Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls

by Joshua Foust on 1/1/2008

What a frustrating book. I picked it up hoping to have some holes in my knowledge of Afghanistan filled—namely, about both the mujahideen war of ’92-’96, and later the ways in which the U.S. has systematically failed the Afghan people in terms of the promises of building their country. Instead, I got a highly skewed picture of the ways the U.S. has stuck its finger into Afghan politics, a hypocritical critique of both U.S. policy and the men who currently lead the country, and what can only be called Taliban propaganda.

Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, by Sonali Kolhatkar and James IngallsThis is especially frustrating because these atrocious lapses in analysis bookend otherwise keen critique, in particular of the media. The push for sycophantic coverage of U.S. actions and intentions has been critiqued mercilessly in this space, as has the disturbing lack of coverage of the “real war on terror.”

Then again, this was put together by an alt-radio personality and a physicist. That shouldn’t matter—I am not a credential whore—but the lack of professional involvement in Afghanistan, highlighted only by their involvement with the American wing of RAWA, ultimately undermines their argument. Their concern for Afghanistan, and especially Afghanistan’s women, is unquestioned—even when at their most annoying and unfair criticisms of American policy, which amount to berating a country for pursuing its own interests, they are critical not out of some instinctive hatred of America (the most common charge levied by the Right against critique on the Left), but by a concern for the ultimate consequences of American interest. Nevertheless, such a critique is Utopian and counterproductive: rather than arguing the U.S. act against its own security interest, they would have been far more effective in arguing the interests of the U.S. and the Afghan people are aligned—both are served by a more stable country, by more security, by a rational and sane program for development and nation-building.

One of the most puzzling arguments against the American occupation of Afghanistan Kolhatkar and Ingalls skipped over was the problem of aid. This, again, has been covered at length in this space, but the short version is that aid in Afghanistan is critically misallocated, in that it is applied outside of government channels and toward empty symbolic large projects (the Kajaki Dam) or outright counterproductive ones (poppy spraying).

Much criticism is similarly misplaced. It is worth revisiting the argument over Interest, since it appears at multiple levels. I would call it a fair (even damning) criticism of U.S. policy to note that the post-Soviet abandonment was a dreadful mistake, as was the way the U.S. tacitly assented to the brutal civil war in the early 90’s. The authors’ criticism here, however, crosses the line into the territory of Taliban propaganda, starting with their insistence in the myth of pre-Taliban anarchy. Other ways they try to unfavorably contrast the purdah of the mujahideen with the harsh shari’a variant of the Taliban are similarly shocking: while women were certainly degraded under Rabbani’s terrible gender segregation, it was nothing compared to the inhuman misery the Taliban forced upon women. That they try to minimize it to make the mujahideen look bad is minimal. There are major problems with putting all the Muj in power after 2001 (and the authors are right to highlight these problems), but the complaints go way too far.

The author’s complaints of the naked pursuit of interest is also misguided. No country will ever act against its own interests, at least intentionally. I would feel comfortable arguing that it is a strategic mistake to ignore the chaos and misery in Afghanistan, and that it in fact does serve U.S. interests to ensure a just and equitable society. That, however, is not the argument the authors here pursue. Rather, they seem to argue, despite noting that the invasion was not all about Unocal (a welcome, and long overdue argument from this crowd), that the very presence of American troops in the country is, all by itself, evidence of injustice.

This complaint, however, leaves no room for the U.S. to do anything right. Early on, they seem to simultaneously complain the U.S. is providing no security, but then that it is providing too much. When the government uses non-violent means to suppress violence, such as offering incentives and threats for turning over militants and Taliban remnants, they complain of intimidation; when the military resorts to “brutally kicking down doors” (can one kick down a door in a non-brutal manner?) like a police force, it is humiliation and degradation. By this metric, all forms of police action are terrorism, and all forms of law enforcement are intimidation and humiliation. That may well be their point (again, given their political biases, which include calling the International Crisis Group “mainstream” by noting its board members: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Wesley Clark, and George Soros; the ICG is mainstream, but not because of the presence of leftist political activists), but it is an inherently unfair one. In such a framework, it is impossible for the U.S. ever to do anything right.

Later, when rightfully decrying the humiliation, sloppy arrests, torture, and harrassment of villagers—something that is atrocious and shameful, and highlighted by the Don Rumsfeld’s intransigence (“why bother” is his most common answer when asked why he hadn’t asked other countries early on in the occupation for help in securing the country)—the objection seems to flow from Operation Enduring Freedom’s raison d’être, rather than any of its specific actions. The end result is transforming what should have been a substantive and devastating critique of U.S. policy into a run of the mill, shallow polemic that serves no one save the author’s own vanity and sense of outrage.

A running, unanswered question through the book is, “what is the alternative?” So the U.S. is both too zealous and too passive in calming the countryside; what else should it do? It provides too much, but also too little security; what else should it do? This is the danger of letting the imperative of polemic overwhelm rigor: both tedium and emptiness. No one wants to read or hear a prolonged scream, and far too many sections of Bleeding Afghanistan are written as just that.

Sometimes, the authors’ anger boils over to outright deception, and this deception again plays into various streams of Taliban propaganda. The charge that the U.S. supported and funded the Taliban is laughable, and I’ll pay it no more heed than noting the hypocrisy of bitching about sloppy reporting in the media while broadcasting unsubstantiated rumors as conspiratorial fact. Similarly, the accusation that Abdul Haq was betrayed by the CIA because he might unite Pashtuns against the Taliban is nothing more than the standard conspiratorial rumor one finds all over Afghanistan, and has no relationship to reality. These and other conspiracies are repeated by the apparently gullible Kolhatkar and Ingalls. For a couple of self-proclaimed Afghanistan experts, who cover their book with praise blurbs from other well-known Afghanistan experts like Eve Ensler and Rahul Mahajan, such errors (and more egregiously, their inability to properly timeline the British Empire’s history of meddling—lacking references to standard references like The Great Game or Tournament of Shadows) are unforgivable.

There are other issues with the book—hypocrisy over hating Zalmay Khalilzad but not Benazir Bhutto; hating the warlords for their private armies and large power bases, but also hating Hamid Karzai for having no private army or large power base; practically worshiping Malalai Joya while not noting the impact their own preening worship of an outspoken Afghan woman has had on her own sense of self—but they are just too tiresome to examine in detail. Bleeding Afghanistan is a deeply troubled book stemming from a noble intention: to get people to wake up to the horrific conditions within Afghanistan. It is a point that needs repeating, but Kolhatkar and Ingalls let their passion for the topic overwhelm their good sense and rigor.

One last bit: there is a terrible danger in people discussing geostrategy when they have lots of passion but not much knowledge. The last section of this book is devoted to analyzing the long-term strategy of the U.S. in the region. Because it would take far too long to dissect it in detail, I’ll simply say that accusing the U.S. of trying to muscle its way into Central Asia through the invasion of Afghanistan is laughable, as is thinking the invasion was an attempt to turn NATO into an arm of American power. And the bit about building pipelines? Truly LOL-worthy.

The epilogue begins with this line: “We hope this book has convinced you that the U.S. government has always acted in its own self-interest in Afghanistan.” Umm. When did it not, ever, anywhere? What kind of a government would not act in its own self-interest? How else should a democratically elected government behave? Noting that this self-interest has been poorly conceived and improperly defended is fair game, and quite necessary. But that line highlights the fundamental, fatal conceit in this book. It could have been devastating. Instead it falls flat, just more noise in the hate machine. Too bad.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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