Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit solidarity organisation that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, travelled to Afghanistan in February 2005 to witness first-hand the consequences of US policies in Afghanistan.
She has just published her first book with AWM Co-Director James Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.
As part of our week-long series examining the situation in Afghanistan five years after the American invasion, Sonali -- who is also the host and producer of KPFK Pacifica's popular morning drive time program Uprising, in Los Angeles, California -- was a guest on the Rediff Chat, where she shared her experiences and views on the war-ravaged nation.
For those of you who missed it, here is the transcript.
Sonali Kolhatkar says, I'm here - about to answer questions
Nilesh asked, Hey Sonali, its being speculated about the revival of Taliban in Afgan politics or NATO fearing that Afgans may switch allegiance to the Taliban. How do you view such a secnario? Will including Taliban in mainstream politics help in lowering voilence in Southern Afganistan?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Polls have shown that about 70% of Afghans are waiting to see which side to pick - the US/NATO forces or the Taliban. Since the beginning of this summer, Afghans have already begun switching over allegiance to the Taliban because they are fedup of the brutal tactics of the US and NATO. It's a matter of who will help them survive. They don't like the Taliban or the US/NATO and will side with whoever may assure them of safety and actually deliver. The 70% poll number is dramatic because it suggests that the US and NATO are being viewed as the new warlords, on the same scale as the Taliban and Northern Alliance.
sameermohindru asked, In how large a part of Afghanistan is Taliban the defacto ruler
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, It's hard to say because there is so little media in Afghanistan to report such things. But the European think tank, the Senlis Council, recently put out a detailed report on Afghanistan based on months of on-the-ground research. According to them the Taliban control the southern half of the country. They have published maps as well. More at www.senliscouncil.net. That's the worst case scenario I have seen. Other estimates say that the Taliban controls perhaps half a dozen provinces in the south.
Amit asked, yeah sonali it is possible that taliban can come to existence...once US leaves Afghanistan? What are your views on it?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, The Taliban are itching to return to Afghanistan. If the US and NATO are present, the Taliban have to fight to stay in power and have a powerful reason to recruit more foot soldiers among the public. But if the US/NATO leave, the Taliban will simply take over - like they did from 1996-2001, when the international community was not paying attention. Some have cited Pakistan and Iran as supporting the current formation of the Taliban. Each of these countries have their own reason to sponsor the Taliban.
divya_punj asked, historically afghanistan has never had a govt and anyone who tried to rule them has failed. do you think an indian form of democracy where the tribes can be considered as states in india and all those tribes come togeather to form the nation type of govt can be successful i.e. fedral form
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, That's not true. If you study Afghanistan's history, there have been various government formations, although none have truly been democratic. Under the King, Zahir Shah, Afghanistan made much progress, although it was less than ideal. The presidential elections of 2004 proved that Afghans are desperately eager for democracy and elections. They knew that the US had essentially set up the elections a month before Bush's own reelection for propaganda purposes. Still, 75% of the voting population showed up to vote. Afghans are desperate to have a say in their own country. The real problem has been constant foreign intereference, whether British, Soviet, US, Pakistani, Iranian, or Saudi, in the affairs of their country. Afghans have never been allowed to practice true democracy. But they say, if it's good enough for others, it's good enough for them.
GB asked, are there any chances that Afganistan might go into a state of civil war beacuse of this existing situation?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Yes, unfortunately the risk of this is great. But it helps to understand who the two sides are: The Northern Alliance, in the north of the country, are fundamentalists created by the US and its allies. The Taliban are fundamentalists whose creation was tolerated by the US and overseen by the US's ally, Pakistan. In effect, both sides are proxy soldiers of foreign countries and ordinary Afghans are caught in between. Ordinary Afghans want immediate disarmament but the international community has not come through.
taliban asked, Some people say that the Taliban were better, because at least there was some semblance of law at the time, however harsh it it might have been...what do you think?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, The Taliban did bring a form of peace to Afghanistan - the peace of the prison. People were killed in fewer numbers but they were trapped in their homes. That sort of existence is barely better than real life. The Taliban is reviled by most Afghans.
afghan asked, Sonali, what exactly do you think the US has achieved so far by attacking afghanistan?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, The US preserved it's "imperial prestige" after 9/11, paved the way to Iraq, and practiced it's concepts of "regime change." In short, mostly what the US has achieved in Afghanistan is in its own interests.
ramananda asked, Has the condition of women in Afghanistan improved since the rout of the Taliban, or are they still victims of intolerance and and rigid religious laws?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, The condition of women has improved on paper. They are now considered equal to men in the new Constitution (something not even the American constitution says). But in practical terms, little has changed, especially outside the capital, Kabul. Most women live in fear. In Herat women have been burning themselves to death. Domestic and sexual violence against women has sky rocketed. Dozens of girls schools have been burned down. Women in government have been threatened and killed. Aside from the Taliban, the US-backed Northern Alliance, who are idealogically similar to the Taliban, are back in power and instituting their misogynist laws and ideas. Last year a woman was stoned to death in a province. On top of all of that, there is grinding poverty leading to an average life span of about 45 years for women, a 4-10% literacy rate, among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and the higest infant mortality rates in the world.
afghan asked, Hello ma'am, how much of a role does religion really play in Afghanistan? Could it be that some women actually believe in the strict Islamic code that enslaves them?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, As in any country, there are religious fanatics in Afghanistan. But the problem was that in the late 1970s, the US propelled the most fanatic and misogynist elements in Afghanistan (who were quite marginalized at that time) into power with weapons, money and training to fight the Soviets. Since then Afghanistan has been at the mercy of these armed forces. I don't think it's as much religion itself, as it is religion as a political tool in the hands of fanatics empowered by foreign countries. I'm sure you can find some women who believe in strict Sharia law, just as you can find some women in the US who believe women should be at home, barefoot and pregnant and not in the workplace. But that does not reflect the majority opinion. At least, that's what I experienced when I visited Afghanistan and interviewed people.
artanupam asked, hi sonali , now what role can india play in the present state of Afghanistan, what an average Afghani think about the Indians
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, For the most part I think Afghans like India and Indians. I was struck last year by how influential Bollywood is in Afghanistan. Every taxi driver listen to Hindi songs and posters of Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan are all over Kabul. There is also a big hospital, Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, operated by the Indian government. But in the past India has made the mistake of supporting the Northern Alliance because they were seen as an anti-Pakistan and anti-Pashtun group. But the NA are as misogynist and fanatical as the Taliban. They do not represent the Afghan people and are a power hungry, corrupt lot who have their "hands stained with the blood of the Afghan people" (this was a common refrain). So India and Indians should support civil society groups in Afghanistan who reject both religious fundamentalism and foreign imperialism. Such groups include the incredible women's group, RAWA (www.rawa.org).
afghan asked, Right now, the afghan parliament is run by warlords, who have no allegiance but to themselves...how do you expect them to run them country?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, That's a very good point. The warlords should never have been allowed to run for parliament - they were technically supposed to be disqualified because of their private militias. But now that they are back in power, the government is headed for disaster. In 2005 a survery done by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that the majority of Afghans consider themselves victims of war crimes. They support a war crimes tribunal to prosecute these men. The international community should help an Afghan-led effort to try these men for war crimes and purge them from the Parliament. The US is responsible for allowing them to come back into power. The US should support or finance (but not control) such an Afghan-led effort.
balaji asked, What is the goal of your organization? Who is funding you?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, You can find out more about our organization at www.afghanwomensmission.org. Our goal is to support a women's organization in Afghanistan called RAWA - Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. They are the oldest, political women's group in Afghanistan. The reason we support them is because they are against religious fundamentalism AND foreign imperialism. They are non-sectarian and simply want a secular democracy in Afghanistan which respects human rights. Our funding comes from ordinary people, mostly Americans as we are based in the US. We get no funding from governments or big foundations. In fact, our donations have drastically dropped because of a lack of media coverage and an American misperception that the war was successful.
Krish asked, Is the Taliban truly reviled by most Afghans? who are the people supporting it now?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, That's a good question. The Taliban were intiially welcomed into Afghanistan in 1996 by war-weary Afghans who were promised an end to the chaos and violence of the US-backed jihadis. Afghans were so desperate for peace, they accepted the word of anyone who promised it to them. Once they realized how oppressive the Taliban was, they changed their mind. Today, it's a similar situation. The US/NATO and the Northern Alliance warlords are so violent that Afghans will accept any alternative. It's a matter of choosing the least of all evils. The tragedy is that Afghans have never been given too many options. As I said earlier, polls show that about 70% of Afghans are undecided about who to back - the Taliban or US/NATO and are awaiting the outcome of the battle before they decide which side to pick. But more and more ordinary Afghans are turning to the Taliban to escape the brutality of the US/NATO.
Durandline asked, ms sonali, what do you think of the cold war between karzai and musharraf?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, This is a good point. I think what most people are missing in the hostilities between Musharraf and Karzai is the US. Bush is acting like an "honest broker" between the two. But in fact, Karzai and Musharraf both answer to Bush - although Musharraf is more independent. In reality, the US is pulling their strings.
praveen1980 asked, Sonali what will drive afghan economy once normalcy and self rule if at it comes?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Afghanistan has always been a poor country. But the ravages of war have really destroyed any existing economy. There was a time when one of the biggest export industries in Afghanistan was raisins. There used to be immense sandal wood forests but they were all lost, destroyed before they could regrow, to be sold for weapons by the fundamentalists. There was a time when tourism was gaining strenght but the wars have erased that also. The Taliban destroyed one of Afghanistan's greatest tourist attraction - the giant Bamiyan buddha statues. The country has very few natural resources but sits in an area surrounded by some of the biggest oil and natural gas deposits in the world. It's possible that the central Afghan government could benefit economically from the royalties of pipelines to China and Pakistan. But of course this puts them at the mercy of the multinational corporations, and some have speculated that this drove the reason for US involvement (I think it's more complex though). The informal drug economy which overpowers everything else also must be addressed before Afghanistan's formal economy can revive. This must be done in the form of real alternatives for poor farmers and prosecution of drug lords.
awasthi asked, Sonali it is believed that 2/3 of the Afghan economy is dependent on Poppy cultivation. Though after US invasion, efforts were made but no impact is comming on reduction in cultivation. Why not its possible to regularise like in India or elsewhere, where Govt will get revenue and people will get employment
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, In fact after the US invasion, poppy production has skyrocketed. This is because the US worked with members of the Northern Alliance, many of who are drug lords. The US soldiers in the south of the country turned a blind eye to poppy production because they felt it was more important to "hunt down" Taliban and Al Qaeda than address poppy production. It is possible to legalize the production of poppies and indeed some have suggested this could help poor farmers and provide revenue for hte government. Unfortunately the US and NATO governments are not interested, and the central Afghan government is not powerful enough at this time. But this is a crucial element of this situation.
vimal asked, u there sonali or left the chat ? let me ask y question again : do u really think taliban can do something in isolation.. without any external support ? Whatis US doing to identify the link to tackle the situatiotn
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Probably not. The Taliban has to get its weapons from somewhere. In fact, if the US was interested in addressing the Taliban problem in the late 1990s, it could have simply pressured it allies - the three countries who recognized the Taliban as the legitmate rulers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE - into stopping their support for the Taliban. It's possible this would have even prevented the 9/11 tragedy, and nullified the need for war. Today US actions are only increasing the Taliban's legitimacy among ordinary Afghans. You can see a clear correlation between increasing US troop numbers and increasing violence from the Taliban including suicide attacks.
Indiann asked, Why is the people of US not oppposing US policy of dominating the whole world economically and militarilty?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Good question. Sigh... I wish I had the answer to this. It is the reason why I work on the issue of Afghanistan. My day-job is as a radio host in Los Angeles and I constantly cover all the various destructive aspects of US military and economic domination of the world. But most ordinary Americans seem to be more interested in shppoing or watching TV. As long as it doesn't affect them directly, they don't care. And when it does affect them directly, like on 9/11, they simply want revenge, not an explanation or an introspection of our policies. The peace movements in the US are weak and fractured. There are efforts but they are not strong enough. One of the problems is the terrible state of the mainstream media which rarely exposes Americans to the truth.
Pramod asked, Why SuperPower like US cannot catch the Most wanted criminal for five years? Is Afghanisthan so engimatic or not accessible for Countries like US too?.
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Yes - good question. I wish I knew the answer to that. Perhaps it is that the US was never really interested in actually fighting terrorism, but rather just showing that it is fighting terrorism. A real fight against terrorism would have to include a good long look at our own policies that generate terrorism.
inder asked, Why do they love India and hate Pakistan inspite of the common religion they share with Pakistan?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Most Afghans view the Pakistani government with suspicion because of the long efforts to destabilize the country. But you have to go back in history to understand why the Pakistani government does what it does. The British drew the borders of Afghanistan and the Durand Line cut across the Pashtun population, leaving half in Pakistan and half in Afghanistan. Ever since then, Pakistan has been afraid of nationalist efforts to create a "Pashtunistan" and have tried to control the central government through the some aspects of the Mujahadeen and then through the Taliban. Afghans love Pakistani people (there are still hundreds of thousands of Afghans in Pakistani refugee camps), but distrust the Pakistani government.
ramananda asked, Sonali...talking about suicide attacks..we didn't have much of that earlier, even during the Soviet occupation...what has changed to make this the new fad?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, Before December 2005 suicide attacks were a rare phenomenon in Afghanistan. But now the attacks have increased to epidemic levels, especially in the south. I don't really know the answer to this, except that it could be a result of the Al Qaeda influence. Also, suicide bombings may been seen as strategically more effective than non-violent resistance. It's a huge pity because more Afghsns are killed than anybody else. It is a sign of the times and a very ominous sign for Afghanistan.
afghan asked, Sonali, as an Afghan, all I want is to be able to live peacefully in my own country..what does it take for the rest of the world to understand that?
Sonali Kolhatkar answers, I wish I knew the answer to that. Throughout the history of Afghanistan, it has been a seen as a battleground because of its geopolitical position in the world. But ordinary Afghans have suffered so much for so long. The international community, especially ordinary peoples of the world must support efforts of ordinary Afghans to rebuild their country and get our governments off their backs. Again, I'll recommend www.rawa.org as a great way to do solidarity work and support such efforts. This is the last question I can answer - as it's 10 am here and I have to leave. Thanks all for your interest and great questions!
Sonali Kolhatkar says, Thanks everyone for your great questions! Bye bye.
Earlier in this series: