attempt to destroy the al-Qaida network and the Taliban government that supported it. The Taliban was one of a number of fundamentalist forces that during the 1980s received lavish U.S. aid to overthrow a secular, Soviet-backed, leftist government.

With the Taliban’s downfall, the U.S. installed a puppet president, Hamid Karzai, and a government full of reactionary local and regional military commanders (“warlords”) including former Talibans and their rivals in the Northern Alliance. Infusions of reconstruction aid have merely created a thin crust of wealth over seething poverty, and resistance is mounting.

A harsh reality. Afghanistan has one of the globe’s lowest life expectancies: 44.5 years. A fifth of the children die before age 5. Clean water and sanitation reach only a quarter of the people. Fewer than 6 percent have electricity. Abandoned explosives kill or injure up to 100 people monthly. Malnutrition stands at 70 percent, the world’s highest level, and illiteracy at 80 percent.

Kabul, a city of 2-3 million, has open sewers running through the streets and electricity for only a few hours a day. Unemployment is 50-70 percent. Many people live on $1 a day or less from manual labor, begging, and scavenging. The influx of foreign reconstruction experts has caused a housing shortage and price inflation: a three-room mud home rents for at least $200 a month. People squat in bombed-out buildings in a climate of extreme hot and cold.

Women and girls suffer keenly. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan reports intensifying fundamentalist attacks on girl students and their teachers and schools. Hundreds of women have committed suicide due to the pressures of jobless widowhood, forced marriage, and homelessness. Domestic violence occurs with impunity, as do rapes and stoning of women by the Northern Alliance. The Cabinet is seeking to reestablish the Taliban’s notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which terrorized women for the slightest infractions of patriarchal codes.

The only economic bright spot is the opium market. Afghanistan is the biggest producer of opium internationally, with the government deeply involved. Drug income is equal to 60 percent of the legal Gross Domestic Product. Reconstruction forces are destroying poppy fields, stripping farmers of any livelihood and targeting strongholds of government opponents.

A cynical facade of progress. Obscene amid the squalor, the new five-star Serena Hotel has opened to cater to the drug and reconstruction profiteers; rooms start at $275 a night. Also in Kabul, a sparkling new mall boasts three floors of luxury shops, and ostentatious mansions are rising on the site of bulldozed slums.

There is otherwise little to show for the promised $15 billion of international reconstruction aid. Less than half of this money had been delivered by October 2006 and less than one billion dollars’ worth of projects are completed.

The director of the World Bank has acknowledged that private businesses are wildly “looting” aid money. U.S. enterprises such as Dyncorp, Halliburton and the Berger Group hold most of the contracts. Projects are never begun, or are done poorly and with huge cost overruns. In 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development contracted to build or renovate 289 schools and 253 health clinics. But only eight schools and eight clinics were built; 77 schools and no clinics were refurbished.

Aid money is funneled back to the wealthy donor countries. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, for instance, directed $4 million of a $45 million contract to the financing of its headquarters in Rome. Contractors hire few locals and pay them miserably. One security firm pays Afghani guards $3-5 a day, while its guards from the U.S. can make up to $200,000 a year.

Projects are timed to provide photo ops for Karzai and Bush. A 300-mile highway from Kabul to Kandahar was rushed to completion before the Afghan and U.S. elections in 2004. Thanks to poor design, the road is already deteriorating and highly unsafe.

Even the torture is contracted out. In 2004, Jack Idema and two other U.S. citizens were found guilty of running a sadistic private prison. Though the U.S. claims Idema was a lone ranger, he says he was an operative of the Pentagon and Karzai.

End the occupation! The U.S. has no intention of rebuilding Afghanistan. Its goal is to boost its own economy while creating a permanent outpost at the strategic crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.

The endeavor has costs. Out of every 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan during 2005, five died. And for every American killed, 17 Afghan civilians have died. To avoid backlash at home, the U.S. is maneuvering to get Dutch, Canadian, and British NATO troops to oversee some of the most volatile provinces.

Nevertheless, 21,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, up from 9,500 in March 2003. In 2005, the Air Force spent $83 million upgrading its two biggest bases at Bagram and Kandahar. The U.S. is digging in for the long term.

The Afghan people are not silent victims. Many protests have expressed rage at the occupiers, the puppet government, the edifices of wealth, and the aid rip-offs. Armed opposition to NATO and Karzai is increasing, although often led by Taliban fundamentalists and the local military strongmen — who are also targets of protest.

The first step for any real reconstruction in Afghanistan, and the first demand for peace activists, has to be withdrawal of the occupation “saviors.” This will clear the way for Afghan women and the poor to fight for a secular society protecting human rights and eradicating economic inequality, a fight that will require international workingclass support. This is the only possible road to a revival of Afghanistan’s hopes.

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