In the past couple of weeks, thanks to the president’s racist comments about Haiti and African countries he can’t even name — remember “Nambia”? — as well as the stamp of approval he awarded future immigrants from Norway, we’ve seen a surprising amount of commentary about that fortunate country. Let me just say: those Norwegians he’s so eager to invite over are my ancestral people and, thanks to years I’ve spent in that country, my friends. Donald Trump should understand one thing: if he and his Republican backers really knew the truth about life in Norway, they would be clamoring to build a second “big, fat, beautiful” wall, this time right along our Eastern seaboard.
One thing is incontestable: a mass of Norwegian immigrants (however improbable the thought) would pose a genuine threat to Donald Trump’s America. They would bring to our shores their progressive values, advanced ideas, and illustrious model of social democratic governance — and this country would never be the same!
It’s hard even to begin to imagine what a Norwegian-ization of the United States might mean. But just for a moment, try to picture how strange our country would be. After all, based on life in Norway, you would have to assume that our beloved land would lose many of its twenty-first-century landmarks. Gone would be its precious ghettos and slums, its boarded-up schools, hospitals, and libraries in the heartland, not to speak of its heirloom infrastructure: collapsing bridges, antique trains, clogged roads, and toxic drinking water.
To grasp what’s at stake, consider how such immigrants would have reacted to the Republican tax “reform” bill, praised by the president as “the greatest achievement” of his first year in office (which, by his own account, is the greatest year in American history). That bill, filled with miscellaneous handouts meant to ensure the votes of individual Republican legislators, guarantees that the super rich and their mega-corporations will get richer still in perpetuity. It is, in its own way, a glorious hymn to future heights of economic inequality (in a country already ranked the most unequal in the developed world), as it cleverly passes on to the children of the un-rich classes a national deficit inflated by an extra $1.5 trillion.
It is, of course, the nature of any tax plan to redistribute the wealth of a nation in some fashion, even though Republicans use the word “redistribution” only to assail Democrats who occasionally suggest a little something to help the poor. But redistribute those Republicans did in a masterful way, surrendering yet more of our national wealth to the tiny team of people (many of whom also happen to be their donors) who already pocket almost all of it. As the Republicans were writing the tax bill, the top 20% of households were already taking home 90% of the American pie. Now, they will get more.
That’s exactly the kind of “achievement” that no Norwegian parliament would ever approve. All nine parties now in that country’s parliament, from left to right, would have joined in tearing up that Republican tax bill and replacing it with a much simpler one aimed at redistributing the nation’s wealth equitably to every last one of its citizens.
As a start, they would have tossed in the trash can the single most basic project of Trump and the Republicans: making the rich richer. Norwegians have long worked to do just the reverse, based on a well-established conviction that inequality creates elites that corrupt and destroy democracy. That’s where politics come in: devising multiple systems to regulate a capitalist economy and safeguard democracy.
For example, two national confederations, of trade unions on the one hand and corporate enterprises on the other, annually negotiate wages and working conditions, while minimizing the difference between high-paying and lower-wage jobs, between CEOs and workers. As a result, Norway’s income equality is near the top of any international list. America’s, not so. On average in 2014, for instance, American CEOs grabbed 354 times the salary of their workers. For many corporate chiefs that figure hit well over 1,000 times the salary of a median employee, while in Norway for every dollar the worker earned, the average Norwegian CEO took home 58 bucks.
Equitable paychecks may slow down the creation of Norwegian billionaires, but the country’s overall standard of living is among the world’s highest. The U.S. ranks much lower on international evaluations, although with its immense and still rapidly growing gap between the plutocrats and the rest of us, it’s hard to calculate a meaningful “standard.”
While those new Norwegian immigrants were at it, they would quickly move to simplify our tax system. That, of course, is exactly what Trump and the Republicans promised — you remember that “postcard” you were going to mail to the IRS — even as they made everything yet more complicated. In Norway, the government not only simplifies the tax system, but figures out, on a progressive scale, what every taxpayer owes and then sends out the bills.
Those dangerous Norwegians are peculiar enough to be grateful. They gladly pay up because taxes fund the country’s universal public welfare system, which guarantees that strikingly high standard of living to a whole society. (That phrase “whole society,” by the way, is the meaning of the word “social” in the phrase “social democracy.”) Keep in mind that all Norwegians have the right to universal public health care, universal public education through professional schools or university and beyond, care of the elderly and disabled, paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, subsidized early childhood education (from age 1), affordable housing, state of the art public transport, and a raft of other services that take the worry out of daily life. The catch is — and I can already hear the thundering footsteps of the Republican herd as it heads in panic for its top secret bunker — if Norwegians can’t trust the government, they kick it out and elect another.
We Americans, on the other hand, have been taught not to trust any government, but rather to admire our brilliant super-rich people who own this one, and so to let them pocket our tax money and think none the less of them for their dependence on Republican handouts like that tax bill. Consider the situation this way: Norwegian governments spoil their citizens, while President Trump and the Republicans despoil us ordinary Americans. And that just goes to show how much they trust us to take care of ourselves — so much so that they’re now planning to slash Medicaid and Medicare, leaving us “free” to set forth into sickness and death on our own. And if that isn’t the good old American spirit of free enterprise, what is?
Striking “Oil” With Fair Wages for Women
To explain how Norway pays for all those social programs, almost every American commentator, even when theoretically sympathetic to the Norwegians, points to the income from the country’s North Sea oil fields, discovered and developed in the 1970s. On that, however, they are mistaken.
Norway’s welfare state programs are supported not by oil revenues but by taxing the citizenry. (While some of those citizen taxpayers are paid for working, directly or indirectly, in the oil business, as of 2016 they made up only 7% of the Norwegian workforce.) So to understand how Norway can afford to pay for the genuine well-being of its people in such an impressive way, you need to look at those tax rolls, which very nearly doubled in the 1970s when women walked into the workplace (and politics) in a major way — and at wages close to matching those of men. In 2016, the Ministry of Finance calculated that the labor of women added to the net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” created by that North Sea oil and held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth in 2017 more than one trillion dollars.
It’s pretty scary to think of hordes of immigrants from such a country landing on our shores, considering the radical reality I’ve just described, the startling idea that you could upgrade an economy in a wholesale way just by requiring fair wages for women. Not to mention that with the taxes those women pay, you could fully fund free universal child care, the lack of which drives American women from the workplace back home, where Republicans think they belong. In the U.S., none of our good old boy leaders would dream of enacting programs so… well, unpatriarchal. Or how about another idea I’ve heard from many Norwegians: that gender equality is the key to the good life?
But about that North Sea oil money: it, too, represents a kind of thinking utterly alien to this country. Oil is something we Americans believe we understand. Spill it in Alaska, spill it in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, drill for it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (thanks to the need to secure Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote for that tax “reform” bill), as well as up and down the coasts of the country (except for Florida, the home of Trump’s favorite golf club). We don’t mind what you do with it as long as you keep down the costs of propelling our outsized vehicles over our outdated highways.
Norway, on the other hand, owns 67% of the shares in Statoil, the Norwegian oil company that controls those North Sea wells, even as it leads the world’s changeover to electric vehicles. It’s a country with a remarkable record of developing and adopting new technologies while phasing out the old, so its workforce is always employed. By law, the government spends no more (and usually less) than 4% of its yearly oil profits on current expenses. The other 96% or more, it pours into that trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund. That, in turn, has been set aside for the future, for the country’s children and their children, although some Norwegians, famous for their worldwide humanitarian and peacemaking activities, now propose to give much of it away to other lands that may need it far more.
Here’s a question for future American administrations: Could they apply for some of that Norwegian money to build an East Coast wall against Norwegian immigrants or maybe to help our kids pay off that estimated $1.5 trillion in debt Trump and the Republicans just handed them in the new tax bill? Could we take advantage of those radical Norwegians without even letting them into our country? I’ll bet Trump could finagle that.
Selling F-52s to Norway
It’s likely that Norway came to Trump’s mind in that meeting with Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham (among others) as some idyllic source for future white Republicans only because, the day before, he had met with its substantial and very white prime minister, Erna Solberg. (Surprised observers of the meeting tweeted that Solberg speaks better English than the American president — as most Norwegians do.) “Erna,” as Norwegians — for whom everyone is equal and on a first-name basis — call her, is the leader of the Conservative party. She heads a coalition government in which the top three positions are held by women. That in itself might have caused Trump to keep his hands in his pockets, but apparently he wasn’t told. It’s likely he mistook “Conservative” for “Republican,” but as a matter of fact, all nine of Norway’s political parties now in parliament are well to the left not just of the Republicans but of the Democrats and, yes, even that independent “democratic socialist” from Vermont.
At the moment, only one Norwegian cabinet member, Silvi Listhaug of the right-wing Progress Party, might be considered sufficiently neoliberal, uber-Christian, and mean to fit into Trump’s regime. Perhaps that’s because her early training included a 2005 internship in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
In Norwegian terms, Erna often tilts dangerously to the right under the pressure of U.S. and British neoliberal economic theorists. It has to be hard for the leader of a small country — five million people, half the population of Haiti — to resist pressure to conform to the autocratic example of a nation that styles itself the most exceptional on Earth. Erna herself is a polite, circumspect politician who, on returning from her visit to the White House, assured reporters in Oslo that President Trump was “a normal man” with “a sense of humor.” Apparently she didn’t mention Trump’s self-proclaimed political acumen, intellectual brilliance, or awesome “America First” foreign policy. Norwegians reading their morning papers could, however, fill in the blanks.
At a joint press conference with Erna, Trump proudly announced that, last November, the U.S. had delivered the first F-52 and F-35 fighter jets to Norway, part of a $10 billion order of American military equipment. Norwegians are, in fact, stubbornly averse to war and think of their reluctant acquisition of way too many over-priced, overdue, bug-plagued F-35s as a surcharge on NATO membership. But F-52s?
That thoroughly fictional plane, as it turns out, exists only in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. (Do you suppose Trump spends his executive time playing commander-in-chief?) Norwegians are having a good laugh, while their commentators are saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Trump’s immigration invitation. If they really mean it, then perhaps we can relax and forget about that wall along the Eastern seaboard.
On the other hand, judging by their press, an awful lot of Norwegians are even more appalled and angered than we are by Trump’s racist slurs about “shithole countries.” What’s more, just days after returning to Norway, Erna Solberg rolled out her new government, a coalition of three parties, all led by women, and a gender-equal cabinet to run ministries focused not only on defense or finance, but also on climate and the environment, eldercare and public health, research and higher education, family and equality. Erna announced that the platform of this new government would be “greener” and committed to sustaining the welfare state. And this, in Norway, is a center-right government.
You see what I mean about Norwegian ideas being totally at odds with Trump’s America. Still, Trump might play that to his advantage. If he and his Republican supporters in Congress decide to build that East Coast wall after all, they might be able to get the Norwegians to pay for it — not to keep them out, but to keep us in.
The Norwegian Menace
You may have noticed that quite a few of the formerly united states of America have been choosing to go their own way. My own state, Massachusetts, now blooms with sanctuary cities sworn to protect residents from federal intrusion. Its attorney general, Maura Healey, was among the first to raise the legal challenge to President Trump’s Muslim bans. She also sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education for abandoning rules meant to protect students from exploitation by private for-profit schools. (Think Trump University, for instance.) Even my state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, announced well before the presidential election that he wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump.
It’s been like the Boston Tea Party all over again, with citizens and public officials refusing to abide by the edicts of their supposedly lawful rulers. And Massachusetts is not alone. Hawaii, Washington State, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon all joined the legal battle against Muslim bans, while many other states have denounced federal policies that threaten the nation’s international reputation, the environment, or what’s left of democracy itself. So far at least 10 states (as well as Puerto Rico) and more than 200 cities have committed themselves to work toward the environmental goals of the Paris Accord, just as the United States as a nation had promised to do before Trump trashed the deal.
We should recall that our founding fathers cobbled together our federal union — our United States — because they were convinced that the revolutionary colonies, each standing on its own, could not survive. For a time, the Civil War did then tear the union apart, and, a century and a half later, here we are, overstretched and teetering under the rule of an administration whose allegiances, if any, are far from clear. But there’s no denying a new spirit in many states worthy of the Gadsden Flag of revolutionary times which warned, beneath a drawing of a distinctly American rattlesnake: Don’t Tread on Me.
Some prospective political challengers to the current feckless crew in Washington go even further. Take, for example, Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, a Democrat now vying to become governor of Maryland in 2018. He’s not the only Democrat running for that position, but he’s the one endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Jealous advocates something a bit vague called “climate action” plus a $15 minimum wage, an end to mass incarceration, the protection of immigrants, and — get this — statewide single-payer Medicare for All.
Let’s talk about that health care possibility. Recent polls and reporting by the New York Times indicate that a lot of voters — including Trump voters — who opposed Obama’s Affordable Care Act have changed their minds. They now not only like Obamacare but want to keep it and improve upon it. As one man in Pennsylvania told the Times, “I can’t even remember why I opposed it.” What’s more, a Pew survey reports that fully 60% of Americans now say that health care for all is the responsibility of the government.
This awakening has been prompted by the unexpectedly enlightening spectacle of belligerent Republicans smuggling tax cuts for the rich into their very own totally man-made plan to deprive tens of millions of Americans of their bodily well-being. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, drove a stake through the heart of her party’s second “health” care plan with a single comment: “I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people.” (After Trump harangued a crowd of 40,000 at the Boy Scout Jamboree held in Capito’s home state, telling them that they “better get Senator Capito to vote for” a third Republican health care plan, she changed her mind, opting to hurt people rather than the President.)
The Stars Align
This combination of circumstances — the newly rebellious spirit of the states, the collapse of the corrupt Republican Congress, and the absence of executive leadership (as opposed to tweetstorms) — comes as part of a propitious realignment of astral constellations in America’s natal chart. It suggests an opportunity to change course and take action.
Bernie Sanders argued for just such a change during the Democratic presidential debates last year. Remember? He tried hard to push lessons to be learned from the Scandinavian social democracies: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Every international evaluation rates those countries among the most successful and happiest on the planet, but Sanders proved unable to sell their ideas to Americans. His own understanding of social democracy was on the foggy side and that taboo word “socialist” kept getting in his way. But right now might be just the moment to try again.
Take Ben Jealous and his statewide Medicare for All plan. We’re talking about a single-payer universal system that would cover every resident of his state, regardless of the condition of his or her health, and with no insurance companies jockeying for profits in the mix. Such a simple system is the one used by all the Scandinavian countries. If Maryland and other states adopted it, they would be delivering at the state level what most developed nations already provide for their citizens.
Isn’t it worth a try? American politicians who refuse to learn lessons from Scandinavia usually dismiss those countries as too “small” to be relevant to America’s exceptionally grand experience. And they do have a point: it’s surely easier to implement a big plan on a smaller scale.
If that’s true, however, then applying Medicare for All at the state level should be easier. And of all the states, only eight have a population greater than that of Scandinavia’s biggest country, Sweden (nine million), while 30 states have fewer residents, most far fewer, than either Denmark (5.5 million) or Norway (5.3 million). In short, the most popular argument against single-payer health care for the nation — the contention that we’re way too big for such a system — simply vanishes if you start at the state level.
But hold on. If a state becomes a single payer, where does it get the money?
Taxes, of course. Progressive income taxes. And let’s not forget taxes on corporations and financial transactions. In most states, the money’s there, even if it has a way of clinging to the pockets of the rich and disappearing from circulation. The job of any good government should be to collect its fair share of the wealth and redistribute it for the good of all. That’s what social democracies do. That’s why they’re called social democracies.
Raising taxes on the rich in the United States, however, would take some persuasion at first, partly because so many of them seem to have lost all sense of obligation to others, and also because most millionaires claim to have worked hard for the money, and dammit, it’s theirs.
Not that you would know it in this country, but a larger tax bill more than pays for itself in the social benefits it buys: an overall population in better condition (and probably significantly less desperate, angry, and violent); a healthier, more reliable work force; kids in better shape who don’t miss school as often; and a widespread feeling of well being, of knowing that you will indeed get the care you need and that no one will be left behind. When Senator Capito claimed that she didn’t want to hurt people, surely she spoke for most Americans.
Nonetheless, there’s another reason that American politicians disdain the Scandinavian example and it may, on first glance, seem far more compelling. Those countries are not only small but to a significant degree ethnically homogeneous. So naturally, Norwegians don’t mind helping each other, since they’re all essentially alike — or so the argument goes anyway. On the other hand, diverse and polarized Americans are never going to be persuaded to let the state pick their pockets for the good of other, very different and presumably less deserving people.
And let’s admit it: the opposition does seem to have a point. Scandinavian social democracies are indeed among the most stable in the world. What’s more, they are economic democracies; that is, they have the world’s smallest gap between their upper and lower income earners. Their citizens are just about as equal to one another as it’s possible to become on our present planet.
Considered more carefully, though, that’s hardly a reasonable basis for arguing against trying to redistribute the wealth in a diverse American state. Quite the reverse, in fact. Historically speaking, Scandinavians weren’t born equal. Well into the twentieth century, many of them languished in isolated pockets of rural poverty, while others dined in style in prospering cities. Some were healthy, some not; some well educated, others unschooled. Some had good jobs, others none.
To overcome such disparities and engage all their citizens in the project of democracy, Scandinavians worked hard to create forms of government and social policies that made people ever more socially and economically equal. In Norway, for example, workers led the struggle for fair employment laws, gaining compensation for accidents in 1894, unemployment in 1906, and illness in 1909. Socially conscious political leaders worked to harness the nation’s wealth and used it to meet the basic needs of all men and women for health care, education, and employment, as well as for the special needs of children, the elderly, the disabled, and others. In short, when you radically equalize wealth in a country, even in increasingly multicultural ones like those of Scandinavia, you unite disparate people. When most poeple have plenty of money, populations begin to feel downright “homogeneous” — especially if they’re healthy, well educated, and happily employed in the bargain.
Scandinavian economists will tell you that social democracy developed out of pure self-interest. These were, after all, poor countries that learned one simple lesson fast: their strength and well being lay in solidarity. They invested in the future by investing heavily in children. Just think for a moment about all those well established Scandinavian programs that American feminists keep talking about: paid parental leave; early childhood education; and excellent, free, equally well funded public schools (and universities) for all. Could such giveaways be in the nation’s self interest? You bet. Scandinavian societies were, and still are, intent on developing a work force of the future that eventually will care for the very elders preparing the way.
The Road Ahead?
Were he elected, could Ben Jealous actually put any of these ideas to work in Maryland? The state has already laid some significant groundwork for his ideas. But really, who knows?
Instituting a single program statewide like Medicare for All or equal investment in public schools could prove to be a breakthrough experiment for this backpedaling nation. It might also be a reminder that such acts of solidarity worked well once upon a time, even in America — under both President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s.
Real social democracy, however, is far more than a few isolated programs. It’s a complete system of reciprocation that is incessantly subjected to adjustment and fine-tuning. Today, the comprehensive welfare state that characterizes Scandinavian social democracies has largely moved beyond political ideology. Always open for discussion, it’s nonetheless taken for granted and favored by every party, across a broad range of political opinion. It is simply the way things are.
Yet social democracy might not have developed at all had it not been for the leadership of the working class, a strong alliance of labor and farmers, and the undeniable claims of women. In that Democratic presidential debate last year, Bernie Sanders argued that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” But he’s got that slightly backwards. For a real lesson in inspirational history, we should learn from what the working people of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway accomplished — and are still accomplishing — for their countries. Social democracy doesn’t come from the top down; it’s people’s politics at its best.
Unfortunately, it seems way too late to count on America’s working class to lead this country to social democracy. Here in the U.S., the plutocrats crushed labor long ago and corporatized the farms; women were turned back in the 1970s, social welfare in the 1990s. Who even remembers exactly when the working class or the poor fell — or were pushed — off the edge of the political map? A woman worker in an Indiana factory where candidate Trump promised to save jobs, speaks now (as workers are let go and the plant moves to Mexico) of his having “blown smoke up our asses” with a “sneaky kind of shit-eating grin” on his face. The Democratic Party — once the party of the working class, lest you’ve forgotten — has just announced yet again its intention to “devise an agenda that will resonate” not with workers but with the “middle class.” Meanwhile, working-class Americans, some still wearing their Trump hats, turn their gazes upward and wait for something — anything — to trickle down.
So have no illusions. A single experimental program like statewide Medicare for All, coupled with the taxes to pay for it, won’t transform this country into a social democracy. Nor, on the other hand, is it likely to lead to the dissolution of the Union and a second civil war.
Still, a single program launched by a single state is better than none. And it just might work.
If it does, states can look to the Scandinavian toolbox for other projects. What’s more, a good idea in one state may prove contagious, as we’ve seen with the rise of sanctuary cities and pledges of allegiance to the Paris Accord. (States are learning from the consequences of bad ideas too, including the catastrophic financial collapse of Kansas after its Republican governor’s stubbornly stupid Reaganomics tax-cutting regime.)
Some states, like Massachusetts, are even taking inspiration from their own feistiness. In California, Governor Jerry Brown told the Los Angeles Times that if Trump shut down the U.S. satellites gathering climate change data, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”
Sounds good to me, but for now, as a healthy, happy Medicare recipient myself, I’ve got my eye on Maryland and statewide Medicare for All.
Scandinavia in Maryland?
Donald Trump grabbed a new lifeline. Speaking at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on October 15th, he raised a hand as if to take an oath and declared: “I am a victim!” The great business tycoon, the one and only man who could fix America and make the place great again (trust me, folks), was laying claim to martyrdom — and spinning another news cycle. “I am a victim,” he declared, “of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country. They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
“I am a victim.” That pathetic line echoed in my head, which is why I’m writing this. In my long life, I had seen a large white man stand up in a public arena and proclaim those words — the shrill, self-pitying complaint of the remorseless perpetrator — only once before. That was in a courtroom in lower Manhattan in 1988. The man was Joel Steinberg, a New York lawyer who, over a 12-year period, had brainwashed and beaten into oblivion a woman named Hedda Nussbaum, once a successful young editor of children’s books. In the early years of their relationship, she had run away several times, seeking help, and every time a doctor or friend had called Steinberg to come and get her. At that point — time and again — Steinberg would administer “punishment,” breaking her bones and her spirit. She took on what police would later describe as “a zombie-like quality.”
Some years earlier, a teenage girl had hired Steinberg to arrange an adoptive home for her baby. Instead he kept the child, Lisa, until one evening when she was six years old and “stared” at him in a way he didn’t like. He responded by striking her repeatedly in the head. After which he went out to dinner with his cocaine dealer, leaving the child unconscious on the floor. Nussbaum, by then so traumatized, so absent from anything like life, thought vaguely of calling a doctor, but she was not allowed to use the phone in Steinberg’s absence. Instead, she sat on the floor and watched over the girl as she lay dying.
On trial for the child’s murder, Steinberg blamed everyone but himself. “I’m the victim here,” he whined in court. He swore that he had “never hit anyone,” not anyone, even though he was known to have assaulted a business associate and three other women before he settled into the single-minded, single-handed demolition of Hedda Nussbaum.
Judge Harold Rothwax observed that Steinberg was “a man of extraordinary narcissism and self-involvement” who had “an extreme need to control everyone in his ambit” while he lived a “life of self-gratification.” Yet Steinberg could not see in himself the man Judge Rothwax described. He thought people should feel sorry for him. He had been disbarred and had lost a child (not to mention his Greenwich Village apartment). He railed at those who had conspired to bring him down: the police, the neighbors, the judge, the prosecutor, the expert medical witnesses, his defense attorney, the jurors, the press, and Hedda Nussbaum. “I’m the victim here,” he claimed.
At the time, nearly 30 years ago, the public blamed Hedda Nussbaum. The district attorney, the police, the doctors and psychiatrists who treated her intensively for more than a year before the trial all agreed that, on the evening in question, she was too physically and mentally “incapacitated” either to cause the girl’s injuries or take action to save her. Nonetheless, she was tried and condemned by the press and public opinion, including women who called themselves “feminists.” In court, the jurors were merciless. When they began to deliberate, only four thought Steinberg guilty of murder as charged, five were “in the middle,” and three held out for lesser charges, feeling certain that Hedda Nussbaum had somehow been responsible for killing the child.
They finally agreed upon a verdict of manslaughter. Even then, a woman juror assured the press that Nussbaum was “a very sick woman” who should have been charged and convicted of “some crime.” Another juror, also female, expressed popular opinion this way: “I just feel that she was to blame.” And a third woman juror, who claimed that “certain others” agreed with her, said, “Poor Joel. Joel’s a victim. We have to send a message to the system: ‘You don’t make victims out of nice men like Joel.’”
Judge Rothwax sentenced Steinberg to eight and a half to 25 years. Released after 17 years, Steinberg, now in his seventies, still claims to have done nothing hurtful to anyone. He has not paid a civil court-ordered settlement of $15 million to the birth mother of the dead child, nor has he ever been charged with any crime for what he did to Hedda Nussbaum.
Two lessons lurk in this story, one old and one very up to date. First, it’s a reminder of how much women at that time, even after a great wave of feminism, still blamed women (including themselves) for whatever happened to them at the hands of men; second, a man with a character like Steinberg’s is not the kind of guy you want to choose for high office — or any office at all.
Joel Steinberg stalked a far tinier stage than Donald Trump and he did more deadly damage, but the two men seem to be brothers under the skin, sharing common character defects well described in psychiatric texts: extreme narcissism, a taste for sexual predation, and very similar views of the women on whom they prey. Like Steinberg, who was incapable of seeing himself as the judge accurately described him, Trump seems blind to the real nature of his own behavior. (His current wife describes him as a “boy.”) Neither man seems capable of taking responsibility for the harm he’s done, and when their own actions finally call down retribution, branding them as losers — ah, then come the conspiracy theories and the vindictive wail of the victim.
Men Who Use Women
Last June, I published a piece at TomDispatch venturing to explain why candidate Donald J. Trump was getting “rock-bottom ratings” in the polls from women voters. Nearly 70% of them reportedly couldn’t stand the guy. I pointed out what seemed to me to be the obvious: “Trump’s behavior perfectly fits the profile of an ordinary wife abuser.”
In a sworn deposition introduced in divorce proceedings, his first wife Ivana swore under oath that he had torn out her hair and forcibly raped her, raging at her because he didn’t like the results of a “scalp-reducing” procedure (meant to remove a bald patch) performed on him by a plastic surgeon she had recommended. (Before she collected a $14 million divorce settlement, she toned her story down, saying the assault was not “criminal.”)
About one in three American women are survivors of some version of such treatment, euphemistically called “domestic abuse.” That’s roughly 65 million women voters who, as I wrote last June, “know a tyrant when they see one.” I raise this subject again because the now-infamous tape of Trump’s open-mic Hollywood Access bus ride in 2005 added a new page to the rap sheet of this particular abuser.
In that piece of mine, I traced the history of the principal tactics of coercion used by controlling men like Trump. Some of those tactics, including Steinberg’s favorites, involve physical force, but most, when used by a skilled abuser, require no force at all. Trump applies the handiest tools to his targeted victims regularly, leaving no physical marks behind: threats, intimidation, degradation, put-downs, humiliation, insults, trivial demands, occasional indulgences (a flash of charm, for example, or a bit of feigned reasonableness). The lesson is simple and clear: the mind can be bent and the spirit shattered without battering the body.
I neglected, however, to mention one of the most insidious tactics of such abusers, perhaps because it’s so obvious that it regularly hides in plain sight. In the military, it’s called “pulling rank.” High status is itself a powerful coercive force that can stifle resistance in a lower-status victim and so silence him or her. Status is Trump’s brandished weapon, his open carry. On this, he couldn’t have been clearer in boasting of his pussy-grabbing skills on that Hollywood Access tape: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
The most chilling moments on that tape, however, occur after Trump emerges from the bus in all his orange splendor, followed by his escort Billy Bush — now a former NBC “personality” — who could be heard on that tape laughing as Trump recounted his compulsive assaults. Bush then greeted his television colleague Arianne Zucker, who like so many women on American TV was less fully clothed than the men around her, and whom Trump had been ogling from the bus while sucking Tic Tacs to freshen his potty mouth for a possible kissing attack. Billy Bush “asked” Ms. Zucker, “How about a little hug for The Donald?”
In that short bus trip across the parking lot, Bush had learned just what to do to get in good stead with his high-status guest, and so, without missing a beat, he threw his lower status co-worker to his peppermint-salivating pal. He then collected a hug from her, too, as Trump is heard exonerating himself with the bizarre remark, “Melania said this was okay.”
It hardly seemed to matter what Arianne Zucker wanted or believed to be okay. Billy Bush’s question wasn’t actually a question, but a notice of what was expected. Clearly, she wanted to keep her job and, just as clearly, hugging predatory, high-status stars and coworkers had never been part of her job description, but was a little instant add-on of coercion from her colleague. Setting the star power aside, all of this amounts to commonplace harassment in what appears to be a hostile workplace, and it just happens to be against the law.
One in three women between the ages of 18 and 24 say that they have been harassed at work. Yet 70% of all workers (woman and men) harassed on the job do not report the offense, often for fear of disbelief or reprisal. Think of all the women in television who were subjected to harassment and worse by Roger Ailes — the charges now reach back 50 years — fired at last by Fox News, only to become official media adviser to whom else but presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Some in the media glossed over Trump’s bragging as just so much “lewd conversation” — or as Trump himself put it “locker room talk” — while his wife Melania dismissed it as “boy talk.” In fact, Trump’s unwanted kissing and groping — his self-described M.O. substantiated by one victim after another — can be classified in his home state (under New York Penal Law, Article 130, Section 130.52: forcible touching) as a Class A misdemeanor. That may not sound serious, but it’s punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 (chump change for The Donald) and a more sobering potential year behind bars.
It was that tape, all over the media on October 7th, that prompted Anderson Cooper during the second presidential debate to ask Trump three times if he had actually done the sort of things he described to Billy Bush, which Cooper correctly named “sexual assault.” Trump finally answered: “And I will tell you, no I have not” — and women who had lived for five, 10, 20, even 30 years with nagging memories of a Trump assault and humiliation had to restrain an immediate impulse to smash the TV set and instead called a news outlet or a lawyer.
As of this writing, more than a dozen women have gone public with reports of Trump’s sexual attacks since the release of that Hollywood Access tape. They join a list of women and girls who had previously reported offenses ranging from outright sexual assault to crashing dressing rooms at beauty contests where nude and semi-nude women and girls were preparing to compete for the titles of Miss Universe or Miss Teen America. That brings the number of Trump’s accusers, as I write, to at least 24. Journalists and lawyers have generally managed to verify their accounts.
Of course, Trump has repeatedly denied the women’s allegations, saying before, during, and ever since the third presidential debate that he had never seen those women before, had no idea who they were, found them insufficiently attractive to warrant his attention, and that their stories had, in any case, been debunked. None of his claims were true. (And, for good measure, he announced during his version of a Gettysburg Address that he would sue every one of them after the election was over.)
In my June post, I wrote:
“Trump’s behavior perfectly fits the profile of an ordinary wife abuser — but with one additional twist… Trump has not confined his controlling tactics to his own home(s). For seven years, he practiced such tactics openly for all the world to see on The Apprentice, his very own reality show, and now applies them on a national stage, commanding constant attention while alternately insulting, cajoling, demeaning, embracing, patronizing, and verbally beating up anyone… who stands in the way of his coronation.”
In this fashion, he humiliated his male Republican primary opponents, demeaning them with nicknames — Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb — and denigrated his only female primary opponent, Carly Fiorina, by unfavorably appraising her appearance. (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) More recently, of course, he’s disparaged “Crooked Hillary” in a similar fashion. (“Such a nasty woman!”)
Growing Up in America
Hillary Clinton, as Trump himself has acknowledged, is a fighter who will not quit — unperturbed even by his stalking her on stage throughout the second presidential debate and body-shaming her afterwards. “She walked in front of me,” he said of a moment in that debate when she crossed the stage to speak to a questioner in the audience. “Believe me, I wasn’t impressed.” In the third debate, she called him out directly on his behavior. “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” she said. “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”
Here was something new under the sun: a woman on a presidential debate stage calling out an insufferable man — a serial predator, at that — on behavior so common among men for so long that the vast majority of women in this country have experienced it and learned to call it “life.”
Some women still see it that way. The New York Times, for instance, interviewed a 62-year-old woman voting for Trump who said that other women offended by his “banter” should “grow up.” I like to think that hers is a good description of what’s happening nationally at the moment, though obviously not in the fashion that she imagined. After all, grown-up women led the way, among congressional representatives, in calling Trump out. Republican Congresswomen Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Martha Roby of Alabama both asked him to withdraw from the race. Kay Granger of Texas, Mia Love of Utah, and Ann Wagner of Missouri said they could not vote for him. Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia withdrew their support. Susana Martinez, Republican governor of New Mexico, said she would not support Trump, while former Republican presidential candidate Fiorina said that Trump should step aside. Republican former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wrote on her Facebook page: “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw.”
Still, don’t expect a serial abuser to be a quitter either. Faced with accusations of abhorrent and criminal acts he can’t acknowledge, plus impending incomprehensible defeat at the polls, and the very real possibility of becoming one of those people he so despises — a loser — Trump casts about for others to blame. Given his character, it’s not surprising that he follows, as if by instinct, what we might call the Joel Steinberg path to self-exoneration — painting himself, and himself alone, as the ultimate innocent victim of abusive others in a world whose every aspect is “rigged” against him.
In his own telling, he, not the women he’s demeaned or assaulted, is the abused one and he’s taking it for us, for America. It’s quite a self-portrait when you think about it and should make us appreciate all the more those women who stepped before the cameras, reported his sexual assaults, and left themselves open to further abuse from Trump and his supporters. They have done something rare and brave. It’s one thing for a woman to say publicly that she has been sexually assaulted or battered or raped. Feminist speak-outs taught us decades ago to support our sisters by sharing our experience in this way. But it’s another thing to name the perpetrator and call him to account. That’s what these women have done. And wonder of wonders, most women and a whole lot of men believe them, and more than 60%, in the tepid language of the pollsters, “have some concerns” about the issue. Count that as a positive change of recent years — a light in dismal times.
On the dark side, you never know what a sore loser and his loyal, bullying, misogynist followers might do. Say, for example, followers of the type who show up outside Hillary rallies with banners reading “Trump that Bitch!” The moment the trial of Joel Steinberg ended, armed guards surrounded him and hustled him off to prison. Unfortunately, when this election is over, whether Trump wins or loses, he’s not likely to go away.
A friend of mine, a Vietnam vet, told me about a veteran of the Iraq War who, when some civilian said, “Thank you for your service,” replied: “I didn’t serve, I was used.” That got me thinking about the many ways today’s veterans are used, conned, and exploited by big gamers right here at home.
Near the end of his invaluable book cataloguing the long, slow disaster of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, historian Andrew Bacevich writes:
“Some individuals and institutions actually benefit from an armed conflict that drags on and on. Those benefits are immediate and tangible. They come in the form of profits, jobs, and campaign contributions. For the military-industrial complex and its beneficiaries, perpetual war is not necessarily bad news.”
Bacevich is certainly right about war profiteers, but I believe we haven’t yet fully wrapped our minds around what that truly means. This is what we have yet to take in: today, the U.S. is the most unequal country in the developed world, and the wealth of the plutocrats on top is now so great that, when they invest it in politics, it’s likely that no elected government can stop them or the lucrative wars and “free markets” they exploit.
Among the prime movers in our corporatized politics are undoubtedly the two billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, and their cozy network of secret donors. It’s hard to grasp how rich they really are: they rank fifth (David) and sixth (Charles) on Business Insider’s list of the 50 richest people in the world, but if you pool their wealth they become by far the single richest “individual” on the planet. And they have pals. For decades now they’ve hosted top-secret gatherings of their richest collaborators that sometimes also feature dignitaries like Clarence Thomas or the late Antonin Scalia, two of the Supreme Court Justices who gave them the Citizens United decision, suffocating American democracy in plutocratic dollars. That select donor group had reportedly planned to spend at least $889 million on this year’s elections and related political projects, but recent reports note a scaling back and redirection of resources.
While the contest between Trump and Clinton fills the media, the big money is evidently going to be aimed at selected states and municipalities to aid right-wing governors, Senate candidates, congressional representatives, and in some cities, ominously enough, school board candidates. The Koch brothers need not openly support the embarrassing Trump, for they’ve already proved that, by controlling Congress, they can significantly control the president, as they have already done in the Obama era.
Yet for all their influence, the Koch name means nothing, pollsters report, to more than half of the U.S. population. In fact, the brothers Koch largely stayed under the radar until recent years when their roles as polluters, campaigners against the environment, and funders of a new politics came into view. Thanks to Robert Greenwald’s film Koch Brothers Exposed and Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, we now know a lot more about them, but not enough.
They’ve always been ready to profit off America’s wars. Despite their extreme neo-libertarian goal of demonizing and demolishing government, they reportedly didn’t hesitate to pocket about $170 million as contractors for George W. Bush’s wars. They sold fuel (oil is their principal business) to the Defense Department, and after they bought Georgia Pacific, maker of paper products, they supplied that military essential: toilet paper.
But that was small potatoes compared to what happened when soldiers came home from the wars and fell victim to the profiteering of corporate America. Dig in to the scams exploiting veterans, and once again you’ll run into the Koch brothers.
Pain Relief: With Thanks from Big Pharma
It’s no secret that the VA wasn’t ready for the endless, explosive post-9/11 wars. Its hospitals were already full of old vets from earlier wars when suddenly there arrived young men and women with wounds, both physical and mental, the doctors had never seen before. The VA enlarged its hospitals, recruited new staff, and tried to catch up, but it’s been running behind ever since.
It’s no wonder veterans’ organizations keep after it (as well they should), demanding more funding and better service. But they have to be careful what they focus on. If they leave it at that and overlook what’s really going on — often in plain sight, however disguised in patriotic verbiage — they can wind up being marched down a road they didn’t choose that leads to a place they don’t want to be.
Even before the post-9/11 vets came home, a phalanx of drug-making corporations led by Purdue Pharma had already gone to work on the VA. These Big Pharma corporations (many of which buy equipment from Koch Membrane Systems) had developed new pain medications — opioid narcotics like OxyContin (Purdue), Vicodin, Percocet, Opana (Endo Pharmaceuticals), Duragesic, and Nucynta (Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) — and they spotted a prospective marketplace. Early in 2001, Purdue developed a plan to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars targeting the VA. By the end of that year, this country was at war, and Big Pharma was looking at a gold mine.
They recruited doctors, set them up in private “Pain Foundations,” and paid them handsomely to give lectures and interviews, write studies and textbooks, teach classes in medical schools, and testify before Congress on the importance of providing our veterans with powerful painkillers. In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration considered restricting the use of opioids, fearing they might be addictive. They were talked out of it by experts like Dr. Rollin Gallagher of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and board member of the American Pain Foundation, both largely funded by the drug companies. He spoke against restricting OxyContin.
By 2008, congressional legislation had been written — the Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvement Act — directing the VA to develop a plan to evaluate all patients for pain. When the VA objected to Congress dictating its medical procedures, Big Pharma launched a “Freedom from Pain” media blitz, enlisting veterans’ organizations to campaign for the bill and get it passed.
Those painkillers were also dispatched to the war zones where our troops were physically breaking down under the weight of the equipment they carried. By 2010, a third of the Army’s soldiers were on prescription medications — and nearly half of them, 76,500, were on prescription opioids — which proved to be highly addictive, despite the assurance of experts like Rollin Gallagher. In 2007, for instance, “The American Veterans and Service Members Survival Guide,” distributed by the American Pain Foundation and edited by Gallagher, offered this assurance: “[W]hen used for medical purposes and under the guidance of a skilled health-care provider, the risk of addiction from opioid pain medication is very low.”
By that time, here at home, soldiers and vets were dying at astonishing rates from accidental or deliberate overdoses. Civilian doctors as well had been persuaded to overprescribe these drugs, so that by 2011 the CDC announced a national epidemic, affecting more than 12 million Americans. In May 2012, the Senate Finance Committee finally initiated an investigation into the perhaps “improper relation” between Big Pharma and the pain foundations. That investigation is still “ongoing,” which means that no information about it can yet be revealed to the public.
Meanwhile, opioid addicts, both veterans and civilians, were discovering that heroin was a cheaper and no less effective way to go. Because heroin is often cut with Fentanyl, a more powerful opioid, however, drug deaths rose dramatically.
This epidemic of death is in the news almost every day now as hard-hit cities and states sue the drug makers, but rarely is it traced to its launching pad: the Big Pharma conspiracy to make big bucks off our country’s wounded soldiers.
It took the VA far too long to extricate itself from medical policies marketed by Big Pharma and, in effect, prescribed by Congress. It had made the mistake of turning to the Pharma-funded pain foundations in 2004 to select its Deputy National Program Director of Pain Management: the ubiquitous Dr. Gallagher. But when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency finally laid down new restrictive rules on opioids in 2014, the VA had to comply. That’s been hard on the thousands of opioid-dependent vets it had unwittingly hooked, and it’s becoming harder as Republicans in Congress move to privatize the VA and send vets out with vouchers to find their own health care.
Cute Cards Courtesy of the Koch Brothers
To force the VA to use its drugs, Big Pharma set up dummy foundations and turned to existing veterans’ organizations for support. These days, however, the Big Money people have found a more efficient way to make their weight felt. Now, when they need the political clout of a veterans’ organization, they help finance one of their own.
Consider Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). The group’s stated mission: “to preserve the freedom and prosperity we and our families fought and sacrificed to defend.” What patriotic American wouldn’t want to get behind that?
The problem that concerns the group right now is the “divide” between civilians and soldiers, which exists, its leaders claim, because responsibility for veterans has been “pushed to the highest levels of government.” That has left veterans isolated from their own communities, which should be taking care of them.
Concerned Veterans for America proposes (though not quite in so many words) to close that gap by sacking the VA and giving vets the “freedom” to find their own health care. The 102-page proposal of CVA’s Task Force on “Fixing Veterans’ Health Care” would let VA hospitals treat veterans with “service-connected health needs” — let them, that is, sweat the hard stuff — while transforming most VA Health Care facilities into an “independent, non-profit corporation” to be “preserved,” if possible, in competition “with private providers.”
All other vets would have the “option to seek private health coverage,” using funds the VA might have spent on their care, had they chosen it. (How that would be calculated remains one of many mysteries.) The venerable VA operates America’s largest health care system, with 168 VA Medical Centers and 1,053 outpatient clinics, providing care to more than 8.9 million vets each year. Yet under this plan that lame, undernourished but extraordinary and, in a great many ways, remarkably successful version of single-payer lifelong socialized medicine for vets would be a goner, perhaps surviving only in bifurcated form: as an intensive care unit and an insurance office dispensing funds to free and choosy vets.
Such plans should have marked Concerned Veterans for America as a Koch brothers’ creation even before its front man gave the game away and lost his job. Like those pain foundation doctors who became self-anointed opioid experts, veteran Pete Hegseth had made himself an expert on veterans’ affairs, running Concerned Veterans for America and doubling as a talking head on Fox News. The secretive veterans’ organization now carries on without him, still working to capture — or perhaps buy — the hearts and minds of Congress.
And here’s the scary part: they may succeed. Remember that every U.S. administration, from the Continental Congress on, has regarded the care of veterans as a sacred trust of government. The notion of privatizing veterans’ care — by giving each veteran a voucher, like some underprivileged schoolboy — was first suggested only eight years ago by Arizona Senator John McCain, America’s most famous veteran-cum-politician. Most veterans’ organizations opposed the idea, citing McCain’s long record of voting against funding the VA. Four years ago, Mitt Romney touted the same idea and got the same response.
That’s about the time that the Koch brothers, and their donor network, changed their strategy. They had invested an estimated $400 million in the 2012 elections and lost the presidency (though not Congress). So they turned their attention to the states and localities. Somewhere along the way, they quietly promoted Concerned Veterans for America and who knows what other similar organizations and think tanks to peddle their cutthroat capitalist ideology and enshrine it in the law of the land.
Then, in 2014, President Obama signed into law the Veterans’ Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act. That bill singled out certain veterans who lived at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or had to wait 30 days for an appointment and gave them a “choice card,” entitling them to see a private doctor of their own choosing. Though John McCain had originally designed the bill, it was by then a bipartisan effort, officially introduced by the Democratic senator who chaired the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs: Bernie Sanders.
Sanders said that, while it was not the bill he would have written, he thought it was a step toward cutting wait times. With his sponsorship, the bill passed by a 93-3 vote. And so an idea unthinkable only two years earlier — the partial privatization of veteran’s health care — became law.
How could that have happened? At the VA, there was certainly need for improvement. Its health care system had been consistently underfunded and wait times for appointments were notoriously long. Then, early in 2014, personnel at the Phoenix VA in McCain’s home state of Arizona were caught falsifying records to hide the wait-time problem. When that scandal hit the news, Concerned Veterans for America was quick to exploit the situation and lead a mass protest. Three weeks later, as heads rolled at the VA, Senator McCain called a town hall meeting to announce his new bill, with its “hallmark Choice Card.” His website notes that it “received praise… from veterans’ advocacy organizations such as Concerned Veterans for America.”
That bill also called for a “commission on care” to explore the possibilities of “transforming” veterans’ health care. Most vets still haven’t heard of this commission and its charge to change their lives, but many of those who did learn of it were worried by the terminology. After all, many vets already had a choice through Medicare or private insurance, and most chose the vet-centered treatment of the VA. They complained only that it took too long to get an appointment. They wanted more VA care, not less — and they wanted it faster.
In any case, those choice cards already handed out have reportedly only slowed down the process of getting treatment, while the freedom to search for a private doctor has turned out to be anything but popular. Nevertheless, the commission on care — 15 people chosen by President Obama and the leaders of the House and Senate — worked for 10 months to produce a laundry list of “fixes” for the VA and one controversial recommendation. They called for the VA “across the United States” to establish “high-performing, integrated community health care networks, to be known as the VHA Care System.”
In other words, instead of funding added staff and speeded-up service, the commission recommended the creation of an entirely new, more expensive, and untried system. Then there was the fine print: as in the plan of Concerned Veterans of America, there would be tightened qualifications, out-of-pocket costs, and exclusions. In other words, the commission was proposing a fragmented, complicated, and iffy system, funded in part on the backs of veterans, and “transformative” in ways ominously different from anything vets had been promised in the past.
Commissioner Michael Blecker, executive director of the San Francisco-based veterans’ service organization Swords to Plowshares, refused to sign off on the report. Although he approved of the VA fixes, he saw in that recommendation for “community networks” the privatizer’s big boot in the door. Yet while Blecker thought the recommendation would serve the private sector and not the vet, another non-signer took the opposite view. Darin Selnick, senior veterans’ affairs advisor for Concerned Veterans for America and executive director of CVA’s Fixing Veterans Health Care Taskforce, complained that the commission had focused too much on “fixing the existing VA” rather than “boldly transforming” veterans’ health care into a menu of “multiple private-sector choice options.” The lines were clearly drawn.
Then, last April, Senator McCain made an end run around the commission, a dash that could only thrill the leaders of Concerned Veterans for America and their backers. Noting that his choice card legislation was due to expire, McCain, together with seven other Republican senators (including Ted Cruz), introduced new legislation: the Care Veterans Deserve Act of 2016. It’s a bill designed to “enhance choice and flexibility in veterans’ health care” by making the problematic choice card “permanently and universally” available to all disabled and other unspecified veterans. You can see where the notion came from and where it’s going. By May 2016, when Fox News featured a joint statement by Senator McCain and Pete Hegseth, late of Concerned Veterans for America, trumpeting the VA Choice Card Program as “the most significant VA reform in decades,” you could also see where this might end.
As real veterans’ organizations wise up to what’s going on, they will undoubtedly stand against the false “freedom” of a Koch brothers-style “transformation” of the VA system. The rest of us should stand with them. The plutocrats who corrupted veterans’ health care and now want to shut it down, and the plutocrats who profit from this country’s endless wars are one and the same. And they have bigger plans for us all.
Copyright 2016 Ann Jones
How Veterans Are Losing the War at Home
Last fall, when presidential wannabe Donald Trump famously boasted on CNN that he would “be the best thing that ever happened to women,” some may have fallen for it. Millions of women, however, reacted with laughter, irritation, disgust, and no little nausea. For while the media generate a daily fog of Trumpisms, speculating upon the meaning and implications of the man’s every incoherent utterance, a great many women, schooled by experience, can see right through the petty tyrant and his nasty bag of tricks.
By March, the often hard-earned wisdom of such women was reflected in a raft of public opinion polls in which an extraordinary number of female voters registered an “unfavorable” or “negative” impression of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Reporting on Trump’s “rock-bottom ratings” with prospective women voters, Politico termed the unfavorable poll numbers — 67% (Fox News), 67% (Quinnipiac University), 70% (NBC/Wall Street Journal), 73% (ABC/Washington Post) — “staggering.” In April, the Daily Wire labeled similar results in a Bloomberg poll of married women likely to vote in the general election “amazing.” Seventy percent of them stated that they would not vote for Trump.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, seemed untroubled by such polls, claiming that “women don’t vote based on gender” but on “competency,” apparently convinced that it was only a matter of time before female voters awoke to the dazzling competency of his candidate.
Think again, Mr. Lewandowski. Since at least the 1970s, women have been voting on the basis of gender — not that of the presidential candidates (all men), but their own. Historically, women and children have been more likely than men to benefit from the sorts of social welfare programs generally backed by Democrats, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Even after, in the 1990s, both parties connived to scale back or shut down such programs, a majority of women stayed with Democrats who advocated positions like equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, improved early childhood education, affordable health care, universal child care, and paid parental leave — programs of special interest to families of all ethnic groups and, with rare exceptions, opposed by Republicans.
A majority of women have remained quite consistent since the 1970s in the policies (and party) they support. (Among women, loyalty to the Republican Party seems to have fallen chiefly to white Christian evangelicals.) It’s men who have generally been the fickle flip-floppers, switching parties, often well behind the economic curve, to repeatedly vote for “change” unlike the change they voted for last time. The result is a gender gap that widens with each presidential election.
Still, the 2016 version of that gap is a doozy, wider than it’s ever been and growing. Add in another factor: huge numbers of women with “negative” opinions of Donald Trump don’t simply dislike him, but loathe him in visceral ways. In other words, something unusual is going on here beyond party or policy or even politics — something so obvious that most pundits, busy fielding Trump’s calls and reporting his bluster on a daily basis, haven’t stepped back and taken it in.
Even Hillary Clinton, when she comes out swinging, politely refrains from spelling it out. In her recent speech on foreign policy, she declared Trump temperamentally unfit to be president: too thin-skinned, too angry, too quick to employ such “tools” as “bragging, mocking, and sending nasty tweets.” Admittedly, she did conjure up a scary, futuristic image of an erratic bully with a thumb on the nuclear button, describing as well his apparent fascination with and attraction to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. But she stopped short of connecting the Trumpian dots when she concluded: “I will leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants.”
In truth, most women don’t need psychiatrists to explain the peculiar admiration of an aspiring autocrat for his role models. Every woman who has ever had to deal with a Trump-style-tyrant in her own home or at her job already has Trump’s number. We recognize him as a bloated specimen of the common garden variety Controlling Man, a familiar type of Household Hitler.
In fact, Donald J. Trump perfectly fits the profile of an ordinary wife abuser — with one additional twist. Expansive fellow that he is, Trump has not confined his controlling tactics to his own home(s). For seven years, he practiced them openly for all the world to see on The Apprentice, his very own reality show, and now applies them on a national stage, commanding constant attention while alternately insulting, cajoling, demeaning, embracing, patronizing, and verbally beating up anyone (including a “Mexican” judge) who stands in the way of his coronation.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump beats his wife (or wives). I’m only observing that this year the enormous gender gap among voters can be partially explained by the fact that, thanks to their own personal experience, millions of American women know a tyrant when they see one.
The tactics of such controlling men, used not on women but on other men, were first studied intensively decades ago. In the wake of the Korean War, sociologist Albert Biderman, working for the U.S. Air Force, explored the practices used by Chinese communist thought-reformers to try to break (“brainwash”) American prisoners of war. (Think The Manchurian Candidate.) He reported his findings in “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War,” a 1957 article that caused the Air Force to change its training tactics. Following Biderman’s report, that service chose to give its high-risk personnel a taste of those tactics and thereby steel them against the pressure, if captured, of “confessing” to whatever their interrogators wanted. The Air Force program, known as SERE (for survival, evasion, resistance, escape), was extended during the war in Vietnam to special forces in the other U.S. military services.
In 1973, Amnesty International used Biderman’s article, augmented by strikingly similar accounts from political prisoners, hostages, and concentration camp survivors, to codify a “chart of coercion.” Organizers in the battered women’s movement immediately recognized the tactics described and applied them to their work with women effectively held hostage in their own homes by abusive husbands or boyfriends. They handed that chart out in support groups at women’s shelters, and battered women soon came up with countless homespun examples of those same methods of coercion in use behind closed doors right here in the U.S.A.
The great feminist organizer Ellen Pence and the staff of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota, worked with battered women to refine and summarize those coercive tactics on a handy circular chart they named the Power and Control Wheel. Since its creation in 1984, that chart has been translated into at least 40 languages, and DAIP has become the international model for community-based work against domestic violence.
It’s probably fair to say that sometime in the last 30 years just about every survivor of domestic violence in the United States — about one of every three American women — has come across that “wheel.” That works out to more than 65 million women, 21 or older (a figure that doesn’t include millions of young adults who also have been targeted by controlling partners, pimps, traffickers, and the like).
Such survivors of violence against women have taught us a lot more about coercive techniques and their insidious use in what appears to be “normal” life. We know, for one thing, that a controlling man almost always has a charming, seductive side, which he uses to entice his targeted victims and later displays from time to time, between abusive episodes, to keep them in thrall.
More important, we know that when such controlling tactics are skillfully applied to targeted victims, no violent physical coercion is necessary. None. The mind can be bent without battering the body. Hence the term “brainwashing.” When a controlling man inflicts physical force or sexual violence on his victim, the act is a demonstration of the control he has already gained through less visible, more insidious tactics of coercion.
Knowing that, it seems reasonable to assume that plenty of men also recoil from Trump’s tactics for the very reasons women do. After all, such tactics have also been systematically used by men to control men and when applied to an intimate relationship they may have the same destructive impact on men that battered women report. Men, too, get charmed, coerced, beaten, and raped. In this country, one man out of every seven has been a victim of sexual or physical assault by an intimate partner. But this is no battle of the sexes. Whether the victim is female or male, the controlling assailant is almost always a man.
The Tyrant’s Toolkit
So how does a Controlling Man operate? First, according to Amnesty International’s chart on the “methods of coercion,” he isolates the victim. That’s easy enough to do if the victim is a prisoner or wife. You’d think it would be harder if the controlling figure is running for president and targeting millions of voters, but television reaches into homes, in effect isolating individuals. Each of them voluntarily attends to the words and antics of the clownish performer who, with his orangey bouffant do and dangling red tie, stands out so flamboyantly from all the bland suits. Those prospective voters may have tuned in seeking information about the candidates (or even for entertainment), but what they let themselves in for is a blast of head-on Trumpian coercion.
Second, the controller “monopolizes the perception” of the targeted victims; that is, he draws all attention to himself. He strives to eliminate any distractions competing for the viewers’/victims’ attention (think: Jeb, John, Chris, Ted, Carly, and crew), and he behaves with enough inconsistency to keep his potential victims off-balance, focused on him alone, and — whether they know it or not — seeking to comply.
Trump has used such tactics gleefully. The TV networks, like the media generally, and the Republican establishment thought his candidacy was a joke, yet in the process of publicizing that joke, they gave him an estimated $2 billion in free air time. Often in those months, as in his post-primary “press conferences,” he was not challenged but awarded endless time to rant and ramble on, monopolizing the perceptions of viewers and networks alike. To justify their focus on him and their relative neglect of all other candidates, the networks cited the bottom line. Trump, they said, made them a lot of money. And they made him a daily inescapable presence in our lives.
All of this Trumpianism can be electrifying, exhausting, and undoubtedly mentally debilitating, which not so coincidentally is the third coercive tactic on Amnesty International’s list. The relentlessness and incoherence of the controller’s harangues tend to weaken a victim’s (or viewer’s) will to resist, and thanks to the media, Trump is everywhere — the big man at the podium always talking at us, always looking at us, always watching us.
After that, the rest is easy. Amnesty International lists the tools: threats, degradation, trivial demands, occasional indulgences (a flash of charm, for example, or a bit of the feigned reasonableness that keeps Republican bigwigs imagining that Trump’s demeanor will turn “presidential”). The Power and Control Wheel identifies similar tactics with specific examples of each: using threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, especially put-downs and humiliation (think: low-energy Jeb, little Marco, lyin’ Ted, crooked Hillary), minimizing, denying, and blaming (“I never said that!”), and using male privilege; that is, acting like the master of the castle, and being the one to define men’s and women’s roles — as in “Hillary doesn’t look presidential.”
The battered women who have faced such tactics and survived to tell the tale have taught us this: the controlling man knows exactly what he is doing — even when, or especially when, he appears to be out of control or “unpredictable.” Think of the good cop/bad cop routines you see in any police procedural. The skilled controller plays both parts. One moment he’s Mister Nice Guy: generous, charming, ebullient, entertaining. The next, he’s blowing his stack, and then denying what’s just happened, or claiming he’s been “misconstrued,” and making nice again. (Think: the saga of “bimbo” Megyn Kelly.)
That seemingly unpredictable behavior is toxic because once you’ve felt an incendiary blast of wrath and scorn, you’re likely to do almost anything to avoid “setting him off” again. But it wasn’t you who triggered him. In fact, the controller sets himself off when it serves his purposes, not yours, and he leaves you scrambling to figure out how to deal with him without setting him off again. (Think of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush rolling out new approaches at every debate only to be clobbered and humiliated yet again.)
We’ve witnessed so much of this, seen so many coercive tools flung about and so many competitors slinking away that such conduct now passes for normal “political” exchange. In the current extraordinary electoral process, we have been spectators at the performances of a man skilled in the sort of coercive tactics designed to control prisoners and hostages, and ruthlessly applied to the criminal abuse of women. We have watched that man put those tactics to use in plain sight to vanquish his opponents and force to his side the battered remnants of a major political party and a significant part of the electorate.
Trump has been at it for months on national television — and no journalist, no politician, no Republican Party leader, no contender has named his behavior for what it is. Nobody has called him out — except in the public opinion polls where women voters, millions of whom know the tyrant’s playbook by heart, have spoken. And they said: no.
Copyright 2016 Ann Jones
The Tyranny of Trump
[This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine.]
Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.
It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.
Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.
Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?
Ducking the Subject
One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”
He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.
But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.
The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)
In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.
I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.
Why We’re Not Denmark
Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.
What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different? Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.
Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.
In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.
In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.
So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.
In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.
In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.
Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.
Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father.
Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.
American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women. Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.
Things happened very differently in Norway. There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women. Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.
Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal. (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)
To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous. In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another. More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice. For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.
Don’t Take My Word For It
This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away. But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)
Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.
It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort. You might think of it as slow democracy. But it’s light years ahead of us.
Ann Jones went to Norway in 2011 as a Fulbright Fellow. She stayed on because it feels good to live in a social democracy where politics matter, gender doesn’t, and peacemaking is the nation’s project. She is the author most recently of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original.
Copyright Ann Jones 2016
American Democracy Down for the Count
Ten months ago, on December 28, 2014, a ceremony in Kabul officially marked the conclusion of America’s very long war in Afghanistan. President Obama called that day “a milestone for our country.” After more than 13 years, he said, “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
That was then. This is now. In between, on September 28, 2015, came another milestone: the Taliban takeover of Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name in northern Afghanistan, and with a population of about 270,000, the country’s fifth-largest city.
A few invaders strolled unopposed to the city center to raise the white flag of the Taliban. Others went door to door, searching for Afghan women who worked for women’s organizations or the government. They looted homes, offices, and schools, stealing cars and smashing computers. They destroyed three radio stations run by women. They attacked the offices of the American-led organization Women for Afghan Women and burned its women’s shelter to the ground. They denied reports on Kabul TV stations that they had raped women in the university dormitory and the women’s prison, then threatened to kill the reporters who broadcast the stories.
They called the mobile phones of targeted women who had escaped the city and warned them they would be killed if they returned. No longer safe in Kunduz, those women found that they were not safe in the places to which they had fled either. London’s Telegraph reported that “the lasting legacy of [the Taliban’s] invasion may ultimately prove to be the dismantlement of the city’s women’s rights network.”
The next day I got an email from a woman newly assigned to the American Embassy in Afghanistan. Security rules keep her confined behind the walls of the embassy grounds, she said. Still, knowing that Afghan women are not “secure,” she is determined to help them. Her plan, admittedly still in the brainstorming stage, calls for “programs that will teach women how to defend themselves in some form or another,” because “the best way for women to be safe is for them to know how to keep themselves safe.”
I think of all my brave Afghan colleagues who go to work in women’s organizations, like those in Kunduz, every day under threat of death. I think of fearless Afghan women across the country — activists, parliamentarians, doctors, teachers, organizers, policewomen, actresses, TV presenters, singers, radio broadcasters, journalists, government ministers, provincial officials, candidates for public office — who over the last 10 years have been assassinated one by one, by teams of armed men on motorcycles, or by a bomb attached to the underside of a car, or by masked squads with ropes or Kalashnikovs. These killings have gone on year after year, the names of the dead women remembered and their numbers tallied by Human Rights Watch, while the Afghan government and the Bush or Obama administrations uttered scarcely a word of protest or condolence, and Afghan police failed to arrest a single assassin. George W. Bush famously claimed to have “liberated” Afghan women. Fourteen years later, with the Taliban again rising, with Washington having sunk tens of billions of dollars into the training and arming of hundreds of thousands of Afghan men to defend their country, it’s now time to offer Afghan women a course in how to defend themselves?
The New York Times recently reprinted maps from the Long War Journalillustrating the enclaves the Taliban now occupy not just in Kunduz city, but throughout the land. They added up to about one-fifth of Afghan territory, and the movement was said to “probably either control or heavily influence about half of the country.” According to the United Nations, the “Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001,” when it was driven from power.
As if to dramatize the circumstances depicted on the map, the Times also reported that reinforcements from the Afghan National Army (ANA) could not immediately travel from their headquarters in the capital, Kabul, to Kunduz because in between lay Baghlan Province, and it, too, was largely in the hands of the Taliban.
For months, the Taliban had been capturing bits and pieces of Kunduz Province, yet their attack apparently took the city’s defenders by surprise. Afghan security forces numbering 7,000 scattered or retreated before the advance of a few hundred Taliban fighters. While its commanders tried to figure out what to do in response, American Major General Todd Semonite wrapped up his stint as head of the American mission training the Afghan National Army by congratulating ANA officers at a ceremony at “Resolute Support” headquarters in Kabul.
“You have made phenomenal progress,” he told them, “in budgetary programming, pay, personnel, and force structure systems… improving accountability while finding savings in the budget.” We know what the major general said because the U.S. military itself proudly released his statement to the press, as if it were something other than one more incandescent example of American obliviousness to the condition of the country U.S. forces have occupied for 14 years.
Worried, I wrote to Mahbouba Seraj, an old friend in Kabul, with whom I had worked for many years, to ask how she was. She replied at once:
“I believe you were reading my mind, feeling my desperation. The situation here is going from bad to worse. No one knows how a group of 500 men can enter a province that is protected with a full military garrison — top generals in command of more than 7,000 police and army troops — and do what they did in Kunduz. They burned, looted, raped, and killed people, and there was no one to put a stop to it. This attack, which nobody saw coming, is yet another mystery of mismanagement, miscommunication, or something much bigger and more sinister than that.”
Such dark imaginings spring to mind easily when you live with Afghan uncertainty, reassured by the good intentions of strangers while bad stuff goes on all around you. Worse yet, often enough such seemingly paranoid unease proves to be dead on.
After the taking of Kunduz, President Obama was said to be “rethinking” the situation. Within days, he announced that the U.S. force of 9,800 still in Afghanistan — the force he had planned to cut by half this year and reduce to 1,000 by the end of 2016 — would remain in place, perhaps until 2017, until, that is, he has left office and the fallout of this American war in Afghanistan has landed on another president’s shoulders. What happens in the aftermath of Obama’s officially concluded but never ended “good war” will be up to the second lucky winner in a row to inherit one or more leftover, unjustifiable wars.
By the time Obama made this second announcement, the Taliban had finally slipped out of Kunduz. They might have withdrawn right away, having made their point — that they are now capable of taking a major provincial capital garrisoned by the Afghan National Army.
Yet they chose to stay on for 15 days, long enough to terrify and murder enough citizens to make an indelible impression. Afghans of a certain age remembered in vivid flashbacks what they endured under Taliban rule before the American invasion of 2001. They could see for themselves that the men former President Hamid Karzai referred to as his “angry brothers” are still angry, and in all the long years they have waited for the inevitable departure of the Americans, they have not grown more tolerant. One woman who narrowly escaped from Kunduz summed it up simply: “They haven’t changed one bit.”
In an Afghan State of Mind
A few days later, my friend Mahbouba wrote me again. "For now," she said, "the light at the end of the tunnel is President Obama’s speech supporting Afghans and his decision to keep troops in Afghanistan."
Like so many Afghans, one day she’s desperate, the next she finds a glimmer of light in the gloom. That schizoid zigzag has become a way of life for embattled Afghans like her in this peculiar period “after” America’s war that couldn’t be won and will not end. In this darkening time, they face the growing strength of the Taliban, the intrusion of followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the emergence of new splinter groups of Afghan ISIS supporters, and even the resurgence of “remnants of Al Qaeda.” Yes, the very same bunch that President Obama assured us in 2013 could “never again establish a safe haven” in Afghanistan.
All these forces, along with the Afghan National Army, are now contesting control of parts of the country. That army, trained largely by U.S. forces for that staggering price of at least $65 billion dollars (such costs have now been “classified”), is not exactly the stunning force that’s been advertised. John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, reported to Congress last March that the U.S. military had “overestimated the size of the Afghan police and army by a significant margin.” Factor in U.S. military “accounting errors” and plenty of “ghost” personnel, and the actual size of the Afghan force is anybody’s guess. In addition, that force, under pressure since last spring from a fierce, unrelenting Taliban offensive, has been losing an “unsustainable” average of 330 killed and wounded a week (and hemorrhaging a disastrous 4,000 deserters a month). It still needs the support of U.S. forces, especially Special Operations troops like those who, on October 3rd, “mistakenly” called in deliberate multiple air assaults on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital at Kunduz, resulting in the largest loss of life (30 dead in addition to many more wounded) the humanitarian organization has suffered in its 35 years in that country.
Nothing stays steady in Afghanistan. Even promising developments have a way of turning dark. Yet my friend Mahbouba, tossed between hope and despair, always tries to take in the big picture, even as it shifts its shape before her eyes. A member of the Afghan royal family, she was imprisoned in 1978 as a young university graduate, together with her family, by Soviet-inspired Afghan communists who helped to overthrow the country's first president. Eventually released, she and her family fled to the United States just before the Soviet army invaded in 1979. She became an American citizen, devoted to American-style democracy as she found it at that time.
After American bombs brought down the Taliban government in 2001, she returned to Kabul to work with civil society and international aid organizations for democracy and for women. She coached female members of parliament. She headed the Afghan Women’s Network. She ran for parliament herself and failed to be elected only because, in the Afghan version of democracy, autocracy often intervenes. In her case, election officials “mistakenly” did not deliver the ballots that would have allowed her constituents to vote.
Such was the new Afghan “democracy” run by Washington’s handpicked warlords. (Lesson still not learned: It’s a mistake to think that America’s old combat cronies in its distant wars will behave in high office like George Washington.) In this surreal context, where nothing is quite what it is said to be, Mahbouba has worked through the long, long years of war and setbacks of every sort.
Now she writes of the catastrophic taking of Kunduz, “It has already become just another bureaucratic problem: yet another indicator of something or other slightly amiss. The government again has put in place a ‘fact-finding committee’ with two men in charge, one representing the president [Ashraf Ghani], and the other the country’s Chief Executive Officer [Abdullah Abdullah].” Such bureaucratic duplication is the result of what Mahbouba calls “the two-headed legacy: this divided government with its disparate policies coming to nothing, crippling the country.” That contentious, unequal power-sharing deal was cobbled together just a year ago when Secretary of State John Kerry resolved a bitter presidential campaign between the two men by inventing a new entity, “the National Unity Government,” unknown in the Afghan constitution.
Now, like so many think-tankers and politicos in Washington, the two top officials of this American-made, semi-functional two-headed administration are trying to sort out what happened in Kunduz, or assigning others to do so. Then they may appoint another committee to discover what, if anything, should or could be done. But as many Afghans observe, such weighty matters sent to committee regularly fail to reemerge.
In the meantime, Afghans like Mahbouba Seraj continue to do their best in terrible circumstances, while worrying about where the next catastrophe may come from. In the last four decades, they’ve been through a coup d’état that overthrew the last king; three presidential assassinations (one republican, two Communists); a Soviet invasion that launched a 10-year CIA proxy war (in conjunction with the Saudis and the Pakistanis) to give the Soviet Union its own “Vietnam”; a ruinous, murderous three-year civil war among multiple factions of America’s old allies, the mujahidin, after the Soviets left in defeat; the torture, castration, execution, and public hanging (by the Taliban) of Najibullah, the president the Russians had left in place (and who is now regaining post-mortem popularity); the suffocating five-year rule of the Taliban; an American-led invasion that returned a rogue’s gallery of war criminals to power and started a 14-year war now ended officially, but not where it counts — in Afghanistan. No wonder people in that country are always waiting for the next combat boot to drop.
Of that prospect, Mahbouba writes: "The West lost Afghanistan and they know it. Right now, what is happening is a policy of containment, an effort to keep all the problems, failures, crises, and internal fighting within the borders of this country because the world cannot afford to have them spill out."
“Take the panic building right now in Uzbekistan, for example, a country that has no army of its own and is very anxious, perhaps afraid, because of what is happening right across its border with Afghanistan. Everyone knows which one of the world’s egomaniacal Strongmen may decide to ‘help’ and ‘protect’ the Uzbeks.”
Given recent events in Syria, it’s once again eerily possible to imagine the specter of Russian forces materializing, as in 1979, just across the Amu Darya River on Afghanistan’s northern border. To think of it is to be lost in dark memories of that invasion and the terrible proxy war that followed: the Red Army meets the ragtag mujahidin, Ronald Reagan’s devoutly religious “freedom fighters,” armed and directed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s CIA equivalent, the ISI. Sadly enough, so many decades later, we still live with the sequel to that war, and thanks to America’s hapless, misbegotten “nation building” of the post-9/11 years, Afghans have never been able to shake off the military and political “leadership” of Washington’s aging warlord cronies, still clinging close to the money tree.
A Patrick Chapatte cartoon catches the ultimate nightmare of America’s second Afghan War in what should be, but can’t yet be, called its waning days: following road signs pointing the way to “Afghan Pullout,” U.S. soldiers in an armored vehicle drive in a circle, round and round and round and round.
Fear of the Future
At the moment, as Mahbouba reports from Kabul, “There is a heavy cloud of mistrust and doubt hanging over this country. No one believes anyone anymore. Rumors and conspiracy theories are flying everywhere, joined by a fear of the future and the unknown. Young Afghan men, mostly educated, full of energy and ambition, are leaving the country in droves every day. There is no work for them here. No future. The poorer ones don’t find the makings of a single meal to feed their families.”
Afghan boys and men have long gone to Pakistan or Iran in search of work, but now they set out on a trek thousands of miles long with Europe as their ultimate goal, joining untold numbers of Syrians and Iraqis in a desperate migration the likes of which we have not seen before. Last year, 58,500 Afghans successfully sought asylum in Europe. In the first seven months of this year, 77,700 made their way to Turkey or Europe and applied for asylum. By October, the number had risen to a staggering 120,000. Today, tens of thousands more risk their lives to leave the land that Washington “built.”
As yet another generation of potential Afghan leaders flees the once lovely city (the third brain-draining mass migration since the 1980s), the older Kabul disappears from view, dwarfed by mammoth new construction projects: glass-faced office towers, block after block of ornate palatial homes, enormous wedding palaces aglow in multicolored neon. Here is evidence that, in the course of an endless war, some well-connected men have grown extremely wealthy very fast. And the already immense gap between rich and poor, noted in the Karzai years, continues to widen, as does the distrust of the people in their “democratically elected” government. In these matters, if no others, canny Afghans closely follow the example of their American 1% counterparts.
The two-headed government seems unconcerned. In fact, Afghans now claim that it has completely set aside its pre-election promises to fight the country’s rampant corruption. People joke that President Ghani, who once co-wrote a book called Fixing Failed States, should get to work on his memoir, to be titled, so the quipsters say, Failed Government. Afghans who once viewed former president Hamid Karzai as no more than “the mayor of Kabul,” playing second fiddle to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, now fear that President Ghani stands in a similar relation to the commander of American and coalition forces, U.S. Army General John Campbell.
They say, too, that Ghani has gathered around him a group of men who work for their own ends and give no thought to their country. That, of course, is nothing new in Afghan political life, but after the great hope the new government engendered only one year ago, the letdown feels like a plunge into some abyss. It’s clear that where self-interest and corruption flourish, righteous and angry men will rise up. As every Afghan knows, that’s how the Taliban first got its start.
Mahbouba ended her latest missive to me this way: “Nothing is certain here. But one thing I can tell you is this: Afghanistan needs leaders worthy of the people. Our soldiers, who are losing their lives all over this country, would never abandon their duties if they had good commanders and honest leaders. Our young men would not leave the country if these old men made way for them. It is our misfortune to be cursed with bad leaders whom we did not choose for ourselves. There are not that many of them in number, but they thrive like cancer in this land.”
Ann Jones has worked with women’s organizations in Afghanistan periodically since 2002. A TomDispatch regular, she is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original. She is currently an associate of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University.
Copyright 2015 Ann Jones
Afghanistan “After” the American War
I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends. By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men. The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda. The name means “auspicious” or “jubilant.” She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away. I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons. It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.
In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers. Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal chargesagainst 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman’s murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it. On May 2nd, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power. It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves. This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.
Punched, Kicked, Stomped, Stoned, Crushed, Dragged, and Burned
On Thursday afternoon, March 19th, Farkhunda visited the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. There, about 30 other visitors watched as a few young men began the attack that would end her life. Some of the onlookers took up a cry that summoned yet more: Allah-u Akbar ("God is great"). When, less than an hour later, the woman’s body was torched, police estimated that the crowd had reached 5,000 to 7,000 people. From the start, onlookers used their mobile phones to take photos or videos, many of which were later posted on Facebook and watched by tens of thousands more throughout the country and eventually the world.
Ashraf Ghani, who had been president of Afghanistan for only six months and had not yet formed a working government, was preparing to spend five days in the United States. During that time, the shocking murder would assume an alarming life of its own, for even in the capital the great mass of illiterate Afghans maintain a word-of-mouth culture in which rumor, gossip, and guesswork travel faster than the speed of social media, and mullahs more often than not have the last word. Before leaving Kabul, Ghani wisely named 10 distinguished Afghans, six men and four women, to a commission charged with uncovering the facts in the killing. Among them were Islamic and legal scholars, parliamentarians, and specialists in human rights.
He also released a statement about the case, pitched straight down the middle between the contending voices already speaking out. He assured one side in the developing argument over Farkhunda’s death that dispensing justice is the duty of courts, not individuals, who would be “dealt with strongly” for taking the law into their own hands; while, with a nod to the other side, he also condemned “any action that causes disrespect to the Holy Quran and Islamic values.” While the president then cajoled Americans in Washington and New York to support his new regime, the commission in Kabul worked as a single force to retrieve from the stream of accusation and conjecture the hard facts of the death of the woman known only as Farkhunda.
This is what they found: at age 27, she was a very religious woman who had not married but had graduated from high school and devoted herself to religious studies at a private Islamic madrassa, aspiring to become a teacher of Islamic law. She lived at home with her parents, the fourth of their 10 children. That Thursday, she went to the shrine wearing the black abaya of the devout believer, with a black half-veil covering the lower portion of her face. There, she said her prayers and spent some time cleaning the area of the shrine where people pray. After that, she exchanged words with a man who worked as a cleaner at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque across the street, while running a little sideline business at the shrine selling tawiz, bits of paper bearing handwritten Quranic verses, widely credited with magical properties.
The commissioners could not discover just what Farkhunda and the cleaner Zainuddin had said to each other, but that gap in the story has since been filled in by Farkhunda’s family and friends. She evidently expressed to the cleaner her disapproval of his business of peddling un-Islamic amulets to poor, superstitious women. That story serves to explain — and justify to some — what the cleaner did next. While the commissioners found no witnesses to their exchange, the cleaner himself told them that he had shouted out to the people gathered at the shrine: "This woman is an American and she has burned a Quran." Farkhunda turned to people in the courtyard and said in a strong voice heard by many witnesses, “I am not an American and I have not burned a Quran.”
Though the accusations were false, they stirred a quick response. As angry young men approached the accused woman, a policeman intervened and with the help of another young man took her to a room within the shrine. That young man then planted himself in front of the door, saying to others, “Leave her alone. Don’t do this.” (He was roughly the same twenty-something age as those who would kill Farkhunda and seems to have been the only citizen to offer her help that day.)
The policeman wanted to take her to the police station for her safety. Farkhunda insisted on a female escort, but when a policewoman arrived and opened the door to the inner room where she waited, angry men rushed in and dragged her out. Some of them hit her, tearing off the veil that covered her hair and bloodying her face. She fell to the ground but managed to sit up, supporting herself with one arm and raising the other in defense. Photographs of that moment show the legs of a uniformed policeman beside her.
That policeman or others pulled Farkhunda up and dragged her onto a low roof over which she might have escaped the mob. Another policeman, gripping her leg, pushed her from below, but an attacker struck his wrist with a stick, causing him to let go. Farkhunda then slid from the roof and fell to the sidewalk below. One or more of the police fired shots into the air, but it was too late. Menace had turned to frenzy. Some 10 or 12 men beat, punched, kicked, stomped, and stoned Farkhunda to death. One raised a great stone block and threw it down on her head. Later, to excuse himself, he said, “She was already dead.”
Then come significant gaps in the photographic record. Farkhunda lay in the middle of the street and a car ran over her. How she was moved from the sidewalk to the street is uncertain. Mysterious, too, is the appearance of the car that crushed her and then in some undetermined but deliberate way dragged her down the street. There, unknown people seized her and threw her over a low wall running beside the river onto the stones of the partially dry riverbed. A man poured gasoline on his scarf and on Farkhunda. He set the scarf alight and dropped it on her body. As the flames roared skyward others in the crowd threw their own scarves and jackets onto the pyre. In their eagerness to stoke the fire, they stifled it. All the while, armed policemen stood in the riverbed and watched Farkhunda burn.
At last, the riot police appeared and took charge. It had been hard to break through the thousands of onlookers crowding both sides of the river and two bridges to see the burning of the woman who was said to have burned a Holy Quran.
“Working for the Infidels”
Within hours, everyone knew that the murder of Farkhunda was nothing like so many other commonplace acts of violence in Kabul. It was not an act of war, nor was it terrorism, nor political assassination. It was not a revenge killing, nor an honor killing, nor a family murder. In broad daylight, at a popular shrine, a mob of ordinary young men had murdered a young woman unknown to them with their fists and feet and whatever weapons came to hand. While shocked Kabulis struggled to make sense of this, some public figures were quick to tell them what to think.
A number of government officials immediately turned to Facebook to endorse the murder, assuming that if the Quran-burning woman were not actually American, her ideas must have been so. The official spokesman for the Kabul police Hashmat Stanekzai, for instance, wrote that Farkhunda “thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of action and insult will get them U.S. or European citizenship. But before reaching their target, they lost their life.” The Deputy Minister for Culture and Information Simin Ghazal Hasanzada also approved the execution of a woman “working for the infidels.” Zalmai Zabuli, chief of the complaints commission of the upper house of parliament, posted a picture of Farkhunda with this message: “This is the horrible and hated person who was punished by our Muslim compatriots for her action. Thus, they proved to her masters that Afghans want only Islam and cannot tolerate imperialism, apostasy, and spies.”
The day after the murder, a great many imams and mullahs also endorsed the killing during Friday prayer services in their mosques. One of them, the influential Maulavi Ayaz Niazi of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque, warned the government that any attempt to arrest the men who had defended the Quran would lead to an uprising.
The next day, however, when Niazi showed up at Farkhunda’s burial, mourners asked him to leave. Within days, the police department dismissed its spokesman and, after the Deputy Minister of Culture and Information appeared on television to defend her views, she, too, was sacked. This time, it seemed that the threat of an Islamist uprising in Kabul, a menace that had intimidated government officials for a decade, had hit a wall. This time, the uprising turned out to be on the other side.
Facts and Memory
President Ghani had asked the commission he appointed to consider the murder of Farkhunda from three perspectives: Islamic Sharia law, Afghan law, and Afghan society. The commission itself included three eminent Sharia scholars who instructed their colleagues on the difference between Islam and its Afghan extremist distortions. Under Sharia, they said, a man who repudiates Islam by burning a Quran should be imprisoned for three days and offered a chance each day to repent. If he has not by then returned to the faith, he should be executed. A woman who commits the same crime should also be jailed and offered a similar chance to change her mind. If she refuses, she should not be put to death. Instead, she should be held in prison indefinitely. It followed that those who killed Farkhunda must be held accountable not only because she was innocent of the offense alleged against her, but also because to take her life in the belief that she had burned a Quran was itself a violation of Islamic law.
The question of Afghan law required less erudition. Murder is murder. The police had found no mitigating circumstances at all: no physical evidence of a Quran burning, no witnesses to such an event, no photos, nothing. Working from photographs and tips from citizens, the police quickly detained most of the principal instigators and assailants, and more than a dozen negligent policemen who stood by and watched the murder unfold. Within 10 days they had arrested almost 50 people. But at least four of the killers were still at large. They were known to be members of a popular body-building club sponsored by a prominent and influential man. This being Afghanistan, such simple facts immediately raised the question of whether the offenders would ever be “found,” or if found charged, or if charged prosecuted, or if prosecuted convicted, or if convicted sent to prison, or if imprisoned actually kept behind bars for the duration of their sentences. The previous Afghan president Hamid Karzai had a habit of ignoring crimes against women and pardoning men inconveniently charged with committing them. Legal procedures under the new president had yet to be tested.
To place this murder in the context of Afghan society was the hardest task the presidential commission faced. For even after 35 years of war and brutality, few could recall a public event that had elicited as much grief — as much shame among men, as much anger and fear among women — as this enthusiastic murder. The victim had been a devout Islamic woman, beyond reproach. Her killers were not bad men, neither criminals nor mercenaries nor drug addicts nor foreign thugs, but ordinary Afghan citizens, as were the thousands who stood by and looked on. Across the country, men and women watched the murder on Facebook and wept. Men and women alike said they could not sleep afterwards, that they had to struggle to hold themselves together, and repeatedly broke down in tears. Few, it seemed, could talk about anything else. In Kabul, young women students left the university to stay at home. Women of any age were scarce on the city’s streets. People of all social ranks kept their children and their friends close. They asked themselves a hard question: Is this who we have become?
The Afghan historian and political commentator Helena Malikyar had the answer: yes. In an article for Al Jazeera, she recalled Afghanistan before the long wars: a poor, underdeveloped country to be sure, but characterized by dignity, a code of honor, and an “Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, [that] was moderate and tolerant of the ‘other.’”
“Above all,” she wrote, “the pre-war Afghan leadership always maintained moral authority and used it to implement the rule of law and reforms.” Three decades of war had changed all that, codifying a culture of violence that was passed from one generation to the next. She summed up the disaster of twenty-first-century Afghanistan this way: “Since the U.S.-led international intervention of 2001, strongmen have thrived tremendously, having become financially rich and politically powerful. Using force and brutality, therefore, pays off. Crime is rampant and goes mostly unpunished. Corruption among the police, prosecutors, and judges has emboldened criminals, and citizens have little faith in the rule of law. The lines between morality and immoral behavior, lawful and illegal acts, and righteous and sinful deeds have blurred to the point that most people are not even aware of their wrongdoings.”
It would be nice to believe that the historian exaggerated, but the clerics and the public officials who reflexively praised the murderous mob illustrated her point perfectly. So, too, did a confused and divided public. Was beating a woman to death in the street the right thing to do? Or not? A male parliamentarian from Herat made a predictable point, if further proof were needed. Farkhunda, he said, should never have gone to the shrine in the first place.
The Collective Crisis of Kabul
Even before the murder, Kabulis were facing a collective identity crisis. It seemed as if they no longer recognized themselves. Over the previous decade, the city had almost tripled in size. It now teemed with displaced people driven into the capital by never-ending combat in the countryside, as well as refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran with new beliefs and behaviors. They brought music and violence from Pakistan, makeup and religiosity from Iran. Television boomed. Especially popular with the non-literate public, it drew viewers in to alluring imported lifestyles: the sexy song-and-dance sagas of Bollywood, the overheated family dramas of Turkish soaps, and the endless high-tech violence of American films.
The city itself had been brutally transformed by “developers” laundering excess cash skimmed from the country’s flourishing narco trade or copped from foreign-aid projects or delivered by the CIA for secret schemes. Until recent years, Kabul had been a collection of distinctive districts differentiated by style and function. In many neighborhoods, high walls had concealed traditional low-lying adobe houses and grass-carpeted gardens of flowering almond and apricot trees. Now, these remnants of that old city are dwarfed by immense, garish, colonnaded Pakistani palaces and unfinished Persian-Gulf-style office towers made of glass and wrapped in tattered green tarpaulins (their owners presumably having skipped to Dubai when the aid caravan left town as the international contingent of troops began to draw down). Afghans old enough to remember, like novelist Rahnaward Zaryab, see this new foreign city half-built upon the rubble of the old and mourn the burial of Afghan culture itself.
Many foreign visitors and journalists new to Kabul mistake this development for “progress.” That’s how they commonly describe it in official reports and in the international media. Yet they have only to look around at this disorienting urban chaos to note, as Afghans do, that all those billions of dollars in corrupted foreign aid scarcely touched the city’s poor. Thousands of small boys and girls, who should be in school, still sell phone cards and other items in the streets; old men still push their heavily laden delivery carts amid the traffic, and shabby laborers still wait near the Haji Yacub Mosque for the offer of a day’s work. In the midst of ostentatious ill-gotten affluence, the poor represent the country’s deepest, saddest, most permanent reality. They are timeless reminders to a people who no longer seem to remember who they were or wished to become.
The murder of Farkhunda suddenly opened their eyes. Afghan and foreign commentators who sought to explain the public outcry that followed her death often claimed that a nation already traumatized and deeply depressed by never-ending wars had been retraumatized by the crime. But trauma commonly shuts down the sufferer, numbing the emotions and blunting the compassion that binds us to others. The murder of Farkhunda did just the opposite. People said it cut them like a knife. It made them feel again. Men described their hearts as “bleeding.” Women spoke of being “emptied” of tears. They wept for Farkhunda — and for themselves.
Well before the murder, young women complained that men constantly harassed them in workplaces and in the streets, that men regularly treated them with disdain and contempt. After the murder, some women confronted such men. Others insisted angrily that they were sick with fear. Some even said that the faces of their own fathers and brothers now seemed hateful to them. Men swore that they were overcome with shame, and that they now recognized in the sadistic public murder of Farkhunda the private violence so many Afghan women regularly experience in their homes.
A Casket Borne by Women
On the third day after the murder, Farkhunda was buried in a Kabul cemetery. For the first time in memory, it was not men but women who lifted the casket to their shoulders and carried it to the grave. The photographs of that procession were reproduced everywhere. The sight was shocking and brave and new.
The following day opened with a hard rain falling through air so dusty the first drops came down as mud. A demonstration was to be held in front of the Supreme Court to demand justice for Farkhunda. I was apprehensive. Six years ago I had taken part in one of the first demonstrations ever held in Kabul on behalf of women. If memory serves, there were no more than 30 of us, protesting the adoption of the Shia Personal Status Law, known in the international press as the “Rape in Marriage Law” for legalizing that crime and many others against Shia women.
A handful of international volunteers and our Afghan colleagues (encased in burqas or wrapped in scarves to conceal their identities), we faced a mob of hundreds of men who shouted obscenities and hurled stones. A cordon of Afghan police encircled and protected us where we stood. I can’t recall that we ever even marched anywhere and yet it was a victory of sorts, just to have survived without serious injury. Afghan women in greater numbers have held many other demonstrations since then, marching proudly, faces uncovered, carrying banners announcing their claims to personhood. Yet they marched alone and their lives remained much the same.
This demonstration for Farkhunda was something new. Thousands of men and women came together to march through unrelenting drizzle. They came individually and in groups, representing all sorts of organizations from Afghan civil society. I walked with colleagues from an Afghan women’s organization that aids survivors of violent abuse. Beside us were a group of university men, scholars of Islamic studies.
Our chants — more sonorous in Farsi — resonated: “Farkhunda is our sister,” “Justice for Farkhunda,” “Don’t misuse Islam,” “Islam is for humanity, not cruelty,” “Stop violence against women,” “Silence is a crime.” A young man thrust a homemade sign into my hand, a cardboard placard on a stick that said, “Punish the Killers.” I carried it until, soaked through (like the Afghans around me, desert dwellers unacquainted with raincoats), it fell apart.
In front of the long iron fence that shields the courthouse, a hundred or more men lined the way, shoulder to shoulder, hard-faced and silent. Most appeared to be ordinary workers, ragged and drenched, yet at attention, and draped in the green scarves of the martyred in homage to the murdered woman. At intervals along the line stood large portraits of Farkhunda, as tall as the men who supported them. In the picture she was wearing the black abaya, but with her face uncovered. She seemed to gaze at the passing thousands chanting her name. She was, that is, a presence at her own parade. We marched for hours past the court and back again, time after time.
Here at last was public evidence of a basic truth that men in suits in Washington, American men for whom “women’s rights” is a cynical slogan, seem eternally unable to grasp: behind every Afghan woman asserting her right to study or work or pray where she pleases is a man or men who let her out of the house. Here on the march were like-minded, modern women and men fed up with the militarism and corruption that made war criminals wealthy, fundamentalist mullahs powerful, and ordinary young men dangerous — young men without education, jobs, the money to acquire a wife, or anything much to do but sadistically slaughter an innocent woman in the name of their god to defend a book they cannot read.
Impunity, Change, and a Sister-Martyr
Upon his return to Kabul, President Ghani condemned the murder of Fahrkunda and summoned her family to the palace to receive his condolences. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah called upon the family in their home and denounced the “heinous crime.” The commissioners, too, had visited the family in the course of their investigation and the women had taken Farkhunda’s weeping mother in their arms.
This was no ordinary mourning, for the events of the previous 10 days had made plain the true struggle that lay at the heart of Afghan society — a struggle that, in all these years, Washington had resolutely failed to understand. While the Americans, who had long ago lost sight of al-Qaeda, were still immersed in a civil war against the Islamist extremists of the Taliban (facilitated by Pakistan), they had also maintained in power for more than a decade their old Islamist extremist pals of the Mujahidin. Those were the warlords of the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s whom President Ronald Reagan had famously hailed as “freedom fighters.” All these years, the United States had supported one side against another that was eerily similar in its self-interest, patriarchal privilege, and religious fundamentalism. They had backed President Hamid Karzai against his “angry brothers,” as he called them, in the Taliban.
Now, with the death of Farkhunda, Kabul’s civil society took to the streets to reveal what the real contest has been all along: a struggle between ultraconservative Islamist mullahs and warlords, clinging not just to faith but to power, and progressive Islamic men and women intent on moving Afghanistan into the modern world. Not the secular world of the West, but a new Afghan world that would reclaim the old prewar values of a peaceful, humane, more equitable and tolerant Islam.
The commission met at the palace to discuss a draft of their findings with President Ghani. While he was away, unimaginable things had occurred in Kabul. Civil society had taken a stand and large numbers of ordinary Kabulis, perhaps even a majority, had stood with it in repudiating the ultraconservative religious and political authorities who had celebrated the murder of Farkhunda. Yet Ghani reminded the commissioners of the risks involved in disturbing the fragile balance of Afghan society — especially with no government yet in place and bombs exploding all around. What if the presidential commission’s report were to add further heat to the already simmering contest between civil society, with its interest in clean, transparent government, the rule of law, and human rights, and the deeply entrenched power of the ultra-conservative Islamist clerics? Would that provoke a violent confrontation? And in such a showdown, would the seemingly indestructible un-Islamic Islamists win?
Extreme fundamentalist mullahs have threatened the moderate Sufi inclinations of Afghans for a century. In 1929, King Amanullah banned ultraconservative clerics of the Indian Deobandi school from the country, denouncing them as “bad and evil persons” who spread foreign propaganda. But the modernizing king, an early proponent of women’s rights, was forced to abdicate and the ultraconservative mullahs came back. (Currently, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, though not fully qualified as a mullah, is Afghanistan’s most famous Deobandi.)
In 1959, when King Zahir Shah authorized the unveiling of women, his prime minister, Daoud Khan, took the precaution of throwing all the ultraconservative mullahs into prison, saying he would release them if they could find a passage in the Quran requiring women to be veiled. (They couldn’t.) Many years later, for unrelated reasons, Daoud overthrew the king, only to be overthrown and assassinated himself in a coup that brought communists to power. The result: little more than 20 years after King Zahir Shah came down on the side of modernity, the United States and Saudi Arabia were funding the return from exile in Pakistan of the seven ultraconservative Islamist parties of the mujahidin.
CIA Director William Casey, a conservative Catholic, believed that conservative Islamists would make ideal allies in Cold War combat against the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union. In that way, with the American urge to give the Russians their own “Vietnam,” the Cold War turned hot by proxy in Afghanistan. Thirty-five years later, many of those aging former proxies of the United States still wield power as members of the Afghan government, as members of the Taliban, and even more forcefully as authorities of a deformed and punitive version of Islam that has dominated the country’s political and social life throughout the American occupation.
But to many Afghans, the national shock of the murder of Farkhunda felt like a turning point. Frozan Marofi, a longtime fighter for women, wrote in the Guardian of her newfound hope for her country: “People all over Afghanistan, in Badakhshan, in Herat, in Bamyan, all are saying the killing of Farkhunda was bad. Even the Taliban have come out to say it was not a good thing.” Nader Naderi, formerly a distinguished member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, agreed. "This is a turning point for civil liberties that is real,” he insisted. “It will be difficult to return to the former status quo when only self-proclaimed religious leaders held the high moral ground at the expense of justice and the constitution. If this struggle continues, the outcome will be what the country needs, to make rule of law clear and have religion understood in its place within the context of the law."
At the same time, a thousand Islamist clerics gathered at the site of Farkhunda’s murder to denounce civil society and warn the Ghani government that, if it did not silence the advocates of women’s human rights and the rule of law, the clerics would withdraw their support and “bad consequences” would follow. Just how bad might those bad consequences be? Islam, in Afghanistan, is represented by the Ulama, a number of elite scholars such as those President Ghani appointed to the fact-finding commission, and by a much larger group of clerics that includes many illiterate, self-appointed mullahs who may hold extreme and violent un-Islamic views yet identify themselves as Ulama. Such men dominated the meeting.
One mullah proclaimed to the gathering: “I tell Ashraf Ghani and civil society to be heedful… the gun is still in the hand of the mullah. It takes the Ulama only a fatwa to take down… this government.” Another cleric called for the media to be punished for insulting the Ulama in reporting on Farkhunda’s murder. If the insults continued, he warned, “women will be killed more heinously… and many people will be eliminated in a far worse way. Then, nobody will dare raise their voice… If you value your life, shut your mouths.”
In the end, this meeting of the “Ulama” issued a statement that directly contradicted the view of the Islamic scholars on the presidential commission: the killing of Farkhunda was justifiable, the statement said, because the killers’ “action was based on the intention of protecting the Quran and divine rights.” The Ulama also commanded the government to adhere to the critical clause in the Constitution affirming that Sharia trumps all other laws. Chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah hastened to meet with the threatening clerics. (The substance of their conversation was not revealed.)
The next day, when the commission submitted its final report, it included a conciliatory demand: that both the Ulama and civil society activists “condemn concertedly and loudly those irresponsible statements under the name of civil society or spiritual society which are aimed at inciting people to turbulence and instability.”
However, the media chose to headline the commission’s most important conclusion: Farkhunda was innocent. It seemed a strange lede for a story of cold-blooded murder, focused as it was on the character of the victim instead of the conduct of the killers. But this was Afghanistan, where “innocent” meant only that Farkhunda definitely had not burned a Quran. What the media did not report was the Sharia experts’ explication of the essential point: that even if a woman does burn a Quran, Islamic law forbids that she be killed. Someone had decided the public would do better without that information. One of the capital’s most popular television stations added its own piece of counter-factual misinformation to its nightly news, reporting a stunning fabrication: that two of the 10 fact-finding commissioners believed the murder of Farkhunda was fully justified.
A few days later, Amnesty International released a major report on the failure of the Afghan government — the previous Karzai government — to protect women and men in public life who were defenders of women’s human rights. During the past decade, such brave women — provincial officials, television and radio announcers, policewomen, politicians, aid workers, and advocates for women — had been assassinated, one after another, without either investigation or comment from the Karzai government. Women who survived sometimes lost husbands or children to the assassins. Many such women had been forced to flee the country, while others continued their work, moving from house to house just a step ahead of their stalkers. Most of the dead defenders of women had been murdered by the Taliban, but others had fallen to powerful warlords and ultraconservative vigilantes, both in and out of the government.
In the 50 cases Amnesty International investigated, women under threat of death had repeatedly asked for and been denied the protection the government routinely provided to men in public life. Amnesty International concluded: “This institutionalized indifference on the part of the authorities to the threats, harassment and attacks that women human rights defenders face is a result of weak state structures, particularly within the judiciary and law enforcement and security agencies. It is reinforced by an enduring culture of impunity…”
That “culture of impunity” didn’t materialize from thin air. Nor was it a necessary consequence of the “culture of violence” instilled by the long wars. Rather, it had been cultivated for a decade by a government that simply took no notice of the slaughter of women. Indifference amounted to policy and was implicitly affirmed by the United States in 2011 when Washington’s aid agency, USAID, dropped “gender issues” to the bottom of its list of priorities, while an anonymous State Department spokesman joked about jettisoning aid projects intended to support and defend women. “All those pet rocks in our rucksack,” he said, “were taking us down.”
Within months, President Karzai had signed into law a medieval “code of conduct” for women, drafted by the Ulama Council, that in its key points directly contradicted the Afghan Constitution, Afghan criminal law, and CEDAW, the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Afghanistan (though not the United States) is a signatory. From that moment on, the pace of the assassination of women in public life picked up rapidly, while the incidence of violence against ordinary women increased at an extraordinary rate. In 2014, it jumped by more than 24% percent over the previous year. A culture of impunity had become so ingrained in Afghan life during the last several years that it seemed as if anyone could assassinate a woman, claim credit in public for the hit, and walk away free, a little taller than before.
Imagine, then, the dismay of Farkhunda’s killers when they were arrested for the very sort of thing other men had routinely gotten away with for as long as they could remember. Soon after, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs raised the dead woman’s status to “Sister-Martyr,” officially converting Farkhunda from a symbol of women’s rights to a martyr for the cause of Islam. What could it possibly mean that the principal figure in this public battle had been flipped from the secular domain to the religious one? What would her status as a martyr imply for the legal defense of her killers who had set themselves up as defenders of the Holy Quran? Would they be hanged and then, on second thought, hailed as ghazi, warrior-martyrs for Islam?
On May 2nd, as the trial of the accused killers began, questions and rumors multiplied, while the arena of contestation shifted from the streets and mosques to a televised court of law. That in itself was a milestone: seemingly a triumph of judicial transparency. Any Afghans with access to a television set could see for themselves the band of handcuffed men packed together in the dock and hear the names of the suspects still in hiding read out in court by order of the presiding judge. Anyone could listen to the questions put to the prisoners in turn and take in the extraordinary answers. The tall man admits he dropped the big rock on Farkhunda’s head and says he is sorry. Others are less forthcoming and less repentant. Some say unconvincingly that they were never there at all.
Several years ago, a journalist colleague of mine witnessed in Kabul an impressively orderly criminal trial that proved to have been staged only for his benefit. But this televised trial seemed to be the real thing, hasty and disorderly: an intentional process in what you might call, if you were wondrously optimistic, the rule of law. But the trial was most notable for its speed. Like the crime itself, the trial was a rush to judgment aimed at ending things. The court heard testimony on the first day from 10 men charged with murder, and after only one more day of proceedings judge Safiullah Mojadedi was able to pronounce sentence on all 30 men charged with taking part in the crime. He sentenced four of the men to hang, including the tawiz peddler who had accused Farkhunda and an official in the Afghan intelligence service who had boasted on Facebook of taking part in the killing. He sentenced eight other defendants to 16 years in prison, though everyone knows that long sentences are usually dramatically reduced on appeal and shorter terms can be bought. He acquitted 18 defendants variously charged with assault, murder, and inciting violence. He separated and postponed the cases of the 19 police officers charged with neglect of duty. At least four of the principal killers, photographed in the act of murder, remain at large.
Predictably, the judgment satisfied no one. Too light for some, too heavy for others, and too fast to be fair. But it coincided perfectly with a prediction heard often in Kabul well before the trial began: they’ll hang a few and let most of them go. This was not the first time a controversial case was settled not on the evidence, but on the relative power of the contenders, giving something to both sides and justice to neither. You want rule of law? You’ve got it.
Well, maybe not quite. And that certainly won’t be the end of the story. When Afghans bury their dead, they put a stone on the grave so that an occupant who tries to rise will bump into it and be reminded to keep still. But that Farkhunda, the Sister-Martyr, she will not stay put.
Ann Jones has worked with women’s organizations in Afghanistan periodically since 2002. She is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original. She lives in Oslo, Norway.
Copyright 2015 Ann Jones
“Farkhunda is Our Sister”
On September 29th, power in Afghanistan changed hands for the first time in 13 years. At the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president, while the outgoing Hamid Karzai watched calmly from a front-row seat. Washington, congratulating itself on this “peaceful transition,” quickly collected the new president’s autograph on a bilateral security agreement that assures the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for at least another decade. The big news of the day: the U.S. got what it wanted. (Precisely why Americans should rejoice that our soldiers will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years is never explained.)
The big news of the day for Afghans was quite different — not the long expected continuation of the American occupation but what the new president had to say in his inaugural speech about his wife, Rula Ghani. Gazing at her as she sat in the audience, he called her by name, praised her work with refugees, and announced that she would continue that work during his presidency.
Those brief comments sent progressive Afghan women over the moon. They had waited 13 years to hear such words — words that might have changed the course of the American occupation and the future of Afghanistan had they been spoken in 2001 by Hamid Karzai.
No, they’re not magic. They simply reflect the values of a substantial minority of Afghans and probably the majority of Afghans in exile in the West. They also reflect an idea the U.S. regularly praises itself for holding, but generally acts against — the very one George W. Bush cited as part of his justification for invading Afghanistan in 2001.
The popular sell for that invasion, you will recall, was an idea for which American men had never before exhibited much enthusiasm: women’s liberation. For years, human rights organizations the world over had called attention to the plight of Afghan women, confined to their homes by the Taliban government, deprived of education and medical care, whipped in the streets by self-appointed committees for “the Promotion of Public Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” and on occasion executed in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium. Horrific as that was, few could have imagined an American president, a Republican at that, waving a feminist flag to cover the invasion of a country guilty mainly of hosting a scheming guest.
While George W. Bush bragged about liberating Afghan women, his administration followed quite a different playbook on the ground. In December 2001, at the Bonn Conference called to establish an interim Afghan governing body, his team saw to it that the country’s new leader would be the apparently malleable Hamid Karzai, a conservative Pashtun who, like any Talib, kept his wife, Dr. Zinat Karzai, confined at home. Before they married in 1999, she had been a practicing gynecologist with skills desperately needed to improve the country’s abysmal maternal mortality rate, but she instead became the most prominent Afghan woman the Bush liberation failed to reach.
This disconnect between Washington’s much-advertised support for women’s rights and its actual disdain for women was not lost upon canny Afghans. From early on, they recognized that the Americans were hypocrites at heart.
Washington revealed itself in other ways as well. Afghan warlords had ravaged the country during the civil war of the early 1990s that preceded the Taliban takeover, committing mass atrocities best defined as crimes against humanity. In 2002, the year after the American invasion and overthrow of the Taliban, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission established under the auspices of the U.N. surveyed citizens nationwide and found that 76% of them wanted those warlords tried as war criminals, while 90% wanted them barred from public office. As it happened, some of those men had been among Washington’s favorite, highly paid Islamist jihadis during its proxy war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s. As a result, the Bush administration looked the other way when Karzai welcomed those “experienced” men into his cabinet, the parliament, and the “new” judiciary. Impunity was the operative word. The message couldn’t have been clearer: with the right connections, a man could get away with anything — from industrial-scale atrocities to the routine subjugation of women.
There is little in the twisted nature of American-Afghan relations in the past 13 years that can’t be traced to these revelations that the United States does not practice what it preaches, that equality and justice were little more than slogans — and so, it turned out, was democracy.
The American habit of thinking only in the short term has also shaped long-term results in Afghanistan. Military and political leaders in Washington have had a way of focusing only on the most immediate events, the ones that invariably raised fears and seemed to demand (or provided an excuse for) instantaneous action. The long, winding, shadowy paths of history and culture remained unexplored. So it was that the Bush administration targeted the Taliban as the enemy, drove them from power, installed “democracy” by fiat, and incidentally told women to take off their burqas. Mission accomplished!
Unlike the Americans and their coalition partners, however, the Taliban were not foreign interlopers but Afghans. Nor were they an isolated group, but the far right wing of Afghan Islamist conservatism. As such, they simply represented then, and continue to represent in extreme form today, the traditional conservative ranks of significant parts of the population who have resisted change and modernization for as long as anyone can remember.
Yet theirs is not the only Afghan tradition. Progressive rulers and educated urban citizens have long sought to usher the country into the modern world. Nearly a century ago, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, and banned polygamy; he cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of the country. Since then, other rulers, both kings and commissars, have championed education, women’s emancipation, religious tolerance, and conceptions of human rights usually associated with the West. Whatever its limitations in the Afghan context, such progressive thinking is also “traditional.”
The historic contest between the two traditions came to a head in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of the country. Then it was the Russians who supported women’s human rights and girls’ education, while Washington funded a set of particularly extreme Islamist groups in exile in Pakistan. Only a few years earlier, in the mid-1970s, Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan, backed by Afghan communists, had driven radical Islamist leaders out of the country, much as King Amanullah had done before. It was the CIA, in league with the intelligence services of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that armed them and brought them back as President Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters,” the mujahidin.
Twenty years later, it would be the Americans, spearheaded again by the CIA, who returned to drive them out once more. History can be a snarl, especially when a major power can’t think ahead.
Whether by ignorance or intention, in 2001-2002, its moment of triumph in Afghanistan, the U.S. tried to have it both ways. With one hand it waved the progressive banner of women’s rights, while with the other it crafted a highly centralized and powerful presidential government, which it promptly handed over to a conservative man, who scarcely gave a thought to women. Given sole power for 13 years to appoint government ministers, provincial governors, municipal mayors, and almost every other public official countrywide, President Karzai maintained a remarkably consistent, almost perfect record of choosing only men.
Once it was clear that he cared nothing for the human rights of women, the death threats against those who took Washington’s “liberation” language seriously began in earnest. Women working in local and international NGOs, government agencies, and schools soon found posted on the gates of their compounds anonymous messages — so called “night letters” — describing in gruesome detail how they would be killed. By way of Facebook or mobile phone they received videos of men raping young girls. Then the assassinations began. Policewomen, provincial officials, humanitarian workers, teachers, schoolgirls, TV and radio presenters, actresses, singers — the list seemed never to end. Some were, you might say, overkilled: raped, beaten, strangled, cut, shot, and then hung from a tree — just to make a point. Even when groups of men claimed credit for such murders, no one was detained or prosecuted.
Still the Bush administration boasted of ever more girls enrolled in school and advances in health care that reduced rates of maternal and infant death. Progress was slow, shaky, and always greatly exaggerated, but real. On Barack Obama’s watch, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed American promises to Afghan women. She swore repeatedly never to abandon them, though somehow she rarely remembered to invite any of them to international conferences where men discussed the future of their country.
Only in 2009, under relentless pressure from Afghan women’s organizations and many of the countries providing financial aid, did Karzai enact by decree a law for “The Elimination of Violence Against Women” (EVAW). It banned 22 practices harmful to women and girls, including rape, physical violence, child marriage, and forced marriage. Women are now reporting rising levels of violence, but few have found any redress under the law. Like the constitutional proviso that men and women are equal, the potentially powerful protections of EVAW exist mainly on paper.
But after that single concession to women, Karzai frightened them by calling for peace negotiations with the Taliban. In 2012, perhaps to cajole the men he called his “angry brothers,” he also endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by a powerful group of ultra-conservative clerics, the Council of Ulema. The code authorizes wife beating, calls for the segregation of the sexes, and insists that in the great scheme of things “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” Washington had already reached a similar conclusion. In March 2011, a jocular anonymous senior White House official told the press that, in awarding contracts for major development projects in Afghanistan, the State Department no longer included provisions respecting the rights of women and girls. “All those pet rocks in our rucksack,” he said, “were taking us down." Dumping them, the Obama administration placed itself once and for all on the side of ultraconservative undemocratic forces.
Why Women Matter
The U.N. Security Council has, however, cited such pet rocks as the most durable foundation stones for peace and stability in any country. In recent decades, the U.N., multiple research organizations, and academicians working in fields such as political science and security studies have piled up masses of evidence documenting the importance of equality between women and men (normally referred to as “gender equality”). Their findings point to the historic male dominance of women, enforced by violence, as the ancient prototype of all forms of dominance and violence and the very pattern of exploitation, enslavement, and war. Their research supports the shrewd observation of John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century British philosopher, that Englishmen first learned at home and then practiced on their wives the tyranny they subsequently exercised on foreign shores to amass and control the British Empire.
Such research and common sense born of observation lie behind a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2000 that call for the full participation of women in all peace negotiations, humanitarian planning, and post-conflict governance. Women alter the discourse, while transforming unequal relations between the sexes changes men as well, generally for the better. Quite simply, countries in which women and men enjoy positions of relative equality and respect tend to be stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Today, for instance, gender equality is greatest in the five Nordic countries, which consistently finish at the top of any list of the world’s happiest nations.
On the other hand, where, as in Afghanistan, men and women are least equal and men routinely oppress and violate women, violence is more likely to erupt between men as well, on a national scale and in international relations. Such nations are the most impoverished, violent, and unstable in the world. It’s often said that poverty leads to violence. But you can turn that proposition around: violence that removes women from public life and equitable economic activity produces poverty and so yet more violence. As Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong put it: “Women hold up half the sky.” Tie our hands and the sky falls.
Women in Afghanistan have figured this out through hard experience. That’s why some wept for joy at Ashraf Ghani’s simple words acknowledging the value of his wife’s work. But with that small, startling, and memorable moment came a terrible sense of opportunity wasted.
Some in the international community had taken the rights of women seriously. They had established women’s quotas in parliament, for instance, and had written “equal rights” into the Afghan constitution of 2004. But what could women accomplish in a parliament swarming with ex-warlords, drug barons, and “former” Taliban who had changed only the color of their turbans? What sort of “equality” could they hope for when the constitution held that no law could supersede the Sharia of Islam, a system open to extreme interpretation? Not all the women parliamentarians stood together anyway. Some had been handpicked and their votes paid for by powerful men, both inside and outside government. Yet hundreds, even thousands more women might have taken part in public life if the U.S. had sided unreservedly with the progressive tradition in Afghanistan and chosen a different man to head the country.
The New Men in Charge
What about Ashraf Ghani, the new president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the “CEO” of the state? These two top candidates were rivals in both the recent presidential election and the last one in 2009, when Abdullah finished second to Karzai and declined to take part in a runoff that was likely to be fraudulent. (In the first round of voting, Karzai’s men had been caught on video stuffing ballot boxes.)
In this year’s protracted election, on April 5th, Abdullah had finished first in a field of eight with 45% of the votes. That was better than Ghani’s 31%, but short of the 50% needed to win outright. Both candidates complained of fraud. In June, when Ghani took 56% of the votes in the runoff, topping Abdullah’s 43%, Abdullah cried foul and threatened to form his own government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hustled to Kabul to lash the two men together in a vague, unconstitutional “unity government” that is still being defined but that certainly had next to nothing to do with electoral democracy.
Both these men appear as famously vain as Hamid Karzai in matters of haberdashery and headgear, but both are far more progressive. Ghani, a former finance minister and chancellor of Kabul University, is acknowledged to be the brainy one. After years in academia and a decade at the World Bank, he took office with plans to combat the country’s notorious corruption. He has already reopened the superficial investigation of the Kabul Bank, a giant pyramid scheme that collapsed in 2010 after handing out nearly a billion dollars in “loans” to cronies in and out of the government. (Ghani may be one of the few people who fully understands the scam.)
Abdullah Abdullah is generally credited with being the smoother politician of the two in a country where politics is a matter of allegiances (and rivalries) among men. As foreign minister in the first Karzai cabinet, he appointed a woman to advise him on women’s affairs. Since then, however, his literal affairs in private have become the subject of scandalous gossip. In public, he has long proposed decentralizing the governmental structure Washington inflicted upon the country. He wants power dispersed throughout the provinces, strengthening the ability of Afghans to determine the conditions of their own communities. Something like democracy.
The agreement between Ghani and Abdullah calls for an assembly of elders, a loya jirga, to be held “within two years” to establish the position of prime minister, which Abdullah will presumably want to occupy. Even before his down-and-dirty experiences with two American presidents, he objected to the presidential form of government. “A president,” he told me, “becomes an autocrat.” Power, he argues, rightly belongs to the people and their parliament.
Whether these rivals can work together — they have scheduled three meetings a week — has everyone guessing, even as American and coalition forces leave the country and the Taliban attack in greater strength in unexpected places. Yet the change of government sparks optimism and hope among both Afghans and international observers.
On the other hand, many Afghans, especially women, are still angry with all eight candidates who ran for president, blaming them for the interminable “election” process that brought two of them to power. Mahbouba Seraj, former head of the Afghan Women’s Network and an astute observer, points out that in the course of countless elaborate lunches and late night feasts hosted during the campaign by various Afghan big men, the candidates might have come to some agreement among themselves to narrow the field. They might have found ways to spare the country the high cost and anxiety of a second round of voting, not to mention months of recounting, only to have the final tallies withheld from the public.
Instead, the candidates seemed to hold the country hostage. Their angry charges and threats stirred barely suppressed fears of civil war, and fear silenced women. “Once again,” Seraj wrote, “we have been excluded from the most important decisions of this country. We have been shut down by the oldest, most effective, and most familiar means: by force.” Women, she added, are now afraid to open their mouths, even to ask “legitimate questions” about the nature of this new government, which seems to be not a “people’s government” consistent with the ballots cast — nearly half of them cast by women — but more of “a coalition government, fabricated by the candidates and international mediators.” Government in a box, in other words, and man-made.
Knowing that many women are both fearful and furious that male egos still dominate Afghan “democracy,” Seraj makes the case for women again: “Since the year 2000, the U.N. Security Council has passed one resolution after another calling for full participation of women at decision-making levels in all peace-making and nation-building processes. That means a lot more than simply turning out to vote. But we women of Afghanistan have been shut out, shut down, and silenced by fear of the very men we are asked to vote for and the men who follow them… This is not what we women have worked for or voted for or dreamed of, and if we could raise our voices once again, we would not call this ‘democracy.’"
Ask yourself: Would you?
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter, and War Is Not Over When It’s Over, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project. She and Andrew Bacevich will be in conversation November 12 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as part of Lannan Foundation’s cultural freedom program.
Copyright 2014 Ann Jones
The Missing Women of Afghanistan
Often it’s the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run. Items that scarcely make the news, or fail to attract your attention, or once noticed seem trivial, may carry consequences that endure long after the latest front-page crisis has passed. They may, in fact, signal fundamental changes in Washington’s priorities and policies that could even face opposition, if only we paid attention.
Take the current case of an unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut in the State Department’s budget for the Fulbright Program, the venerable 68-year-old operation that annually arranges for thousands of educators, students, and researchers to be exchanged between the United States and at least 155 other countries. As Washington increasingly comes to rely on the “forward projection” of military force to maintain its global position, the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world. Yet, long advertised by the U.S. government as “the flagship international educational exchange program" of American cultural diplomacy, it is now in the path of the State Department’s torpedoes.
Right now, all over the world, former Fulbright scholars like me (Norway, 2012) are raising the alarm, trying to persuade Congress to stand by one of its best creations, passed by unanimous bipartisan consent of the Senate and signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Alumni of the Fulbright Program number more than 325,000, including more than 123,000 Americans. Among Fulbright alums are 53 from 13 different countries who have won a Nobel Prize, 28 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 80 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 29 who have served as the head of state or government, and at least one, lunar geologist Harrison Schmitt (Norway, 1957), who walked on the moon — not to mention the hundreds of thousands who returned to their countries with greater understanding and respect for others and a desire to get along. Check the roster of any institution working for peace around the world and you’re almost certain to find Fulbright alums whose career choices were shaped by international exchange. What’s not to admire about such a program?
Yet the Fulbright budget, which falls under the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), seems to be on the chopping block. The proposed cut amounts to chump change in Washington, only $30.5 million. But the unexpected reduction from a $234.7 million budget this year to $204.2 million in 2015 represents 13% of what Fulbright gets. For such a relatively small-budget program, that’s a big chunk. No one in the know will say just where the cuts are going to fall, but the most likely target could be “old Europe,” and the worldwide result is likely to be a dramatic drop from 8,000 to fewer than 6,000 in the number of applicants who receive the already exceedingly modest grants.
For the U.S., that’s not a saving, it’s a foolish blunder. Only about 1% of American college students ever study abroad. Fewer than 20% speak more than one language — a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third — but all students benefit from the presence of international “Fulbrighters” on their campuses and the return of their own professors and grad students from study and teaching in other countries. Those Fulbrighters chosen according to standards of academic excellence may seem to be an elite group, but their presence on campuses from North Dakota State to Notre Dame is thoroughly democratic. Their knowledge gained abroad, unlike money in our economy, trickles down and spreads out.
Cutting the Fulbright budget also sends a dangerous message to allies around the world: that the U.S. is not truly committed to its biggest and best international exchange program. That news comes as a kick in the teeth to 50 partner countries that have established Fulbright commissions of their own to fund their share, or more than their share, of the mutual exchange. (Norway, for one, funds 70% of it.) What are good friends to make of “cultural diplomacy” like this?
Developing a Twitter-Worthy Worldview
Given what the program achieves, and what it contributes to American prestige abroad, the budget cut is a terrible idea, but the scheme behind it is worse. It hinges on the difference between thinking long and thinking short. With decades of experience, the Fulbright Program clearly welcomes the positive effects of the regular exchange of scholars and educators of proven excellence on broad issues of cultural diplomacy like peace, the progress of democracy, and economic cooperation over time. But it’s not so heedless of history as to think it can determine those outcomes.
The State Department, on the other hand, is headed largely by short-term political appointees, many without specialized experience, most fixated on their own competitive careers. Their thinking leans quite naturally toward the quick fix consistent with an alarmist and historically suspect worldview, quite possibly derived from CNN, inscribed in the justification of the federal budget proposed for 2015: “Global events and trends now start, spread, and shape countries in an instant.” For them, history now only happens on the fast track.
Given this Twitter-worthy worldview, the laggard State Department had to make some “strategic shifts,” according to Susan Pittman, a spokesperson for State’s ECA, the office now responsible for all of America’s “cultural diplomacy.” She claimed the shifts had to be made “in order to be able to take a different angle of doing some short-term targeted programs” in instantaneous crises like that now occurring in Ukraine. “To that end,” Pittman said, “there was the desire to be able to redistribute things.”
What the State Department desires to redistribute is Fulbright funding. It can’t kill the program, but it can starve it. Ukraine, however, is a bad example to cite as a target for redistributed fast-action funds, since the Fulbright Program, thinking long, has been operating in Ukraine for all 23 years of that country’s independence, exchanging about 1,200 scholars and educators. The spokesperson did not seem to know that, or chose not to mention it. Or perhaps Ukraine sprang to mind because her brand-new boss, Evan Ryan, a former special assistant to Vice President Biden and now — as if by magic — assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, happens to be married to President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who had just appeared on all the Sunday talk shows speaking about… you guessed it: Ukraine. Well, I’m just guessing, too, but such things happen in the crowded and intimate little space inside Washington’s Beltway.
Anyway, the State Department actually has its eye on other prizes. In fact, the “strategic shifts” in State Department programming coincide miraculously well with the Obama administration’s militarized “pivots” in foreign policy. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs will spend $10 million in Southeast Asia and $20 million in Africa on brand new quick-fix programs to “increase outreach” to “young leaders… shaping the… future.” That’s $30 million drawn from the Fulbright budget and dispatched instead to follow the ships, drones, Navy SEALs, and other Special Forces types to unpublicized points in Asia (for the containment of China) and Africa (for who knows what).
These new ECA programs speak of “partnership,” but they are not like the Fulbright Program’s mutual exchanges. They are unilateral projects whose aim is to identify and cultivate the locals we can do business with in countries that may or may not welcome our outreach, or our handpicked young leaders either. Recall that Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the 2012 coup that overthrew the elected government of Mali, started a war, and destabilized a vast region of Africa, was selected and trained in the United States under another State Department scheme: the International Military Education and Training program.
The ECA also plans to spend $2.5 million next year in Vietnam on what seems to be a consolation prize: a new American Fulbright University, named in honor of Senator J. William Fulbright who created the flagship program that bears his name and ushered it through Congress back in 1946. Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, was then a first-term senator whose experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had fostered his international perspective. He went on to spend 30 years in the Senate, becoming the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the twentieth century’s most influential senators. Yet if the State Department has its way, the proposed university to be named in his honor will be paid for by money cut from the international exchange program he considered his most important achievement.
In fact, there’s no good reason why the ECA budget should be balanced on the back of the Fulbright Program in the first place. Overall, the federal budget for international exchange programs will actually increase by 1.6% in 2015, to a proposed $577.9 million, while the total proposed budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will be $46.2 billion.
Surely that’s money enough to fully fund the Fulbright Program as well as those short-term, shortsighted, potentially explosive unilateral ones. So you have to ask: Why, with all those billions in pocket, must $30 million be snatched from Fulbright and its priceless reputation discounted?
At her confirmation hearing, Evan Ryan gave the game away, signaling to the senators that she knows perfectly well what she’s doing. She assured them that her office was “working closely with regional bureaus to ensure exchange programs are in line with U.S. foreign policy priorities and that they meet the needs of the changing global landscape.”
Soldiers, Not Scholars
There, of course, is the catch. The Fulbright Program was never meant to be a tool of foreign policy, much less a tactic of military intervention. It was and still is “designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” Senator Fulbright himself thought Americans had the most to learn. Asked near the end of his life what he had intended by the exchange program, he said, “Aw, hell, I just wanted to educate these goddam ignorant Americans!”
In the aftermath of World War II, he hoped that both the educational and humanizing effects of an international exchange program would promote peace and that within peace would be found authentic security for everyone. At the time, all nations counted and the world was round.
Now the landscape has shifted, and the globe has tilted to match the slant of America’s exceptional (and mostly classified) interests, as well as a version of “national security” dependent upon secrecy, not exchange, and war, not peace. You can see how the land lies today by tracing the dispersal of U.S. troops around that badly bashed and lopsided globe or tracking the itinerary of President Obama, just back from an Asian trip that included a new agreement extending the reach of soldiers, not scholars.
You can search hard and find little trace of those quaint old notions of international understanding and peace on the American agenda. Consider it a sign of the times that a president who, from his Nobel acceptance speech putting in a good word for war to his surges in Afghanistan to the “kill list” he regularly mulls over in the White House, has hardly been a Nobel Prize-quality executive, yet must still repeatedly defend himself against charges that he is too slow and far too wussy to go to war, perhaps as a result of his own “un-American” international childhood.
This is scarcely the moment for Washington to knock one nickel off its budget for international exchange. Longstanding educational partners of the U.S. in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and elsewhere now have other excellent opportunities for intellectual, scientific, and artistic exchange. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional, militarized, pistol-packin’ United States has lost much of its global allure. It was precisely this sort of isolation from the ideas and experiences of other cultures — self-imposed by our own overweening ignorance — that Fulbright feared. In his classic book The Arrogance of Power, published in 1966 in the midst of another unnecessary American war, he warned against the historic tendency of powerful nations to mistake military might for moral and intellectual strength and, by overreaching in an attempt to impose their views upon the world, to bring themselves to ruin.
Fulbright was hopeful that the United States might avoid this trap by “finding the wisdom to match her power,” but he was not confident because, as he wrote, “the wisdom required is greater wisdom than any great nation has ever shown before.” It is certainly greater than the wisdom in evidence in Washington today.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter, and War Is Not Over When It’s Over, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project (Haymarket, 2013). She encourages interested readers to check out the website http://www.savefulbright.org.
Copyright 2014 Ann Jones
Washington’s Pivot to Ignorance
Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.
It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.
As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.” That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.
Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.
Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries. But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?
It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world. With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn’t call it that. Its term is “youth development program.”
Pushed by multiple high-powered, highly paid public relations and advertising firms under contract to the Department of Defense, the program is a many splendored thing. Its major public face is the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps or JROTC.
What makes this child-soldier recruiting program so striking is that the Pentagon carries it out in plain sight in hundreds and hundreds of private, military, and public high schools across the U.S.
Unlike the notorious West African warlords Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor (both brought before international tribunals on charges of war crimes), the Pentagon doesn’t actually kidnap children and drag them bodily into battle. It seeks instead to make its young “cadets” what John Stuart Mill once termed “willing slaves,” so taken in by the master’s script that they accept their parts with a gusto that passes for personal choice. To that end, JROTC works on their not-yet-fully-developed minds, instilling what the program’s textbooks call “patriotism” and “leadership,” as well as a reflexive attention to authoritarian commands.
The scheme is much more sophisticated — so much more “civilized” — than any ever devised in Liberia or Sierra Leone, and it works. The result is the same, however: kids get swept into soldiering, a job they will not be free to leave, and in the course of which they may be forced to commit spirit-breaking atrocities. When they start to complain or crack under pressure, in the U.S. as in West Africa, out come the drugs.
The JROTC program, still spreading in high schools across the country, costs U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually. It has cost some unknown number of taxpayers their children.
The Acne and Braces Brigades
I first stumbled upon JROTC kids a few years ago at a Veterans Day parade in Boston. Before it got underway, I wandered among the uniformed groups taking their places along the Boston Common. There were some old geezers sporting the banners of their American Legion posts, a few high school bands, and some sharp young men in smart dress uniforms: greater Boston’s military recruiters.
Then there were the kids. The acne and braces brigades, 14- and 15-year-olds in military uniforms carrying rifles against their shoulders. Some of the girl groups sported snazzy white gloves.
Far too many such groups, with far too many underage children, stretched the length of Boston Common. They represented all branches of the military and many different local communities, though almost all of them were brown or black in hue: African Americans, Hispanics, the children of immigrants from Vietnam and other points South. Just last month in New York City, I watched similarly color-coded JROTC squads march up Fifth Avenue on Veterans’ Day. One thing JROTC is not is a rainbow coalition.
In Boston, I asked a 14-year-old boy why he had joined JROTC. He wore a junior Army uniform and toted a rifle nearly as big as himself. He said, “My dad, he left us, and my mom, she works two jobs, and when she gets home, well, she’s not big on structure. But they told us at school you gotta have a lot of structure if you want to get somewhere. So I guess you could say I joined up for that.”
A group of girls, all Army JROTC members, told me they took classes with the boys but had their own all-girl (all-black) drill team that competed against others as far away as New Jersey. They showed me their medals and invited me to their high school to see their trophies. They, too, were 14 or 15. They jumped up and down like the enthusiastic young teens they were as we talked. One said, “I never got no prizes before.”
Their excitement took me back. When I was their age, growing up in the Midwest, I rose before daybreak to march around a football field and practice close formation maneuvers in the dark before the school day began. Nothing would have kept me from that “structure,” that “drill,” that “team,” but I was in a marching band and the weapon I carried was a clarinet. JROTC has entrapped that eternal youthful yearning to be part of something bigger and more important than one’s own pitiful, neglected, acne-spattered self. JROTC captures youthful idealism and ambition, twists it, trains it, arms it, and sets it on the path to war.
A Little History
The U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was conceived as part of the National Defense Act of 1916 in the midst of World War I. In the aftermath of that war, however, only six high schools took up the military’s offer of equipment and instructors. A senior version of ROTC, was made compulsory on many state college and university campuses, despite the then-controversial question of whether the government could compel students to take military training.
By 1961, ROTC had become an optional program, popular at some schools, but unwelcome on others. It soon disappeared altogether from the campuses of many elite colleges and progressive state universities, pushed out by protest against the war in Vietnam and pulled out by the Pentagon, which insisted on maintaining discriminatory policies (especially regarding sexual preference and gender) outlawed in university codes of conduct. When it gave up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 and offered a menu of substantial research grants for such institutions, elite universities like Harvard and Yale welcomed the military back with unbecoming deference.
During ROTC’s exile from such institutions, however, it put down roots on college campuses in states that made no fuss about discrimination, while the Pentagon expanded its recruitment program in high schools. Almost half a century after Army JROTC was established, the Reserve Officers Training Corps Vitalization Act of 1964 opened such junior training to all branches of the military. What’s more, the number of JROTC units nationwide, previously capped at 1,200, climbed rapidly until 2001, when the very idea of imposing limits on the program disappeared.
The reason was clear enough. In 1973, the Nixon administration discarded the draft in favor of a standing professional “all-volunteer” army. But where were those professionals to be found? And how exactly were they to be persuaded to “volunteer”? Since World War II, ROTC programs at institutions of higher education had provided about 60% of commissioned officers. But an army needs foot soldiers.
Officially, the Pentagon claims that JROTC is not a recruiting program. Privately, it never considered it to be anything else. Army JROTC now describes itself as having “evolved from a source of enlisted recruits and officer candidates to a citizenship program devoted to the moral, physical, and educational uplift of American youth.” Yet former Defense Secretary William Cohen, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, named JROTC “one of the best recruiting devices that we could have.”
With that unacknowledged mission in hand, the Pentagon pushed for a goal first advanced in 1991 by Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the establishment of 3,500 JROTC units to “uplift” students in high schools nationwide. The plan was to expand into “educationally and economically deprived areas.” The shoddy schools of the inner cities, the rust belt, the deep South, and Texas became rich hunting grounds. By the start of 2013, the Army alone was recycling 4,000 retired officers to run its programs in 1,731 high schools. All together, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine JROTC units now flourish in 3,402 high schools nationwide — 65% of them in the South — with a total enrollment of 557,129 kids.
Getting With the Program
Here’s how the program works. The Department of Defense spends several hundred million dollars — $365 million in 2013 — to provide uniforms, Pentagon-approved textbooks, and equipment to JROTC, as well as part of the instructors’ salaries. Those instructors, assigned by the military (not the schools), are retired officers. They continue to collect federal retirement pay, even though the schools are required to cover their salaries at levels they would receive on active duty. The military then reimburses the school for about half of that hefty pay, but the school is still out a bundle.
Ten years ago, the American Friends Service Committee found that the true cost of JROTC programs to local school districts was “often much higher — in some cases more than double — the cost claimed by the Department of Defense.” In 2004, local school districts were shelling out “more than $222 million in personnel costs alone.”
Several principals who spoke to me about the program praised the Pentagon for subsidizing the school budget, but in this matter they evidently don’t grasp their own school finances. The fact is that public schools offering JROTC programs actually subsidize the Pentagon’s recruitment drive. In fact, a JROTC class costs schools (and taxpayers) significantly more than would a regular physical education or American history course — for both of which it is often considered a suitable substitute.
Local schools have no control over the Pentagon’s prescribed JROTC curricula, which are inherently biased toward militarism. Many school systems simply adopt JROTC programs without so much as a peek at what the students will be taught. The American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, and other civic groups have compiled evidence that these classes are not only more costly than regular school courses, but also inferior in quality.
What else but inferior quality might be expected from self-serving textbooks written by competing branches of the military and used by retired military men with no teaching qualifications or experience? For one thing, neither the texts nor the instructors teach the sort of critical thinking central to the best school curricula today. Instead, they inculcate obedience to authority, inspire fear of “enemies,” and advance the primacy of military might in American foreign policy.
Civic groups have raised a number of other objections to JROTC, ranging from discriminatory practices — against gays, immigrants, and Muslims, for example — to dangerous ones, such as bringing guns into schools (of all places). Some units even set up shooting ranges where automatic rifles and live ammunition are used. JROTC embellishes the dangerous mystique of such weapons, making them objects to covet, embrace, and jump at the chance to use.
In its own defense, the program publicizes a selling point widely accepted across the United States: that it provides “structure,” keeps kids from dropping out of school, and turns boys (and now girls) of “troubled” background into “men” who, without JROTC to save them (and the rest of us from them), would become junkies or criminals or worse. Colin Powell, the first ROTC grad ever to rise to the military’s top job, peddled just this line in his memoir My American Journey. “Inner-city kids,” he wrote, “many from broken homes, [find] stability and role models in Junior ROTC.”
No evidence exists to prove these claims, however, apart from student testimonials like that offered by the 14-year-old who told me he joined up for “structure.” That kids (and their parents) fall for this sales pitch is a measure of their own limited options. The great majority of students find better, more life-affirming “structure” in school itself through academic courses, sports, choirs, bands, science or language clubs, internships — you name it — in schools where such opportunities exist. Yet it is precisely in schools with such programs that administrators, teachers, parents, and kids working together are most likely to succeed in keeping JROTC out. It is left to the “economically and educationally deprived” school systems targeted by the Pentagon to cut such “frills” and blow their budgets on a colonel or two who can offer students in need of “stability and role models” a promising, though perhaps very short, future as soldiers.
In one such Boston inner city school, predominantly black, I sat in on JROTC classes where kids watched endless films of soldiers on parade, then had a go at it themselves in the school gym, rifles in hand. (I have to admit that they could march far better than squads of the Afghan National Army, which I’ve also observed, but is that something to be proud of?) Since those classes often seemed to consist of hanging out, students had lots of time to chat with the Army recruiter whose desk was conveniently located in the JROTC classroom.
They chatted with me, too. A 16-year-old African American girl, who was first in her class and had already signed up for the Army, told me she would make the military her career. Her instructor — a white colonel she regarded as the father she never had at home — had led the class to believe that “our war” would go on for a very long time, or as he put it, “until we’ve killed every last Muslim on Earth.” She wanted to help save America by devoting her life to that “big job ahead.”
Stunned, I blurted out, “But what about Malcolm X?” He grew up in Boston and a boulevard not far from the school was named in his honor. “Wasn’t he a Muslim?” I asked.
“Oh no, ma’am,” she said. “Malcolm X was an American.”
A senior boy, who had also signed up with the recruiter, wanted to escape the violence of city streets. He joined up shortly after one of his best friends, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight, was killed in a convenience store just down the block from the school. He told me, “I’ve got no future here. I might as well be in Afghanistan.” He thought his chances of survival would be better there, but he worried about the fact that he had to finish high school before reporting for “duty.” He said, “I just hope I can make it to the war.”
What kind of school system gives boys and girls such “choices”? What kind of country?
What goes on in schools in your town? Isn’t it time you found out?
TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. (Jeremy Scahill just chose it as his favorite book of 2013.) Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. Her website is annjonesonline.com.
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
America’s Child Soldiers
[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars — The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]
In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized. Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.
Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.
Now, we are in Germany, halfway home. This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard. They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War. They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.
Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.
At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They’ve been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient’s gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient’s lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don’t have any.
Here again is Marine Sergeant Wilkins, just as he was on the flight from Afghanistan: unconscious, sedated, intubated, and encased in a vacuum spine board. The doctor tells me that the staff at LRMC removed Wilkins’s breathing tube, but they had to put it back. He remains in cold storage, like some pod-person in a sci-fi film. You can hardly see him in there, inside the black plastic pod. You can’t determine if he is alive or dead without looking at the little needles on the dials of the machines on the SMEED. Are they wavering? Hard to tell.
The CCAT team has three other critical patients to think about. They are covered with white sheets and blankets, but it’s easy to see that the second patient is missing both legs. His right hand is swathed in thick bandages, almost as fat as a football. His face is ripped and torn so that his features appear to be not quite where they belong, but pushed up and to one side — his nose split and turned askew. He’s sedated and on a ventilator meant to assist his breathing, but his chest convulses as he struggles with the job.
The respiratory therapist hovers, checking monitors, adjusting a breathing tube, and the man quiets. But not for long. The IED blast that took off both his legs above the knee bypassed his pelvis to slam into his chest. He must have been doubled over, crouching, when he walked onto the bomb. The impact damaged his lungs in ways not yet fully understood, so that now when he breathes on his own, every breath costs him more than he has to give.
The CCAT team confers. To stop the convulsive effort to breathe, the doctor can paralyze him and let the ventilator do the work of respiration, but that means removing from his intestine the feeding tube pumping in the calories he needs to heal these catastrophic wounds. It’s a fine line, and the team walks it for the next hour until it’s clear the man needs rest more than nourishment. Then the doctor administers a drug, the body grows still as stone, and the soldier inside sleeps softly while the ventilator steadily breathes in and breathes out.
Patient number three is breathing on his own and fast asleep, a saline drip feeding into his arm. He looks okay, but for the flattening of the blanket under the SMEED. He’s lost both legs, but both below the knee. He has his hands. He has his junk. Of these four patients, he’s the one the military and the media will call “lucky.” But the doctor doesn’t call him that. He says, “You can’t assess his injuries in comparison to those of other soldiers who happen to be on the same plane. You have to assess them in comparison to who he was before.” He is a boy who used to have legs and now he doesn’t.
The fourth CCAT patient is a darkly handsome kid who lost both legs to an IED. His right arm ends in a bulbous bandage, but something about its shape suggests the hand might still be all there. He’s conscious and breathing on his own, vaguely gazing at a thin woman in blond boots and a light jacket who stands next to his litter and clutches at the rail as if to hold herself upright.
She was called to LRMC because her son was close to death, but she is now taking him home, what’s left of him, alive. In the dim light, she looks dazed, but she leans over him and speaks into his ear and soon he sleeps. The doctor tells me that the boy, a Marine, lost one leg below the knee, and the other very high up — too high for him to wear a prosthetic leg.
“He’ll be in a wheel chair,” the doctor says. “It’s doubtful he’ll ever walk. His right arm is all there, but the hand is blasted. He’ll probably lose his fingers at least, but he may have enough of a hand left to power a wheel chair on his own. It’s hard to say. He lost one testicle, too, and part of the penis and urethra. But he could still be fertile. There’s a chance.”
The cavernous plane is very cold. There’s a blanket on each of the seats along the wall. I wrap myself up and sit down next to my military minder Sergeant Julian, mainly to stay out of the way of the CASF nurses who are busy checking on their patients, getting those on the bunks well settled for the long flight. The mother of the handsome kid has also sunk into a seat next to her son’s litter, but she leans forward, still clutching the bedrail as if to hang on to her boy. She has thrown a blanket around her like a cape, but even at a distance I can see that she’s cold. I pick up a spare blanket and take it to her. She looks up as I hold it out to her wordlessly in the deafening plane. “I’m fine,” she says, loudly enough for me to hear.
“He’s fine.” She looks at him and changes tense. “He’s going to be fine.”
“That’s good,” I say.
“He’s alive. He almost wasn’t, but he’s alive. He’s fine.”
I offer the blanket again. “Take it. Keep warm.”
Later I notice that she has made a cocoon of the blankets and slumped over the adjacent seat to sleep. Only toward the end of the flight, when she must be feeling some relief that her son is going to survive it, does she begin to tell me about him. She got word of his injury when he was still in the field hospital in Helmand Province, and she arrived at LRMC from southern California the same day he was brought in from Bagram. Three days later, miraculously, she is bringing him home. Well, not home really, but to the States anyway, to the Naval hospital at Bethesda, Maryland.
Her son has an older brother who deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and now is safe at home in California. But this boy, a Marine, had a training accident that left him with a head injury requiring brain surgery. He was medically discharged, but reenlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan. He had been there two months when his unit was assigned to clean up an area another unit had officially cleared of Taliban. You remember the policy: clear, hold, and build. They were doing the hold part when he stepped on the IED. The other Marine, the one who can’t breathe, was hit by the same blast, or maybe another one at the same time. “They told me how it happened,” she says, “but I don’t think I heard.”
Months later, I will call her in California to see how her son is getting along. He’s still in the hospital. They’re still working on his wounds. He’s not doing any rehab yet. But the military moved him to San Diego so she and her husband can visit him often. She says he’s doing “fine,” though it will still be many months before he can come home.
In the meantime, her contractor husband has enlisted his friends to help widen doorways, lower light switches, build ramps, and reconstruct a bathroom on the ground floor for a boy in a wheelchair. It’s a weekend and I can hear them hammering as we talk on the phone. “They say he’ll always be in a wheelchair,” she says, her voice shaking. “I was in our pool this morning, and I realized that he’ll never be able to get into it by himself. He loves the pool.” I stay on the line, listening to her cry. She says, “He’s a beautiful swimmer.”
“Everything Still Hurts…”
On the plane I talk to some of the ambulatory patients sitting along the walls, wrapped in blankets like so many Pashtuns. Most are hurt just enough to have to be out of action for a while. One boy got a boot caught in the door of an armored vehicle, an MRAP, that wasn’t moving at the time. It’s a long way down from the passenger seat. He broke his arm. He blurts this out, then tells me he worries about what he’s going to say back at his home base. “I can’t tell them I just fell out.”
Another kid dropped a barbell in the gym and broke some bones in his foot. Two others hadn’t recovered from chronic back pain and muscle spasms induced by carrying too much weight. Doctors sent them back downrange to their units two or three times and each time they broke down again. The painkillers had only left them dazed. One says, “Everything still hurts, and you can’t remember what you’re doing, so it makes you nervous. So now they’re sending me home because I guess maybe the pain doesn’t make you so nervous in the U.S. of A.”
One young man collapsed while jogging at a base in the Persian Gulf. “I need a new valve in my heart,” he says, “so they’re sending me home to get it done there. I’m really lucky they found it. The Army saved my life.” His wife sits beside him, wearing a brand new Frankfurt sweatshirt and a bracelet dripping with gnomes. While the doctors at LRMC assessed her husband’s cardiac function, she went shopping. She tells me confidentially, “I for sure didn’t want to sit around any old hospital.”
An older Army officer calls me over and gestures toward the empty seat by his side. He sits ramrod straight, wrapped in his blanket, and speaks through tight lips as if he fears what might come out of his mouth. “I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.”
He has been an adviser to the chief counterterrorism officer in Iraq. It’s hard even to imagine what’s involved in work like that, but his version of his job description evidently failed to match the official checklist of his boss. He doesn’t think much of military bosses or politicians or Americans in general who send the lowliest 1% to fight wars that make the other 1%, on the high end, “monu-fuckin'-mentally rich.”
He says he’s going home for “psych reasons” caused by “life,” and he is never going to deploy again. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college, “They won’t have to serve,” he says. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.”
I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”
TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. This article is an excerpt from her new book.
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
A Trail of Tears
The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody. They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.
It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage. They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski. They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.
They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.
I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan. It must have been in 2002. In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country — most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co. — and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.
I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf. The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contested buzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.
I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses. At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount. They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away, and dump them in the dirt.
A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles, and made a great show of laughing off the incident — of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure. A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”
The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar. In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts. The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.
I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoys were racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles. Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.
Enter the Warriors
I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children. In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals — few in number then — to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes. They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.
After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital. Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps — no helmets or armor — and walked into shops like casual tourists. They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.
Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run over by speeding soldiers. A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?” I had, at the time, no answer for her.
In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans. As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”
The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum. Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.
To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars — Iraq, for example, or Vietnam — and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics. To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.
Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years. Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W). What they seldom acted like was real people. For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian. They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.
In time, though, their canned — and fearful — aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been. So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers. At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency. I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on. In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.
By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors — no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”
For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors. It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle — the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded. It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.
I learned a lesson from that. America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones. To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives. Otherwise, what was the point?
Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?
And that may be the point: that there wasn’t one, not to this war of choice and revenge, or the one in Iraq either. There were only kids in uniform, most of whom by that time knew that they hadn’t known what they were getting into, and now were struggling to keep their illusions and themselves alive. They walked the streets of the base, two by two, battle buddies heading for the DFAC (mess hall), the laundry, the latrine, the gym. They hung out on the Internet and the international phones, in the war and out of it at the same time, until orders came down from somewhere: Washington, Kabul, Bagram, or the map-lined room behind the closed door of the base commander’s office. As a result, every day while I was on that base, patrols were ordered to drive or walk out into the surrounding mountains where Taliban flags flew. Very often they returned with men missing.
What had happened to those boys who had been there at breakfast in the DFAC? Dead or torn up by a sniper or a roadside bomb, they had been whisked off by helicopters and then… what?
They lodged in my memory. Unable to forget them, almost a year later, when I was officially not a nosy journalist but a research fellow at a leading university, I again applied for permission to embed in the military. This time, I asked to follow casualties from that high desert “battle space” to the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, onto a C-17 with the medical teams that accompanied the wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany — the biggest American hospital outside the United States — then back onto a C-17 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and in some cases, all the way home.
Over the years, more and more of America’s kids made that medevac journey back to the States. Costsofwar.com has tallied 106,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan or evacuated from those war zones because of accident or disease. Because so many so-called “invisible wounds” are not diagnosed until after soldiers return home, the true number of wounded must be much higher. Witness the fact that, as of June 2012, 247,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as of May 31, 2012, more than 745,000 veterans of those wars had filed disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA). Taxpayers have already spent $135 billion on medical and disability payments for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the long-term medical and disability costs are expected to peak at about midcentury, at an estimated $754 billion.
Then there were the “fallen,” the dead, shipped to Dover Air Base in metal “transfer cases” aboard standard cargo planes. They were transferred to the official military mortuary in ceremonies from which the media, and thus the public, were until 2009 excluded — at least 6,656 of them from Iraq and Afghanistan by February of this year. At least 3,000 private contractors have also been killed in both wars. Add to this list the toll of post-deployment suicides, and soldiers or veterans hooked on addictive opioids pushed by Big Pharma and prescribed by military doctors or VA psychiatrists either to keep them on the job or, after they break down, to “cure” them of their war experiences.
The first veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned to the United States 10 years ago in 2003, yet I’ve never spoken to a damaged soldier or a soldier’s family members who thought the care he or she received from the Veterans Administration was anything like appropriate or enough. By the VA’s own admission, the time it takes to reach a decision on a veteran’s benefits, or simply to offer an appointment, is so long that some vets die while waiting.
So it is that, since their return, untold numbers of soldiers have been looked after by their parents. I visited a home on the Great Plains where a veteran has lain in his childhood bed, in his mother’s care, for most of the last decade, and another home in New England where a veteran spent the last evening before he took his own life sitting on his father’s lap.
As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.
Like the soldiers, the country has changed. Muted now is the braggadocio of the bring-‘em-on decider who started the preemptive process that ate the children of the poor and patriotic. Now, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, Washington scrambles to make the exit look less like a defeat — or worse, pointless waste. Most Americans no longer ask what the wars were for.
“Follow the money,” a furious Army officer, near the end of his career, instructed me. I had spent my time with poor kids in search of an honorable future who do the grunt work of America’s military. They are part of the nation’s lowliest 1%. But as that angry career officer told me, “They only follow orders.” It’s the other 1% at the top who are served by war, the great American engine that powers the transfer of wealth from the public treasury upward and into their pockets. Following that money trail reveals the real point of the chosen conflicts. As that disillusioned officer put it to me, the wars have made those profiteers “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.” It’s the soldiers and their families who lost out.
Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into
Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.
Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid “war” in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America’s enemies during the war in Vietnam. One bad war leads to another.
From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts — thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against “godless communism” — gloated over the Red Army’s defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. After 50 years of scheming behind the scenes, the U.S. put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, 12 years later, is still fighting there — against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.
Through it all, the U.S. has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart — waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in? After 12 years of direct combat, after 35 years of arming and funding one faction or another, after 60 years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant? If we ever knew, we’ve forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.
Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush. Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War — worth $30 million — to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man’s question about the war. He reportedly asked, “Is that thing still going on?”
Such forgetfulness about wars has, it seems, become an all-American skill. Certainly, the country has had little trouble forgetting the war in Iraq, and why should Afghanistan be any different? Sure, the exit from that country is going to take more time and effort. No seacoast, no ships, bad roads, high tolls, IEDs. Trucking stuff out is problematic; flying it out, wildly expensive, especially since a lot of the things are really, really big. Take MRAPs, for example — that’s Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles — 11,000 of them, weighing 14 tons or more apiece. For that workhorse transport plane, the C-17, a full load of MRAPs numbers only four.
The equipment inventory keeps changing, but estimates run to 100,000 shipping containers and about 50,000 vehicles to be removed by the end of 2014, adding up to more than $36 billion worth of equipment now classified as “retrograde.” The estimated shipping bill has quickly risen to $6 billion, and like the overall cost of the war, it is sure to keep rising.
Seven billion dollars worth of equipment — about 20% of what the U.S. sent in to that distant land — is simply being torn up, chopped down, split, shredded, stomped, and, when possible, sold off for scrap at pennies a pound. Toughest to break up are the weighty MRAPs. Introduced in 2007 at a cost of $1 million apiece to counteract deadly roadside bombs, they were later discovered to be no better at protecting American soldiers than the cheaper vehicles they replaced. Of the 11,000 shipped to Afghanistan, 2,000 are on the chopping block, leaving a mere 9,000 to be flown to Kuwait, four at a time, and shipped home or “repositioned” elsewhere to await some future enemy.
The military is not exaggerating when it calls this colossal destruction of surplus equipment historic. A disposal effort on this scale is unprecedented in the annals of the Pentagon. The centerpiece of this demolition derby may be the brand-new, 64,000-square-foot, $34-million, state-of-the art command center completed in Helmand Province just as most U.S. troops left, and now likely to be demolished. Or the new $45 million facility in Kandahar built as a repair center for armored vehicles, now used for their demolition, and probably destined to follow them. Taxpayers may one day want to ask some questions about such profligate and historic waste, but it’s sure to keep arms manufacturers happy, resupplying the military until we can get ourselves into another full-scale war.
So this exit is a really big job, and that’s without even mentioning the paperwork. All those exit plans, all the documents to be filed with the Afghan government for permission to export our own equipment, all the fines assessed for missing customs forms (already running to $70 million), all the export fees to be paid, and the bribes to be offered, and the protection money to be slipped to the Taliban so our enemies won’t shoot at the stuff being trucked out. All that takes time.
But when it comes right down to it, the United States has a surefire way of ending a war, no matter when it actually ends (or doesn’t). When we say it’s over, it’s over.
Enduring Operation Enduring Freedom
As it happens, things probably won’t be quite so decisively “over” for everybody. Look at Iraq, for example. The last American troops drove out of Iraq in December 2011, leaving behind a staff of at least 16,000, including 5,000 private security contractors, assigned to the vast $750 million fortress of a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That war has now been over for almost two years, the embassy staff is being trimmed, and yet, the drumbeat of news about car bombs, suicide bombers, and the latest rounds of sectarian cleansing has not slackened. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year, 1,000 in July alone, making it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008. Even Iraqis who lived through the war in their own homes are now fleeing, like millions of Iraqis before them — many the victims of sectarian cleansing practiced during the American-led “surge” of 2007 and now polished to a fine art. From the foreign diplomatic corps in Baghdad come informal messages that include the words “worse than ever.”
In Afghanistan, too, as the end of a longer war supposedly draws near, the rate at which civilians are being killed has actually picked up, and the numbers of women and children among the civilian dead have risen dramatically. This week, as the Nation magazine devotes a special issue to a comprehensive study of the civilian death toll in Afghanistan — the painstaking work of Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse — the pace of civilian death seems only to be gaining momentum as if in some morbid race to the finish.
Like Iraqis, Afghans, too, are in flight — fearing the unknown end game to come. The number of Afghans filing applications for asylum in other countries, rising sharply since 2010, reached 30,000 in 2012. Undocumented thousands flee the country illegally in all sorts of dangerous ways. Their desperate journeys by land and sea spark controversy in countries they’re aiming for. It was Afghan boat people who roused the anti-immigrant rhetoric of candidates in the recent Australian elections, revealing a dark side of the national character even as Afghans and others drowned off their shores. War reverberates, even where you least expect it.
Afghans who remain at home are on edge. Their immediate focus: the presidential election scheduled for April 5, 2014. It’s already common knowledge that the number of existing voter cards far exceeds the number of eligible voters, and millions more are being issued to new registrants, making it likely that this presidential contest will be as fraudulent as the last, in 2009, when voter cards were sold by the handful.
With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, the presidential race is either wide open, or — as many believe — already a done deal. In August, Afghan news services reported that Karzai had chaired a meeting with a few of the country’s most powerful warlords to call for the candidacy of Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, intimidator of women in parliament, longtime pal of Osama bin Laden, mentor of al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, likely collaborator in the assassination two days before 9/11 of the Taliban’s greatest opponent, Ahmad Shah Massoud — in short the quintessential untouchable jihadi.
There’s an irony so ludicrous as to be terrible in the thought that while the U.S. supposedly fought this interminable war to insure that al-Qaeda would never again find a haven in Afghanistan, the country’s next president could be the very guy who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place and became his partner in building al-Qaeda training camps.
Even Karzai, who likes to poke his finger in American eyes, quickly backed away from that insult. Within hours of the news reports, he announced that he would remain “neutral.” Americans scarcely seemed to notice, but Afghans noted what Karzai had done in the first place. Now, as Sayyaf and other potential candidates do backroom deals, jockeying for position, Afghans wait anxiously to learn which ones will actually register to run before the October 6th deadline.
The names bandied about are those of the usual suspects: familiar militia commanders from times past, former jihadis, and political hacks. At this writing, a coalition of some of the most powerful are said to be aligning behind former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second to Karzai’s overstuffed ballot boxes in 2009 and declined to take part in a runoff likely to be just as fixed by fraud. One Afghan politico, surveying a recent gathering of likely candidates, expressed to the Washington Post an opinion widely held by Afghans: “These are the people who destroyed our country. They should all be thrown down a well.” Beleaguered Afghans have lived through all of this with all of them before. Sometimes it ends in a crooked election. Sometimes in a coup. Once in recent memory, in a civil war that could go into reruns.
Meanwhile, Karzai has also been tampering with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a government body headed by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Sima Samar, and the most respected public body in the country precisely because it has maintained its independence from government politics. In December 2011, Karzai blocked the AIHRC’s nonpartisan work by allowing the terms of three of its most effective members to expire. Another respected member had been killed earlier in 2011, together with her husband and four children, by a Taliban suicide-bomber reportedly aiming for officials of Xe (formerly Blackwater, now Academi) in a Kabul supermarket. The members Karzai cut loose included Ahmad Nader Nadery, an assiduous researcher of war crimes, largely responsible for a “Mapping Project,” never officially released, that reportedly names prominent warlords and members of Karzai’s government.
After stalling for 18 months, last July Karzai stacked the AIHRC staff with five political cronies unqualified in human rights. They include an Army general, a member of an Islamist fundamentalist political party, and a mullah who served in the Taliban government, spent three years in the U.S. military prison at Bagram (without being charged), considers Shariah law the best source of human rights legislation, and opposes laws currently on the books that aim to protect women from violence.
In September Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, made a rare personal visit to Kabul to urge Karzai to reconsider his appointments before the AIHRC lost its international “A” rating and donor nations were forced to rethink their aid to a repressive government. She left with no assurances, repeating her concern that “improvement in human rights” had not merely “peaked” in Afghanistan, but was “in reality waning.”
Down and Out in Afghanistan
Now that the end of the international occupation approaches, the story of its success is undergoing a peculiar revision. The stunning advances Washington claimed in Afghanistan seem somehow much smaller and so much less impressive. Education, health care, and human rights, just like the fabled MRAP, have not lived up to their publicity.
For example, Western leaders have taken particular pride in supposed advances in Afghan education since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, in schools built and students enrolled by the millions. (The U.S. Agency for International Development alone spent $934 million on Afghan education in the last 12 years.) But UNICEF reports that almost half the “schools” supposedly built or opened have no actual buildings, and in those that do, students double up on seats and share antiquated texts. Teachers are scarce and fewer than a quarter of those now teaching are considered “qualified,” even by Afghanistan’s minimal standards. Impressive school enrollment figures determine how much money a school gets from the government, but don’t reveal the much smaller numbers of enrollees who actually attend. No more than 10% of students, mostly boys, finish high school. In 2012, according to UNICEF, only half of school-age children went to school at all.
Advances in Afghan health care have been another source of Western donors’ pride. But dramatic claims that 85% of Afghans now have access to basic health care turn out to mean only that something called a “health care facility” exists in 85% of Afghan districts, many of which are enormous. Tens of thousands of Afghans now have “access” to health care facilities only because they fled their war-torn provinces for refugee camps on the fringes of major cities. The country’s high rates of maternal and infant mortality have slightly improved but remain among the worst in the world. You have to wonder if Washington couldn’t have turned all that MRAP money to better purpose.
As for the advancement of the human rights of women, much ballyhooed by American politicians and others, a report filed by the independent Afghan Rights Monitor in December 2012 tells a more accurate tale. It describes merely 10 of the many women assassinated in recent years because of their “work and ideals”: “women’s development activists, a doctor, two journalists, a provincial lawmaker, a teacher, and a police officer.”
Assassinated only two weeks ago was a courageous veteran police lieutenant named Nigara, who once stopped a suicide bomber by grabbing him in a bear hug. Men on a motorcycle shot her in the neck from behind as she stood waiting for a government bus to take her to work. She was the senior policewoman in Helmand Province, having taken over the duties of her predecessor Islam Bibi, assassinated only three months earlier in the same popular drive-by style.
No Afghan has ever been brought to trial for any of these assassinations, nor does President Karzai ever speak out against them. The government keeps no record of its women employees slain in the course of duty.
Good neighbor Pakistan chose this moment to release from detention at an “undisclosed location” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, longtime pal of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and formerly his second-in-command. Karzai campaigned for his release to facilitate the Afghan “peace process,” but now that Baradar is free, his whereabouts are officially unknown. How do you suppose women in Afghanistan, or girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, receive that news?
So that’s the way the war is ending — in waste, destruction, anxiety, conspiracy, and the evaporation of illusory achievements. A thousand diminutions mark the waning of Afghanistan, punctuated by the sudden violent death of women.
But even when the war “ends” and Americans have forgotten it altogether, it won’t be over in Afghanistan. Obama and Karzai continue negotiations toward a bilateral security agreement to allow the U.S. to keep at least 9 of the biggest bases it built and several thousand “trainers” (and undoubtedly special operations forces) in Afghanistan seemingly forever.
It won’t be over in the U.S. either. For American soldiers who took part in it and returned with catastrophic physical and mental injuries, and for their families, the battles are just beginning.
For American taxpayers, the war will continue at least until midcentury. Think of all the families of the dead soldiers to be compensated for their loss, all the wounded with their health care bills, all the brain damaged veterans at the VA. Think of the ongoing cost of their drugs and prosthetics and benefits. Medical and disability costs alone are projected to reach $754 billion. Not to mention the hefty retirement pay of all those generals who issued all those reports of progress as they so ambitiously fought more than one war leading nowhere.
Then there’s the urgent need to replace all that retrograde equipment, so efficiently trashed, and recruit a whole new army, so that any month now we can start the next war. Let’s not forget about that.
Ann Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is the author of Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan 2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (Metropolitan 2010), among other books. She wraps up a trilogy on war with publication next month of a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, which Andrew Bacevich has already described this way: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’”
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
The Forgotten War
Kabul, Afghanistan — Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you’re likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same. Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave. Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it’s anybody’s guess.
Only one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat. For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war. And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat. For years, a modest-sized, generally unpopular, ragtag set of insurgents has fought the planet’s most heavily armed, technologically advanced military to a standstill, leaving the country shaken and its citizens anxiously imagining the outcome of unpalatable scenarios.
The first, compromise, suggests the possibility of reaching some sort of almost inconceivable power-sharing agreement with multiple insurgent militias. While Washington presses for negotiations with its designated enemy, “the Taliban,” representatives of President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, which includes 12 members of the former Taliban government and many sympathizers, are making the rounds to talk disarmament and reconciliation with all the armed insurgent groups that the Afghan intelligence service has identified across the country. There are 1,500 of them.
One member of the Council told me, “It will take a long time before we get to Mullah Omar [the Taliban’s titular leader]. Some of these militias can’t even remember what they’ve been fighting about.”
The second scenario, open conflict, would mean another dreaded round of civil war like the one in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat — the one that destroyed the Afghan capital, Kabul, devastated parts of the country, and gave rise to the Taliban.
The third scenario, collapse, sounds so apocalyptic that it’s seldom brought up by Afghans, but it’s implied in the exodus already underway of those citizens who can afford to leave the country. The departures aren’t dramatic. There are no helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy with desperate Afghans clamoring to get on board; just a record number of asylum applications in 2011, a year in which, according to official figures, almost 36,000 Afghans were openly looking for a safe place to land, preferably in Europe. That figure is likely to be at least matched, if not exceeded, when the U.N. releases the complete data for 2012.
In January, I went to Kabul to learn what old friends and current officials are thinking about the critical months ahead. At the same time, Afghan President Karzai flew to Washington to confer with President Obama. Their talks seem to have differed radically from the conversations I had with ordinary Afghans. In Kabul, where strange rumors fly, an official reassured me that the future looked bright for the country because Karzai was expected to return from Washington with the promise of American radar systems, presumably for the Afghan Air Force, which is not yet “operational.” (He actually returned with the promise of helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, and drones.) Who knew that the fate of the nation and its suffering citizens hinged on that? In my conversations with ordinary Afghans, one thing that never came up was radar.
Another term that never seems to enter ordinary Afghan conversation, much as it obsesses Americans, is “al-Qaeda.” President Obama, for instance, announced at a joint press conference with President Karzai: “Our core objective — the reason we went to war in the first place — is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America.” An Afghan journalist asked me, “Why does he worry so much about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Doesn’t he know they are everywhere else?”
At the same Washington press conference, Obama said, “The nation we need to rebuild is our own.” Afghans long ago gave up waiting for the U.S. to make good on its promises to rebuild theirs. What’s now striking, however, is the vast gulf between the pronouncements of American officialdom and the hopes of ordinary Afghans. It’s a gap so wide you would hardly think — as Afghans once did — that we are fighting for them.
To take just one example: the official American view of events in Afghanistan is wonderfully black and white. The president, for instance, speaks of the way U.S. forces heroically “pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds.” Like other top U.S. officials over the years, he forgets whom we pushed into the Afghan government, our “stronghold” in the years after the 2001 invasion: ex-Taliban and Taliban-like fundamentalists, the most brutal civil warriors, and serial human rights violators.
Afghans, however, haven’t forgotten just whom the U.S. put in place to govern them — exactly the men they feared and hated most in exactly the place where few Afghans wanted them to be. Early on, between 2002 and 2004, 90% of Afghans surveyed nationwide told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that such men should not be allowed to hold public office; 76% wanted them tried as war criminals.
In my recent conversations, many Afghans still cited the first loya jirga, an assembly convened in 2003 to ratify the newly drafted constitution, or the first presidential election in 2004, or the parliamentary election of 2005, all held under international auspices, as the moments when the aspirations of Afghans and the “international community” parted company. In that first parliament, as in the earlier gatherings, most of the men were affiliated with armed militias; every other member was a former jihadi, and nearly half were affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.
In this way, Afghans were consigned to live under a government of bloodstained warlords and fundamentalists, who turned out to be Washington’s guys. Many had once battled the Soviets using American money and weapons, and quite a few, like the former warlord, druglord, minister of defense, and current vice-president Muhammad Qasim Fahim, had been very chummy with the CIA.
In the U.S., such details of our Afghan War, now in its 12th year, are long forgotten, but to Afghans who live under the rule of the same old suspects, the memory remains painfully raw. Worse, Afghans know that it is these very men, rearmed and ready, who will once again compete for power in 2014.
How to Vote Early in Afghanistan
President Karzai is barred by term limits from standing for reelection in 2014, but many Kabulis believe he reached a private agreement with the usual suspects at a meeting late last year. In early January, he seemed to seal the deal by announcing that, for the sake of frugality, the voter cards issued for past elections will be reused in 2014. Far too many of those cards were issued for the 2004 election, suspiciously more than the number of eligible voters. During the 2009 campaign, anyone could buy fistfuls of them at bargain basement prices. So this decision seemed to kill off the last faint hope of an election in which Afghans might actually have a say about the leadership of the country.
Fewer than 35% of voters cast ballots in the last presidential contest, when Karzai’s men were caught on video stuffing ballot boxes. (Afterward, President Obama phoned to congratulate Karzai on his “victory.”) Only dedicated or paid henchmen are likely to show up for the next “good enough for Afghans” exercise in democracy. Once again, an “election” may be just the elaborate stage set for announcing to a disillusioned public the names of those who will run the show in Kabul for the next few years.
Kabulis might live with that, as they’ve lived with Karzai all these years, but they fear power-hungry Afghan politicians could “compromise” as well with insurgent leaders like that old American favorite from the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently told a TV audience that he intends to claim his rightful place in government. Such compromises could stick the Afghan people with a shaky power-sharing deal among the most ultra-conservative, self-interested, sociopathic, and corrupt men in the country. If that deal, in turn, were to fall apart, as most power-sharing agreements worldwide do within a year or two, the big men might well plunge the country back into a 1990s-style civil war, with no regard for the civilians caught in their path.
These worst-case scenarios are everyday Kabuli nightmares. After all, during decades of war, the savvy citizens of the capital have learned to expect the worst from the men currently characterized in a popular local graffiti this way: “Mujahideen=Criminals. Taliban=Dumbheads.”
Ordinary Kabulis express reasonable fears for the future of the country, but impatient free-marketeering businessmen are voting with their feet right now, or laying plans to leave soon. They’ve made Kabul hum (often with foreign aid funds, which are equivalent to about 90% of the country’s economic activity), but they aren’t about to wait around for the results of election 2014. Carpe diem has become their version of financial advice. As a result, they are snatching what they can and packing their bags.
Millions of dollars reportedly take flight from Kabul International Airport every day: officially about $4.6 billion in 2011, or just about the size of Afghanistan’s annual budget. Hordes of businessmen and bankers (like those who, in 2004, set up the Ponzi scheme called the Kabul Bank, from which about a billion dollars went missing) are heading for cushy spots like Dubai, where they have already established residence on prime real estate.
As they take their investments elsewhere and the American effort winds down, the Afghan economy contracts ever more grimly, opportunities dwindle, and jobs disappear. Housing prices in Kabul are falling for the first time since the start of the occupation as rich Afghans and profiteering private American contractors, who guzzled the money that Washington and the “international community” poured into the country, move on.
At the same time, a money-laundering building boom in Kabul appears to have stalled, leaving tall, half-built office blocks like so many skeletons amid the scalloped Pakistani palaces, vertical malls, and grand madrassas erected in the past four or five years by political and business insiders and well-connected conservative clerics.
Most of the Afghan tycoons seeking asylum elsewhere don’t fear for their lives, just their pocketbooks: they’re not political refugees, but free-market rats abandoning the sinking ship of state. Joining in the exodus (but not included in the statistics) are countless illegal émigrés seeking jobs or fleeing for their lives, paying human smugglers money they can’t afford as they head for Europe by circuitous and dangerous routes.
Threatened Afghans have fled from every abrupt change of government in the last century, making them the largest population of refugees from a single country on the planet. Once again, those who can are voting with their feet (or their pocketbooks) — and voting early.
Afghanistan’s historic tragedy is that its violent political shifts — from king to communists to warlords to religious fundamentalists to the Americans — have meant the flight of the very people most capable of rebuilding the country along peaceful and prosperous lines. And their departure only contributes to the economic and political collapse they themselves seek to avoid. Left behind are ordinary Afghans — the illiterate and unskilled, but also a tough core of educated, ambitious citizens, including women’s rights activists, unwilling to surrender their dream of living once again in a free and peaceful Afghanistan.
The Military Monster
These days Kabul resounds with the blasts of suicide bombers, IEDs, and sporadic gunfire. Armed men are everywhere in anonymous uniforms that defy identification. Any man with money can buy a squad of bodyguards, clad in classy camouflage and wraparound shades, and armed with assault weapons. Yet Kabulis, trying to carry on normal lives in the relative safety of the capital, seem to maintain a distance from the war going on in the provinces.
Asked that crucial question — do you think American forces should stay or go? — the Kabulis I talked with tended to answer in a theoretical way, very unlike the visceral response one gets in the countryside, where villages are bombed and civilians killed, or in the makeshift camps for internally displaced people that now crowd the outer fringes of Kabul. (By the time U.S. Marines surged into Taliban-controlled Helmand Province in the south in 2010 to bring counterinsurgency-style protection to the residents there, tens of thousands of them had already moved to those camps in Kabul.) Afghans in the countryside want to be rid of armed men. All of them. Kabulis just want to be secure, and if that means keeping some U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base near the capital, as Afghan and American officials are currently discussing, well, it’s nothing to them.
In fact, most Kabulis I spoke to think that’s what’s going to happen. After all, American officials have been talking for years about keeping permanent bases in Afghanistan (though they avoid the term “permanent” when speaking to the American press), and American military officers now regularly appear on Afghan TV to say, “The United States will never abandon Afghanistan.” Afghans reason: Americans would not have spent nearly 12 years fighting in this country if it were not the most strategic place on the planet and absolutely essential to their plans to “push on” Iran and China next. Everybody knows that pushing on other countries is an American specialty.
Besides, Afghans can see with their own eyes that U.S. command centers, including multiple bases in Kabul, and Bagram Air Base, only 30 miles away, are still being expanded and upgraded. Beyond the high walls of the American Embassy compound, they can also see the tall new apartment blocks going up for an expanding staff, even if Washington now claims that staff will be reduced in the years to come.
Why, then, would President Obama announce the drawdown of U.S. troops to perhaps a few thousand special operations forces and advisors, if Washington didn’t mean to leave? Afghans have a theory about that, too. It’s a ruse, many claim, to encourage all other foreign forces to depart so that the Americans can have everything to themselves. Afghanistan, as they imagine it, is so important that the U.S., which has fought the longest war in its history there, will be satisfied with nothing less.
I was there to listen, but at times I did mention to Afghans that America’s post-9/11 wars and occupations were threatening to break the country. “We just can’t afford this war anymore,” I said.
Afghans only laugh at that. They’ve seen the way Americans throw money around. They’ve seen the way American money corrupted the Afghan government, and many reminded me that American politicians like Afghan ones are bought and sold, and its elections won by money. Americans, they know, are as rich as Croesus and very friendly, though on the whole not very well mannered or honest or smart.
Operation Enduring Presence
More than 11 years later, the tragedy of the American war in Afghanistan is simple enough: it has proven remarkably irrelevant to the lives of the Afghan people — and to American troops as well. Washington has long appeared to be fighting its own war in defense of a form of government and a set of long-discredited government officials that ordinary Afghans would never have chosen for themselves and have no power to replace.
In the early years of the war (2001-2005), George W. Bush’s administration was far too distracted planning and launching another war in Iraq to maintain anything but a minimal military presence in Afghanistan — and that mainly outside the capital. Many journalists (including me) criticized Bush for not finishing the war he started there when he had the chance, but today Kabulis look back on that soldierless period of peace and hope with a certain nostalgia. In some quarters, the Bush years have even acquired something like the sheen of a lost Golden Age — compared, that is, to the thoroughgoing militarization of American policy that followed.
So commanding did the U.S. military become in Kabul and Washington that, over the years, it ate the State Department, gobbled up the incompetent bureaucracy of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the countryside to carry out maniacal “development” projects and throw bales of cash at all the wrong “leaders.”
Of course, the military also killed a great many people, both “enemies” and civilians. As in Vietnam, it won the battles, but lost the war. When I asked Afghans from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north how they accounted for the relative peacefulness and stability of their area, the answer seemed self-evident: “Americans didn’t come here.”
Other consequences, all deleterious, flowed from the militarization of foreign policy. In Afghanistan and the United States, so intimately ensnarled over all these years, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown exponentially, in large part because in both countries the rich have made money off war-making, while ordinary citizens have slipped into poverty for lack of jobs and basic services.
Relying on the military, the U.S. neglected the crucial elements of civil life in Afghanistan that make things bearable — like education and health care. Yes, I’ve heard the repeated claims that, thanks to us, millions of children are now attending school. But for how long? According to UNICEF, in the years 2005-2010, in the whole of Afghanistan only 18% of boys attended high school, and 6% of girls. What kind of report card is that? After 11 years of underfunded work on health care in a country the size of Texas, infant mortality still remains the highest in the world.
By 2014, the defense of Afghanistan will have been handed over to the woeful Afghan National Security Force, also known in military-speak as the “Enduring Presence Force.” In that year, for Washington, the American war will be officially over, whether it’s actually at an end or not, and it will be up to Afghans to do the enduring.
Here’s where that final scenario — collapse — haunts the Kabuli imagination. Economic collapse means joblessness, poverty, hunger, and a great swelling of the ranks of children cadging a living in the streets. Already street children are said to number a million strong in Kabul, and 4 million across the country. Only blocks from the Presidential Palace, they are there in startling numbers selling newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, or simply begging for small change. Are they the county’s future?
And if the state collapses, too? Afghans of a certain age remember well the last time the country was left on its own, after the Soviets departed in 1989, and the U.S. also terminated its covert aid. The mujahideen parties — Islamists all — agreed to take turns ruling the country, but things soon fell apart and they took turns instead lobbing rockets into Kabul, killing tens of thousands of civilians, reducing entire districts to rubble, raiding and raping — until the Taliban came up from the south and put a stop to everything.
Afghan civilians who remember that era hope that this time Karzai will step down as he promises, and that the usual suspects will find ways to maintain traditional power balances, however undemocratic, in something that passes for peace. Afghan civilians are, however, betting that if a collision comes, one-third of those Afghan Security Forces trained at fabulous expense to protect them will fight for the government (whoever that may be), one-third will fight for the opposition, and one-third will simply desert and go home. That sounds almost like a plan.
Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan 2006) and more recently War Is Not Over When It’s Over (Metropolitan 2010). She wants to acknowledge the courage and determination of all her friends in Afghanistan, especially the women, and the men who stand beside them.
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones