‘The Afghan Government Is as Corrupt as Governments Come’ – CounterSpin interview with Phyllis Bennis on Ending the Afghan War

Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about the possibility of ending the Afghan War for the February 15, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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MP3 Link

NYT: Fearing What Could Follow a Quick Exit

New York Times (1/29/19)

Janine Jackson: Some jokes write themselves. When we learned negotiations on Afghanistan suggested the possibility of an end to the grueling 17-year war, the longest in US history, the New York Times ran a piece headlined, “Fearing What Could Follow a Quick Exit.”

The US invasion and occupation have devastated the country and killed more than 100,000 people. But consider, cautions the Washington Post:An end to the Afghan war is desirable, but not at the expense of everything the United States has helped to build there since 2001.”

What and who is missing from such conversations around the current talks about Afghanistan, and from the talks themselves? Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is author of numerous books, including Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer, co-authored with David Wildman. She joins us now in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.

JJ: Things are in flux; things are changing, absolutely. We’re recording on February 13. What do we know about the nature of these ongoing negotiations?

PB: I would say, first of all, it’s always important for there to be negotiations. Wars end with negotiated settlements, before, during or after massive killing. So having those talks after such a long time is a good thing.

It’s a good thing that the US has finally acknowledged that the Taliban exist. They in fact control, depending on who you believe, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the country’s territory. So they’re obviously a force that has to be reckoned with, and has to be part of the negotiations. That’s all good.

If we look at who’s not at the table, then it’s a little more problematic. The Afghan government is not at the table. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The Afghan government is as corrupt as governments come.

The Taliban has refused to talk to the Afghan government on the theory that they are nothing but puppets of the United States, which is mostly true, probably not entirely true. But they certainly are not an independent actor.

More importantly, however, who’s not at the table includes women, crucially, particularly because the US claim is that the war in Afghanistan is grounded in the need to “protect women.” We hear this in the mainstream press all the time.

We also are not hearing from Afghan trade unions, Afghan farmers, Afghan tribal or religious leaders; we’re not hearing from youth leaders. We’re basically not hearing from any of the Afghan people. So that’s a serious problem.

In some ways, a greater problem is who is at the table. So talks between the US and the Taliban—not a bad thing. But on the US side, who’s leading those talks? Well, it’s a guy named Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s a longtime cohort of the Bush family, a longtime oil guy. He worked for Unocal in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was one of these analysts assessing the “threats” they would face in different parts of the world.

And one of the things that he’s most known for—it was written up in the Washington Post, back in the mid-’90s—about an incident that had happened in 1995, I think it was, when Zalmay Khalilzad went to Afghanistan and brought back with him—this is during the Afghan civil war, when the Taliban was fighting against a coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance; the Northern Alliance, of course, backed by India at the time against the Taliban, which was backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. In that period, he came back to the US, back to Houston, with a delegation of the Taliban to negotiate pipeline deals.

Zalmay Khalilzad (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Zalmay Khalilzad (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

And it was one of those things where it was described with a certain tongue-in-cheek approach in the Post. They described this lavish dinner at some fancy hotel in Houston, and nobody mentioned anything about how the Taliban, even then, was known for its most extreme forms of repression against women; these really medieval kinds of punishments in their courts, that involved amputation for theft, things like that; the destruction of parts of Afghan cultural heritage. None of that was mentioned.

It was all just sort of, “We think these guys are going to win the war, so we should be dealing with them now.” That was under George Bush I. Under George Bush II, Khalilzad became the ambassador, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. He was later the ambassador to the United Nations.

So he’s been around. He’s a neocon, an oil guy, a Bush guy. And now, all of a sudden, he’s Trump’s guy. So Trump has now appointed him as the special envoy to Afghanistan.

Now, in some ways, that’s kind of great. He speaks several of the local languages. He is a brilliant, urbane and charming diplomat. I remember when he came to the United Nations. Nobody in the mainstream press talked about this, but one of the things that happened was that he was replacing John Bolton, who Bush II had tried and failed to get approved by the Senate as the US ambassador to the UN. Everybody hated Bolton. Nobody wanted to help the US, because Bolton was such a bully.

When he was finally replaced with this charming guy who everybody adored—he was an Afghan, a person of color at the UN representing the US. Wow! It was a whole different story. People could not wait to get him on their side, to have tea with him. He would look into your eyes when he spoke, such a good diplomat, right, representing these terrible positions.

So I remember that very well, and now he’s the one representing the US in talks with his former clients, the Taliban. So what are we supposed to make of that?

JJ: And who’s going to help us make sense of that? Well, it’s going to be, for example, the New York Times, who are saying the primary concern is if the United States troops leave Afghanistan, we’d be “handing over the country to the same ruthless militants that the United States went to war to dislodge.” And they’re talking about the Taliban, and that’s their explanation for the purpose of the war, and it’s in that context that they’re going to talk about the agreement.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis: “How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?”

PB: It is sort of extraordinary. There’s a sense in the mainstream press—you see it in the Times, you see it in the Post, you hear it on NPR, you see it on all the network news, you hear it on CNN, you hear it pretty much everywhere—that we maybe should get out relatively soon, but not too fast.

And I’m thinking, “Okay, almost 18 years. How long do we have to occupy the country before we can say it’s not too fast?” I mean, what makes it fast, when we’ve been there for 18 years?

And we should note: You remember, Janine, how much of the press back in 2001, when the US first invaded Afghanistan, and right up until today: A huge amount of the press coverage has focused on the question of women. Now, with some legitimacy; there is no question that the Taliban is one of the most ruthless, misogynistic political forces out there. And the prospect of them holding 50 percent, let alone even more, is a terrible one for the women of Afghanistan.

But what we never hear is, “Well, how different is it?” How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?

It is true that in Kabul, there have been some significant gains for urban women. Schools have been built. There are women in the parliament. There are women in some of the professions. But overwhelmingly, 80 percent of Afghans do not live in the city. They live in tiny rural villages, very far removed from anything that happens in Kabul. And we don’t hear about that in the Times or the Post or NPR or anywhere else.

What we hear about is what’s going to happen to women in Kabul. And that could be bad. It could get worse when the US pulls out.

But I would just note two things about that. No. 1, a statistic: When the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban had been in control for about five years. The conditions for women were horrifying. According to the UN, to all the various figures from UNICEF and others, Afghanistan was either the first or second worst place in the world for children to be born and survive.

Today, after 18 years of US occupation supposedly aimed at improving the lives of women, where is Afghanistan on the ratings? Number one in infant mortality, the same place, it has not improved. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2: There was an extraordinary young woman who was the youngest person elected to the Afghan Parliament back in 2004, I guess it was, or ’05, a woman named Malalai Joya. And she said something very interesting about this—again, something you never heard about. She said, when I was having a conversation with her—she was in the US for a while—and I asked her about this question of, “Would it be worse for women, and for civil society in Afghanistan, if and when the US pulls out?”

And she said, “You know, we in civil society, and we women in Afghanistan, we have three big problems, three enemies of our rights. One is the Taliban; they are certainly an enemy of our rights. Two is the Afghan government, certainly an enemy of our rights. And third is the US occupying forces, who are continuing the war, and are certainly responsible for the denial of rights of all of us.” So, she said, “If you in the US can arrange the withdrawal of one of those, get the US troops out, we’ll only have two.” I thought that was a very prescient understanding of the situation.

JJ: Eighteen years doesn’t even really contain the whole breadth of it, because before that, of course, there were years and years of US-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

PB: Absolutely.

JJ: Some of us remember Dan Rather in a cave, you know, reporting…. And so I was struck by the New York Timesanalysis that US withdrawal “could consign Afghanistan to a protracted, bloody civil war.”

PB: What have we been waging for the last 17 and a half years, if not the second or third iteration of a protracted, bloody civil war?

JJ: Let me ask you, on Afghanistan, if we think, not in an isolationist way, but if we center the priorities of the Afghan people, what criteria would we be using to judge any agreement?

PB: I think, first, the question of who’s at the table, which goes to whose interests are being at least acknowledged, if not recognized. Two, is there any discussion anywhere—there has not been yet—of the need for reparations, compensation for the extraordinary devastation that our years of war have brought to the people of Afghanistan.

Certainly plenty of damage has been done by the Taliban. Plenty has been done by other warlords. Plenty has been done by the Afghan government.

But what the US is directly responsible for, because of the continuing drone war, airstrikes, so much death and destruction…. The notion that we could be convening peace talks and not even acknowledge that, not even begin the conversation about, “How do we begin to help rebuild?”

That’s, to me, one of the indicators that I don’t think we’re going to be hearing too much about in the mainstream press.

JJ: And that, given that our US mainstream press are writing largely for Americans, ought to really be leading the conversation.

Well, while we have you here, Phyllis Bennis, you wrote the book, Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, now in its seventh updated edition, and helped found the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. I have to ask you what you are making of the reaction to the comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar about the influence of AIPAC on US policy.

Ilhan Omar: It's all about the Benjamins baby

Twitter (2/10/19)

PB: This was an extraordinary moment. What Ilhan said was that money is the basis for the power of pro-Israel sentiment and pro-Israel resolutions and decisions in the Congress. That’s hardly news. That’s not something that’s so surprising to anybody.

When she was asked, derisively, she took it as a serious question, on the question, “Who do you think is responsible?” Her answer was “AIPAC!” Not exactly news, again, if we’re talking about “breaking news.”

AIPAC takes money to influence Congress. Really? Why is this surprising?

First of all, this is what lobbies do. AIPAC is hardly the only lobby that does it. The NRA does it, very powerfully. The arms manufacturers, they pour billions of dollars over the years into campaigns of various sorts.

AIPAC does it very, very well. They’re very skilled. AIPAC, of course, is not a political action committee. They don’t make donations. What they do is act as bundlers of other small foundations and other agencies that do directly aid Congress and Senate campaigns.

JJ: Amplifiers.

PB: Amplifiers—that’s a good word for it. That’s what the press likes to use. That’s true. They are definitely amplifiers.

They also have been known to use money to threaten members of Congress. Not to say, “If you toe the line on Israel, if you vote for all of our agenda items”—which means uncritical support in the United Nations for any Israeli violations of international law; continuing or escalating US military aid to Israel, to the point that it’s now $38 billion that has been pledged over a 10-year period, $3.8 billion a year, direct of our tax money right to the Israeli military—“if you toe the line on all of that, we will give you money.”

That’s not exactly how it works. More often, it’s, “If you don’t toe the line, we will find and we will fund an opponent you may have never even heard of yet, and they will beat you in the next primary.” That’s how they operate. So the notion that AIPAC uses money is hardly news.

Now, the claim is made that, “Oh my God, she said it in a way that is these antisemitic tropes.” Well, I’ve got to say, growing up Jewish, and hearing a lot about antisemitism, I never heard that particular trope, that had anything to do with Puff Daddy’s rap song about—

JJ: The Benjamins.

PB: The Benjamins. You know, when I first saw it, I was thinking, “Benjamin,” because that’s a kind of common Jewish name, “Is that what it’s about?” And then I realized, “Oh my God, no, this is referencing that.”

So this was not actually about the word she used. Somebody said to me on a debate yesterday, or a discussion yesterday, a good discussion, somebody said, “Well, but wouldn’t it have been better if we could go back in time and just ask Congresswoman Omar to just say it a different way, and we wouldn’t all have to be dealing with this?”

And my answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” This was not a response to those particular words. This was a response to two things. No. 1, it was somebody calling out AIPAC, in the context of calling out US congressional refusal to recognize Palestinian rights. That was No. 1.

Kevin McCarthy: We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election!

Twitter (10/23/18)

No. 2, even more importantly, was that the person calling out AIPAC is a young, black African Muslim refugee. And in the eyes of people like Kevin McCarthy, people like that are just not supposed to be in Congress. That’s what this was about. So you have somebody like McCarthy, who was himself known for these really antisemitic tweets that identified individual Jews, wealthy billionaire Jews, as trying to buy elections.

Really? That’s your claim here? You know, he could say that and not be held accountable at all.

JJ: But it does have to do, just finally, with who media decide is legitimately in the conversation, whose words need sifting, who we can look to as sources of presumed bias, and who, on the other hand, gets to be presented just as a legitimate source.

And so it does connect us to the conversation about Afghanistan, and it does connect us to the conversation about Venezuela and Syria. It has a lot to do with who media think are legitimate participants in the conversation.

PB: I think that’s absolutely right. But the good news is that the discourse, particularly on the question of Palestine, is changing massively. So the fact is that when Ilhan Omar said AIPAC is responsible, it wasn’t really news. If she hadn’t gotten the pushback and the attacks that she did, it would have passed right by. Because this is now understood.

The discourse in the Jewish community is different. The discourse in the media is different. The media have not yet caught up with the public discourse. And the policy, of course, is not close to catching up to the media. But all of them are in flux, all of them are changing, and it’s because of our movements.

It’s because of the news outlets of our movements, and it’s because of our movements overall. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, that I’m very honored to be on the steering committee of, it’s like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, it’s like Palestine Legal, it’s like Black for Palestine. All of these organizations that have been working for years to change the discourse, we’re now seeing that work bearing fruit. And that’s hugely important.

JJ: I’m going to end on that note. We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies; they’re online at ips-dc.org. And you can find her recent article, “Is the Longest US War Finally Ending?,” on Truthout.org. Phyllis Bennis, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PB: Great to be with you here in your office.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.