Immediately after 9/11, Afghanistan became the first target of U.S. military retaliation in the so-called War on Terror. After the bombs stopped falling on Kabul, award-winning journalist and women’s rights activist Ann Jones set out for the shattered city. There she spent the next four winters working in humanitarian aid, determined to bring help where her country had brought destruction. Her recent book Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Picador, 2007), is a trenchant report.
Often called the crossroads of Central Asia, Afghanistan is a livestock- and agriculturally-based country. Devastated by decades of war, poverty, and oppressive political rule, the country’s economic, political and social structures have been characterized by instability and turbulence. Jones brings a firsthand look of a nation trying to rise from the ruins of decades of proxy wars fought by both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. She goes into the streets, the prisons, and the schools to meet everyday men and women and recount their harrowing stories.
I interviewed Jones, a clear-thinking journalist who’s not afraid to advocate for the oppressed, on a recent visit she made to the Puget Sound. Jones remains outraged not just by the predicament of Afghanistan’s people, but by privatization scams tied to U.S. humanitarian aid — most of which goes into the pockets of private American contractors for work, she says, “that is often done very unsatisfactorily, very inappropriately, or not at all.”
In a recent article, you describe the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and a resurgence of the Taliban. You blame George Bush and the U.S. military. Why?
After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, international agreements were reached that held that international peacekeeping forces would be confined to Kabul. The U.S. would be responsible for security in all the rest of the country. But within a matter of weeks we withdrew most of our forces from Afghanistan. We never had extensive forces on the ground. We mostly attacked them with high-altitude bombing. So we withdrew all of those forces and sent them off to muster for Iraq. Because we weren’t there providing security, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were able to pick off humanitarian workers who came to the provinces to try to initiate development and help the people. The NGOs [non-governmental organizations] had to withdraw to the relative safety of the capital, and that left most of Afghanistan with very little, if any, development.
You recount a recent incident in which President Karzai began to weep over thousands of dead women and children trapped between U.S. bombers and NATO troops on the one hand, and Taliban forces backed unofficially by Pakistan on the other. Could you describe the geopolitical realities that are fostering this situation?
Last summer, because things were beginning to fall apart in Afghanistan, the U.S. arranged for NATO to take control of security. NATO peacekeeping forces, led by the British went into southern Afghanistan thinking they were going to continue peacekeeping that the U.S. had been doing. Instead, they walked right into some very heavy battles and took a lot of casualties. They called for reinforcements. The U.S. response was to support with them with bombing. More Taliban are coming across the Pakistan border to join the fray. So you have civilians caught in the crossfire of what is once again a very hot war, spreading throughout southern Afghanistan. Approximately 4,000 Afghans died last year in that conflict. It’s estimated officially that 1,000 of those were innocent civilians, many of them women and children. President Karzai, who has been trying to bring about some kind of peace and reconciliation in the country, has been unsupported in these efforts by the United States. When he tried to speak publicly about the issue he did just break down and weep about what’s happening to his country.
But it’s all insidious and circular, because if I understand it, the CIA continues to fund Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, who in turn are supporting the Taliban. Is that right?
That’s a good question, because we don’t really know. I don’t know if the CIA is still funding Pakistan intelligence. They did, of course, all the way through the Soviet occupation, but certainly the U.S. is giving massive amounts of aid to the Pakistan government. And our relationship with Pakistan is really not clear because everyone in the area knows that Taliban are coming across the border all the time.
From 2002 to 2006, you spent considerable time as a volunteer for a small nonprofit dedicated to assisting the country’s thousands of war widows: Madar, or “mother.” Madar was based in Kabul. The work of Madar seems nothing less than life-affirming for many Afghan women. Could you talk about its history and its work?
It was founded by an American woman who had lived in Kabul since the 1960s. She knows the country very well. Everyone else who works with Madar is Afghan. It’s very small. But it conducts localized programs that offer life saving aid to a lot of women by helping them gain ways of supporting themselves after they’ve lost the men in their families. Because of course, especially during the Taliban time, women were not allowed to leave their homes to work. So this organization really saved some lives.
I’m critical of some of the bigger organizations and particularly of America’s official funding, administered by the Agency for International Development (USAID), because for the most part it’s a scam. Most of the aid that we citizens think is going to people in Afghanistan is actually going into the pockets of private American contractors who are paid big time to do work that is often done very unsatisfactorily, very inappropriately, or not at all. Some of the names are familiar to us, of course, because the same thing has been going on with even more of our money in Iraq. I think it’s a means of transferring money from the Federal Treasury to the pockets of Americans who are already doing well enough, thank you.
You estimate that 86 cents of every dollar administered by the USAID goes into the pockets of private American contractors.
Yes, or go to waste in one way or another. Often what’s counted as aid goes to build fortress[-like] American embassies or serve American interests.
The U.S. doesn’t fund the Afghan government directly. We set it up as a government, and yet we fund our own private enterprises over there and require Afghans to buy American goods to fulfill the terms of these contracts. How is the government going to compete with that? So in a way our aid program serves to undermine the very government that we ourselves helped to create. You could blame incompetence or a very ill-informed foreign policy, or you could see this as really serving the ends of this administration — because many Afghans themselves believe that what America really wants out of Afghanistan are permanent military bases.
You conclude that the underlying purpose of American aid is to make the world safe and open to American business rather than to educate the population so they can be self-sufficient.
Yes, absolutely. And American aid has now gone under the direct control of the State Department as an instrument of our foreign policy. I think this is a shame for Americans, because I believe that the average American really would like to do something to help Afghanistan. And I think it’s hard for people to understand how this country can be in such terrible shape when we’re sending them all this aid.
The Bush Administration boasts that five million Afghan children now go to school. How many girls are being educated?
Well it’s a good thing that these five million kids went to school — boys and girls. But that’s less than half of the school-age children in the country and it’s less than a third of girls who are eligible to go to school. And most of the girls who do go back to school drop out after a year or two. Those dropout rates are increasing as security gets worse. One of the chief techniques of the Taliban in the last couple of years has been to burn or bomb schools or murder teachers, sometimes in front of the students.
I’m leaving out, perhaps deliberately, because it was very hard for me to read, the violence against women that permeates the culture.
It’s a big part of my book because so little has been written about it and because this administration has made claims to having liberated Afghan women and fixed their situation up just fine. That’s very far from the truth. Afghan culture separates men and women so effectively that most men who go to Afghanistan as journalists or to write books about it never even meet an Afghan woman. It’s not permitted. So if you think about books that you’ve read about Afghanistan, you’ve been reading about Afghan men.
The women’s story is a very different one and it has not really been told. So I tell a lot of stories about the work I did with women in the prisons and the hospitals in Kabul, trying to care for female victims of suicide attempts. That tells you much more about the status of women in Afghanistan: that so many young women are trying to kill themselves. There are a number of those very grim stories in my book, but I think it’s important that we know about them.
And what are the solutions then to the whole situation of the international community helping Afghanistan? You’re not supposed to be trying to “help people”, but assist in providing the tools to help themselves.
There aren’t any easy answers to these very complex situations, which is perhaps something our government should think about before it goes messing with other countries. But I would say that where aid goes awry is in its intention. And for aid to be effective, efficient, helpful, it has to come out of genuine motivation to give assistance to the people of the country and to make their lives better in very fundamental ways — like providing them with clean water and electricity and sanitation, or helping them find the means to provide those things for themselves. When aid is delivered by countries who are just trying to look out for their own interest, that doesn’t help people at all.
By MARTHA BASKIN, Contributing Writer
Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam are two aid agencies with reliable records of service in Afghanistan. There’s also Women
forAghanWomen.org, a New York based resource led by Afghan and Afghan-American women that is developing a family guidance center for survivors of domestic violence.