Far from a last gasp of resistance, the intense fighting encountered by U.S. soldiers early this week in the eastern Afghan mountains may well suck us deeper into a Mideast trap. Our forces are now spread around the oil-rich Caspian Sea region and are being sent westward into Georgia, while administration war hawks promote their campaign to attack Iraq. Further afield, Americans are providing training in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, there are now signs that should the U.S. be lured into Iraq, a reinvigorated Taliban/al-Qaida would open a new offensive within Afghanistan, rising up in Kabul and Kandahar and attacking from strongholds on the Chinese and Pakistani borders. At that point, the U.S. would be in a two-front guerrilla war, with the possibility of any number of hot spots breaking out across Central Asia.
Pakistani and Israeli intelligence reports have suggested from the very start that Osama bin Laden's troops hadn't been routed but were instead falling back in orderly fashion with few casualties. This force has been estimated to number as many as 60,000 fighters. Their plan was to slowly give up the major cities and towns, retreating into the impassable mountains where they would plot a spring attack.
Military sources tell Debka.com, a dependable Israeli site, that al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are already moving back into Kandahar and Kabul, while others have regrouped in western Pakistan, waiting to cross the mountains when the snow subsides.
A RIDGE TOO FAR
The latest appearance of a conflict of interest in the Bush administration comes from the president's old friend and homeland security czar, Tom Ridge. It seems Ridge owns stock in a company that stands to benefit from selling anti-terrorism services to the feds.
According to the Associated Press, Unisys and Ridge's ties reach back to his recent tenure as governor of Pennsylvania. The Unisys website says the firm assists 25 state criminal-justice agencies that protect 55 percent of the U.S. population. Under Ridge, Pennsylvania was a Unisys customer, according to Ed Hogan, who heads the Unisys Office of Homeland Security Solutions. James Unruh, then the company's CEO, donated at least $600 to Ridge's campaign in 1995-96.
Today, Ridge owns stocks in 19 different companies, some of them lobbying the Bush administration for defense contracts. His investments are worth anywhere from $61,019 to $392,000, according to his disclosure statement. A spokesman told the AP that if ethical questions arose, Ridge would seek the advice of the White House counsel.
RIDING FOR THEIR LIVES
To read the reports, you would think you'd stumbled onto some Mad Max film set. There stand the camels, all lined up in the starting gate, track stretching before them, tense crowds gathered 'round. Lashed atop the rear of each racing camel, just behind the hump, is the jockey, crop in hand.
The camera zooms in on the rider. Wait a moment! This is not an experienced athlete, but a small boy. He looks about five years old. Eyes wide with fright, he is fastened to the beast with Velcro.
Welcome to camel racing in the Persian Gulf, where wealthy sheiks wager thousands in what for them is one big Kentucky Derby all year long. Victory brings them money, new cars and lavish adornments. As for the little camel jockeys, they're slaves purchased in nations like Pakistan—a country newly allied with America—by the camel owners for sums as paltry as $3 apiece and brought to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.
Theirs is dangerous work. If the Velcro ties that keep a boy atop the camel loosen or break, he slips down and hangs beneath the camel, where he risks breaking his neck. Or if the animal throws him off, the boy may get trampled by other camels. If he breaks only an arm or a leg, he lives to ride another day.
For years, the riding has gone on openly, with airlines even advertising the sport for tourists. The U.S. State Department's "Trafficking in Persons Report" of July 2001 names India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as countries where children are trafficked for use as camel jockeys. It notes that while the United Arab Emirates passed a law forbidding boys under 15 to be made jockeys, the country does not enforce it.
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Last month, leaders in the Sudan instructed police to block anyone transporting boys for this purpose, and in Pakistan, police are stopping traders at the border. "The children are taken from their families and their own culture. . . . There have been cases where they are as young as three or four, but they are commonly six or seven or older," says Mike Kaye of London's Anti-Slavery International. "When the jockeys don't perform well, they are subject to abuse. There have been cases where they have just been left in the desert to die."
Dawn, the Pakistani daily, has found that buyers demand young jockeys. "Those to be mounted on the camelback for the notorious race that leaves many children injured, maimed, mentally traumatized and even dead, must be no older than seven years and weigh 12 to 15 kilograms," the paper wrote last March.
E.P. Teki, a spokesman at the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., told the Weekly his country had stopped the sale of boys by forbidding them to travel abroad alone without a special pass issued by a governmental department that checks into their plans. Recently, Indian police arrested a gang member who confessed that scores of children, kidnapped mainly from Punjab and Sindh, had been smuggled to the Gulf countries through the Arabian Sea from Karachi to become camel jockeys.
When asked whether the practice of using young boys as camel jockeys still exists, a spokesman for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) embassy in Washington said on March 4, "I don't think so because we have laws to regulate the whole camel racing industry." But when pressed to explain why both Pakistan and Sudan claim boys from their countries are still being used, he said, "I don't know where these boys go. I am not a big fan of camel racing, but I know we have had discussions, and the UAE did what is right. It put laws into effect that control the age and weight of camel jockeys. Before a camel jockey can enter a race, he must be a certain weight and a certain age, and this makes sure no kids are involved, so that youth cannot be taken advantage of."