Memo from Afghanistan
Josh Phillips ’96 and Shaheen Rassoul ’99 have been getting an insider’s view of America’s “other” war zone—Afghanistan. Phillips has been working with an NGO training young Afghan journalists in Helmand Province, the Taliban stronghold in the south that produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s opium. Rassoul, who was born in Afghanistan and raised in New Mexico, is country director for Global Rights in Afghanistan in Kabul. The pair get together from time to time to drink tea and exchange notes. Editor Mitchell Hartman connected with them in cyberspace for a three-way email interview.
Reed: U.S. and NATO commanders regularly warn of a major Taliban offensive this spring. Has there been a significant change in the war?
Phillips: There certainly hasn’t been a significant lull in violence during the fall or winter, so the change might not be as dramatic as forecasted. The Taliban have said they have hordes of suicide bombers poised to attack, but this is what they’ve always said. There is a feeling that Western leaders have been invoking the spring offensive to drum up more support for operations in Afghanistan.
The Taliban were credited with suppressing the opium trade when they ruled Afghanistan. Now, opium production is soaring in Taliban-controlled areas. Are they behind the boom?
Rassoul:I believe the Taliban suppressed the opium supply to maintain demand in international markets and keep prices high. They were shrewd businessmen. They had the power to control production—to keep it out of the hands of Afghans but circulating on world markets.
Phillips: Before, it was haram to grow poppy, but some mullahs are saying it’s kosher since it helps fund money for jihad and kills infidels through drug addiction. The overall rise in opium production is simple and straightforward economics. The country is incredibly poor and it’s a cash crop.
Rassoul: Opium is a pyramid business in Afghanistan. There are reports that the tip of the pyramid reaches to senior government posts within the president’s cabinet. The international community’s strategy of eradication means basically decimating a farmer’s land under the oversight of Caterpillar-driving Dyncorp employees. This is being done without offering alternate means of livelihood. Furthermore, reducing crop yield decreases supply, which in turn increases demand, resulting in more incentives to grow. This is one weak link, whereby more eradication results in higher production. Another weak link is that the major player in the international community—the U.S.—refuses to engage in interdiction, meaning that senior officials, warlords, and their people, can move and sell effectively with the sanction of the government.
In Iraq, U.S. and British forces are increasingly unpopular. By contrast, it seems that in Afghanistan, a broad international military coalition still exists, with popular support in the country.
Rassoul: This is less true as time passes. U.S. interests remain a band-aid approach to terrorism, using shortcuts to achieve stability by strengthening existing power structures.
Phillips: There’s certainly more of a “coalition of the willing” here than in Iraq. But it’s a terribly disorganized coalition, rife with poor coordination.
Rassoul:And militarily, the international forces’ “small footprint” approach has resulted in far less than sufficient ground troops committed to volatile regions. Also, there was never a sufficiently integrated command-and-control structure put in place. This doesn’t work against a tested force such as the Taliban.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban tend to be conflated by U.S. officials—with the implication that victory for one equals victory for the other. Is this accurate?
Rassoul:Most common Afghans across the country are weary of war; however, among elites there is certainly receptiveness to a pan-Islamic solution to the international military’s presence. If Al Qaeda were able to present a sufficiently integrated and adapted presence—i.e., responsive to local cultures, allowing sufficient autonomy—they could make significant gains in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
After the Taliban fell, it seemed that many Afghans were thankful: the mullahs’ theocratic rule was at an end. Are the Taliban now unpopular?
Phillips: The Taliban do fill a vacuum in the eyes of their supporters, who see the state as corrupt and inept and governed by warlords. Security is bad, and development is emaciated or poorly run in many regions (though not universally so in either case).
Rassoul: The Taliban were and are part of everyday life in Afghanistan. One must remember that ethnic issues play out here as well. With the Hazara or Panshiris in Kabul, the Taliban are a backwards and largely obsolete group, associated with brutality and ignorance. There is, however, a troubling reality for many poor and disenfranchised Afghans, who remember Taliban rule as a time of consistent application of law, absolutely no theft, and working institutions. Finally, the increased killing of civilians by coalition troops, without bringing those responsible to justice, results in a loss of people’s loyalty.
It has been reported recently that the status of women in Afghanistan is deteriorating, with suicide and honor killings on the rise, and more women afraid to go to work or school.
Rassoul: Afghan women continue to kill themselves due to poor treatment at home, forced marriage, and a number of other issues. I’m not aware that these numbers have shot up.
Phillips: It depends where in Afghanistan we’re talking about. There have been gains for women, and concurrently there are increased crimes against women. It’s not just that honor killings have increased. Because of worsening security, rape is on the rise. And honor killings are not just on the rise here—it’s happening elsewhere. Look at pro-Western Jordan, for example. It’s an ugly trend.
Are there any myths about Afghanistan today that you’d like to smash?
Rassoul:Most people see Afghanistan through the narrow specter of the U.S. military excursion against the Taliban. Just look at the U.S. budget here: more than 3/4 is earmarked for the security sector. This single-minded focus on security is actually undermining the stability of the country. And aside from the complex security and political situation, one must remain mindful of the fact that this is a civilization: people live here. They go about their day, marrying, going to school, working. Security is not the end of the story: it’s just one small part in a huge puzzle.
What’s good about being in Afghanistan right now?
Rassoul:The geography is awe-inspiring. The cultural and linguistic fabric of Afghanistan is also so rich. It’s a Wild West of the East. The people experience life with a unique perspective that is deeply ironic, and the local sense of humor and tragedy speaks to genuine experiences of the human condition.
Phillips:The warmth of the people, and seeing some of the fruits of our labor: imparting journalism and helping local Afghans give voice to their situation through radio. I’ve seriously bonded with my students, and they have been very warm and kind to me. It’s not just that they’re being nice—in many cases they’re shielding our lives with theirs. In the face of grave threats, and disillusionment over foreign intervention and the current government, we are still able to forge strong connections here that transcend politics and religion.