It was inevitable: US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's seven-hour visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital, on March 17 was bound to cause some joking: the only relief available to a people traumatized by 27 years of war and bloodshed. "We wanted bread but got Rice instead," said many Afghans. Rice called her visit "inspirational"; she must have repeated this word about a dozen times, much like her boss, George W. Bush, who talks about democracy and freedom without being able to spell either. If Afghanistan were such an "inspiration", why did she not spend more time than only seven hours in a country that she claims is a show-case of democracy? Rice took no chances, even staying in the fortified US embassy that, according to reports, can withstand a nuclear blast. The Americans have come to believe their own propaganda that Usama bin Laden may have "acquired" nuclear weapons, and may lob one at the USembassy in Kabul.
Inspirational or not, Rice was extremely cautious; she abandoned her luxurious Boeing 757 in Islamabad, flying into Kabul in a nondescript C-130 transport plane. Afghanistan is not the model of democracy that she claims it to be. Parliamentary elections have again been postponed, from May to September, again because of "lack of security". Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a prisoner in Kabul and, to prove that they are still around, the Taliban killed seven people and wounded 32 others in Qandahar on the day Rice dropped in. "There could be no better story," she said, than Afghanistan's "democratic development." Most Afghans would beg to differ.
The security situation is as precarious as ever. The winter months (particularly harsh, with more than a thousand people, mostly children, dying of hunger and disease in Farah province alone this season) are a quiet period for the resistance. Spring brings renewed clashes, which are already beginning to pick up. In her press conference in Kabul, Rice mentioned neither the security situation nor the growing drug problem, although her own department has been forced to classify Afghanistan as being "on the verge of becoming a narcotic State".
It is, however, the grim plight of Afghan women and girls that has fallen off almost everyone's radar screen, even that of Western feminists, who led the campaign for their "freedom" from the oppressive Taliban rulers. Since the Taliban were toppled, the plight of Afghan women has got worse; incidents of rape and abduction are increasing, for instance. If Ms Rice had bothered to talk to any Afghan woman, she might have found out what "American-led liberation" has meant for them. Far from being liberated, they are being deprived of their dignity; their plight is made worse by the shortage of facilities for education, health and employment.
A group of American women have at last begun to speak out about Afghan women's situation since a visit by Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission of Pasadena, California, to Afghanistan. Speaking in Los Angeles on March 12, she said that the mainstream media coverage of Afghanistan had painted an extremely misleading portrait of women's "liberation". Ms Kolhatkar had just returned from a two-week visit to Kabul, Herat and Farah provinces, where she had interviewed Afghan journalists, lawyers, refugees and social activists, including members of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA), which has a number of projects under way in the country. A major concern is the domination of US-allied warlords, who are involved both in drug-trafficking and in the kidnapping and rape of women.
A feature documentary, Taliban Country, has demonstrated the differences between what an "embedded" reporter sees and what an independent reporter can see. Film-maker Carmela Baranowska spent three weeks embedded with the US Marines in Afghanistan, and then returned in secret to the area. She spoke about the abuses suffered by Afghan men and women at the hands of US soldiers. On March 15 the US military admitted that at least 26 prisoners had died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York Times, March 16). It has also now admitted that US occupation forces have been running private prisons or even subcontracting them to American vigilantes or, in the case of Afghanistan, to the warlords. The US military has admitted that it is holding more than 5,000 prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq, a figure considered by informed sources familiar with both theatres of war to be a severe under-estimate.
Only one of these 26 deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, US officials have admitted; this shows how broadly the most violent abuses extend beyond those prison walls, and contradicts early impressions that the maltreatment of prisoners was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift. Among the cases are at least four involving Central Intelligence Agency employees. They include a killing in Afghanistan in June 2003 for which David Passaro, a contract worker for the CIA, is now facing trial in a federal court in North Carolina.
Two Afghan prisoners, a Mullah Habibullah and one Dilawar, who died in US custody in Afghanistan in December 2002, were chained to the ceiling and kicked and beaten by American soldiers in sustained assaults that caused their deaths, according to Army criminal investigative reports (New York Times, March 12). One soldier, Willie V. Brand, was charged with manslaughter in a closed hearing in February in Texas in connection with the death of Dilawar, who was struck 37 times over a five-day period, "destroying his leg muscle tissue", maiming him and ultimately resulting in his death. The attacks were so severe that "even if he had survived, both legs would have had to be amputated," the Army report said, citing a medical examiner.
The Afghans can be excused for finding nothing inspirational about such treatment, even if Karzai did not have the courage to say so to Ms Rice. Some Afghans are beginning to wonder aloud whether the Taliban were all that bad after all. All this should be a warning to those who are still pleading or hoping for US "help" to "liberate" them.