That Other Quagmire

Sonali Kolhatkar remembers Afghanistan, even if the rest of us dont

Remember Afghanistan? The Taliban? Hamid Karzai? That weird game Afghans play involving a goat carcass? Of course not. If the Iraq War is our latest Vietnam, then Dubya's Afghanistan adventure is our Philippine-American War: a major incursion that became a quagmire no one talks about.

One of the few media figures who bother to pay attention is Sonali Kolhatkar, host of KPFK-FM 90.7's popular Uprising morning show. She's involved with various Afghan charities and is the author, along with her husband, of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. Kolhatkar will talk about the book and show slides from her visits this Saturday at the Centro Cultural de Mťxico. But first, she talked to the Weekly.

Sonali Kolhatkar. Courtesy Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar. Courtesy Sonali Kolhatkar

Give us a summary of your book in 25 words without using the word "imperialism."

The book traces the history of U.S. policy in Afghanistan from the 1970s to today, its effects on ordinary people, particularly women, and their resistance and resilience to war and fundamentalism.

You went to Afghanistan in 2005. How was the situation then, and has it changed for better or worse?

When I went in 2005, Afghans had just finished voting in the presidential elections and there was a lot of optimism. However, there was still overwhelming poverty and unemployment, and most people admitted that "liberation" was a Bush fantasy. While Afghans were surprisingly candid about what they saw as American double standards in defeating one set of terrorist fundamentalists by bringing back another set of terrorist fundamentalists, they were still hopeful the world community would pay some attention to them. Since then, that optimism has evaporated as the Taliban are stronger, warlords dominate the government and the U.S./NATO forces continue to kill civilians. It's a much more dangerous country now.

Are you optimistic about Afghanistan's future?

Not really. Firstly, the U.S. doesn't seem to want to change its trajectory of sponsoring fundamentalism and war in Afghanistan; secondly, American people just don't give enough of a damn about Afghanistan to pressure the U.S. government to change. Ordinary Afghans are, as usual, caught between the twin forces of fundamentalism (U.S.-sponsored and otherwise) and war. Still, what's hopeful is how incredible the nonviolent resistance on the ground is. Ordinary people are doing their best to survive and be defiant. They have organized peaceful demonstrations burning effigies of Bush and started schools for girls despite the dangers. If their efforts are supported internationally, perhaps there is a small measure of hope.

Your showUprising covers an array of topics, yet it seems Afghanistan is the cause closest to your heart. Why?

I was actually involved in Afghanistan solidarity work about two years before I began my work at Pacifica Radio. It all started when I got a chain e-mail about the Taliban oppression of Afghan women. I did a Web search and found RAWA—the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Despite their sectarian sounding name, they are an incredible group of women whose ideals are based on democracy and human rights. I wrote to them and asked if I could help. Myself and a couple of friends started a nonprofit, the Afghan Women's Mission, to fund RAWA's social and political projects in 2000. Six years later, my partner Jim Ingalls and I published the book. We're still deeply involved with supporting RAWA as volunteers.

Do you think the United States had the right to invade Afghanistan in 2001?

Not at all. It had just about as much right in 2001 as the Soviet Union had to invade Afghanistan in 1979. If the U.S. was really interested in defeating the Taliban before the tragedy of 9/11, Clinton and Bush would've pressured their allies and weapons buyers—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates]—to stop supporting the Taliban.

Earlier this year, Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya said the United States "pushed us from the frying pan into the fire." Do you agree with that statement?

Yes, I do. The Taliban is stronger today than it was in 2001, even if they don't control as much territory. The Northern Alliance warlords and druglords have government power and legitimacy, which they didn't have in 2001. It took barely a month for the U.S. to defeat the Taliban in 2001. Yet today, the Taliban are carrying out suicide attacks—an unheard-of phenomenon before 2005—and are gaining popularity because they don't kill as many civilians as the U.S.

At this point, what's the United States' responsibility to the Afghan people?

The U.S. needs to disarm its warlord allies—these men should be considered proxy U.S. soldiers on the ground who are terrorizing the population. The U.S. should divert far more funds into Afghan-led reconstruction projects than the military effort. And I'm talking about grants to local groups here, not corporate subsidies or paying foreign aid workers. The U.S should then pressure its allies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to stop tacitly supporting the Taliban.

And then, the U.S. should get the hell out of Afghanistan. The U.S. should also support Afghan-led efforts to criminally prosecute the warlords and Taliban for past crimes in the interest of healing and reconciliation. If these things are done, there will theoretically be some space for Afghan civil society to grow, exercise their democratic rights, and reject the armed fundamentalists.

Why do you think the media and American public pays so little attention to Afghanistan?

They're too busy thinking about Iraq, which is understandable. There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and only about 20,000 in Afghanistan. We've killed far more Iraqis than Afghans. Also, I think that, sadly, most Americans subconsciously think of Afghanistan as "the good war"—a myth that Jim and I try to dispel in our book. So there is a tendency among most Americans that we need to get our troops out of Iraq so we can focus them on Afghanistan. But this is very shortsighted—the same military blunders in Iraq have been committed in Afghanistan, and the Afghan war is as unjust as the Iraq war.

What should the United States do about Al-Qaeda?

What hasn't the U.S. done about Al-Qaeda?! Our actions have only strengthened the group and helped get them more recruits. We've made this organization far more important than it ever was. If the U.S. were to improve its policies in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other Muslim and Arab countries, Al-Qaeda would have no reason to scream bloody jihad. That's the only long-term permanent solution. Any other solution involves brute force, and that will only lead to more anger, more recruits, more terrorism.

SONALI KOLHATKAR WILL READ FROM HER BOOK AT THE CENTRO CULTURAL DE MEXICO, 310 W. FIFTH ST., SANTA ANA. SAT., 6 P.M. FREE. LISTEN TO KOLHATKAR ON KPFK-FM 90.7. MON.-FRI., 8 A.M.

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