Kabul in Winter: the ravages of war and religious rule in Afghanistan

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Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006) hits hard in the gut while absorbing the mind. The book is a scathing indictment of U.S. policies that promoted the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, used the plight of Afghan women to justify an unjust war, and finally abandoned these women to the mullahs.

A native New Yorker, author Ann Jones was appalled when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan after 9/11. She writes, “I’d seen George W. Bush come to town to strut and bluster among the ruins, and as I watched him lug the stunned country into violence, my sorrow turned to anger and a bone-deep disappointment that hasn’t left me yet.”

Feeling compelled to help rebuild what the Pentagon destroyed, Jones went to Kabul and volunteered as an English teacher and aid worker, living there from December 2002 through the spring of 2005. She hoped her impact on a few lives would, like a pebble thrown in still water, ripple outward.

Though a writer, Jones began Kabul in Winter only after hearing the lies the U.S. government was telling about reconstruction in Afghanistan. The result is a well-researched, unflinching work of rich prose describing Afghan lives today.

A feminist activist against domestic violence, Jones writes extensively about women. She details the horrors caused by decades of war in a patriarchal society where women are traded like sheep. She puts special emphasis on how women and girls fare in schools, hospitals, the judicial system, and prisons.

Devastating consequences of Cold War politics. But Jones also places contemporary events in a larger context, weaving together an engrossing history lesson with her experiences in present-day Afghanistan.

Jones explains cogently the key U.S. role in bringing the most regressive strain of Islam to power in Afghanistan as a virulent side effect of U.S. support for reactionaries challenging a Soviet-backed Afghan reform government in the 1970s.

Jones does not draw a class distinction between the Soviet Union (a workers state, although perverted by Stalinism) and imperialist invaders and exploiters of Afghanistan. But she does recognize that the USSR boosted living standards for many Afghans through massive aid. And she credits communist leaders with working toward educating women, 97 percent of whom were illiterate, and freeing them from stifling feudal conditions.

It was this push for gender equality that particularly infuriated Islamic ultraconservatives (just as it inflames Christian fundamentalists, Jones notes). Because the mujahidin fighters opposed the Soviets, the U.S. supported them with a torrent of funding and weapons channeled through the Pakistani right wing and secret police.

The pullout of the Soviet Union did not bring an end to civil war. Still backed by CIA and Pakistani money and training, various fundamentalist factions battled among themselves for control, which was eventually won by the Taliban. Under the rule of the mullahs, women could neither live alone nor leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. With no men to provide for and protect them, the situation for widows was particularly desperate. It remains so today.

The woes of women. Jones makes it clear that the U.S. invasion, which brought terrible destruction to an already war-ravaged country, did nothing to improve the status of Afghan women.

She tells the story of Salma, who, during the Taliban years, organized a home school and educated herself and a hundred others. The American embassy promised her a full scholarship at a U.S. college, but reneged after more than a year of stringing her along.

Najela is a young wife who asked Taliban authorities for help because her husband forced her to have sex with other men. Instead, they imprisoned her for prostitution. Even if freed from jail, Najela would not be safe. Writes Jones, “The shame of a woman’s alleged offense hangs over her and her family. Sometimes a woman is cleared in court and released from prison only to be found dead days later, murdered by her father and brothers,” wiping clean the family honor.

Most difficult to read is what Jones has to say about child brides. Girls as young as seven are forced to marry and begin having sex, with predictably disastrous results. Poor families depend on income from the sale of child brides; pious fundamentalists justify these marriages by saying the Prophet Muhammad himself took a nine-year-old wife.

No movement for women’s rights has ever developed in Afghanistan. Jones attributes this to the near-constant state of war, which leaves people scrambling just to survive, and to the rightwing chokehold over society.

Reconstruction depends on revolution. Poverty is a theme throughout the book. A few Afghans live well, thanks to foreign investments or opium income. Most do not. Skyrocketing prices — driven up by the presence of a glut of foreign bureaucrats, aid experts, etc. — force native Afghans into a spiral of downward mobility. “Ousted tenants tumble to the next level of housing, and so on down the line until those at the bottom of the rent market are forced out to squat in ruins or join the city’s roving homeless.”

Condemning corporations and NGOs that have gotten fat paychecks to rebuild the ruined country, Jones reports that “eighty-six cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom aid,” never seen by Afghans. Because of this, “foreign aid … seems to ordinary Afghans to be something that only foreigners enjoy, living like kings in their big houses, driving around in their big SUVs.”

The refusal of the Bush Administration to provide real assistance has left people angry and resentful. Summing up her driver Sharif’s feelings, Jones writes, “He had believed in the American promise — that this time we would not abandon his country, and we had betrayed him. We promised aid that most did not see. We promised reconstruction that didn’t happen. We promised a new democratic government and installed the same old warlords. We promised peace that didn’t come.”

Kabul in Winter is many valuable things, but it is not a book about solutions. What struck this reader, however, is that there is no solution for Afghanistan in isolation.

Some immediate demands can be fought for: withdrawal of the occupying forces of imperialist countries, accountability in donor countries for how aid money is spent, the establishment by Afghans themselves of community-based organizations of women and men to distribute aid.

But, despite the propaganda about reconstruction and women’s rights, it is clear that the real concern of the power brokers in the U.S. is for the profits of the oil companies and defense contractors — and this is not about to change. The one sure way that workers and feminists could provide aid to Afghanistan is by making socialist revolution internationally.

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