Book Review: Building Pipelines, Supporting Warlords and Bleeding Afghans

During a period that ultimately led to between 3000-3400 civilians killed (1) outright – and thousands more from starvation and disease as a direct consequence of the attack – then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked by an admiring press corps if the US was running out of targets. He responded with a characteristic quip: "We’re not running out of targets. Afghanistan is." The assembled journalists thought this marvelously funny. A cynic might say that certain journalists were deemed worthy of assemblage because they passed the laugh test.

Thus began the latest of well-intentioned Western efforts to "help Afghans." Of course, if the US had really wanted to help Afghans, they would have started by cleaning up the mess left in 1989, after the disastrous invasion and failed occupation by the Soviet Union, which some analysts cite as a major factor in its demise. In the unvarnished history that Bleeding Afghanistan relates, the US used Afghans to fight a proxy war against the invaders, and after both Cold War adversaries wrecked the country, US policy entailed leaving the Afghans to fend for themselves. A CIA-originated comment (well known to the locals) has it that "the US was willing to fight the Soviets to the last Afghan." Today, the Taliban are attempting to win Afghan hearts and minds by citing this recent history, arguing that the Soviets failed to win their war against Afghanistan even though they were not bogged down elsewhere.

The authors of Bleeding Afghanistan are Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, the co-directors of the Afghans Women’s Mission, a US-based grassroots organization that is affiliated with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, a collective of courageous Afghan feminists working for social change within the country. In their research, Kolhatkar and Ingalls spent most of 2005 in Afghanistan conducting interviews that form much of the groundwork for Bleeding Afghanistan. Their book provides a nuanced corrective to recent history, which is submerged under a mainstream media whitewash. Kolhatkar and Ingalls cite the self-serving (and largely ignored) reasons for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan: to "restore imperial prestige" undermined by 9/11; to pave a "stepping-stone to Iraq"; to demonstrate that "imperial democracy" can be imposed by force to turn a failed state "into an upwardly-mobile democracy"; to shore up future Republican gains with "election propaganda"; and to provide a "war on terror demonstration."

After the splintering of the Soviet Union, the US and its allies began jockeying for position in a region that is a strategic prize in the new "great game" – for petroleum resources. The old Great Game was played in the 19th and early 20th century by the major world powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey). During this period, Great Britain fought three failed wars against Afghanistan.

Recognizing that increasing amounts of oil and natural gas must be imported from Central Asia within the next twenty years, the US has made deals with authoritarian regimes in the region since the Clinton era. The world’s richest untapped oil source is the Caspian Basin, which includes parts of Russia and Iran, and the five independent republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (which houses the largest US base in Central Asia). The authors of Bleeding Afghanistan reiterate what many analysts have long warned against: that this provocative period of US adventurism "may spark a new era of Cold War-style tension with China and Russia." As the US extends its reach from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea Basin, new alliances are being formed among Russia, China, and India in a region that was formerly Russia’s backyard. On July 13th, 2006, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline (which reaches the Mediterranean by bypassing Russia) was formally opened. In March, 2007, Russia countered with a new pipeline deal with Greece and Bulgaria to host a pipeline to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.

Historical ironies abound: after the former Soviet Union invaded in 1979, Moscow emphasized its construction of schools and clinics, while its military worked to feed hungry Afghans and free the women from misogynist oppression. The West rightly dismissed such actions as public relations tactics: the "evil empire" could not disguise the fact that it was an invader against the will of the Afghan majority and a recognized government. The humiliating pullout by the Soviets in 1989 was followed by a civil war and the advent of Taliban rule. The US soon recognized the Taliban because, as the authors assert, "an internationally recognized government would enable World Bank funding for Unocal oil and gas pipelines." Bleeding Afghanistan also emphasizes that realpolitik trumped other considerations:

As long as the Taliban resisted Russian, Iranian, or Chinese influence, brought their country under unified control, and confined their mayhem to within the border of Afghanistan, they were acceptable to the US.

– but that was before September 11th 2001, which provided the opportunity for "regime change" in Kabul. Early that same year, the Taliban fell out of favor with Washington after rejecting a bid from Unocal for pipeline construction (in favor of an Argentinean firm).

As the writings of Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Richard Clarke have documented, Afghanistan was selected as a test-case before the main event: an invasion of Iraq. September 11th also provided the US with a convenient opening to justify the use of force to its people while attempting to gain a stronger foothold in the region. While Central Asia is estimated to contain 46% of the world’s gas reserves, Afghanistan also has a large supply of recently discovered natural gas (1.6 billion barrels, mostly in the Afghan-Tajik basin). One pipeline route (dubbed the "new Silk Road") reaches from Uzbekistan to Karachi, Pakistan, via Kabul. Such crass commercial considerations are central, yet are usually hidden. The neocons felt that the American people must remain innocent of the knowledge of US long-term geopolitical goals for the region – and their likely human cost – as the reality would not sell well. So the Bush administration billed "Operation Enduring Freedom" (OEF) as a military action that would capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, and overthrow the Taliban.

Washington’s post-9/11 goals were furthered by the US mainstream media’s presentation of them. Military officials explain why we should support the mission while journalists interviewing them largely ignore such matters as the priority of military base construction over reconstruction, trans-Afghan pipeline routes, or long-term US geopolitical goals.

Among the Western public, only the naïve believe that "helping Afghans" could be a priority either then or now – but, of course, Western propaganda induces naïveté. As cheap symbolism is preferable to nuanced explanations, the burqa was ideal for the image-makers. The fact that Afghan women, especially in rural areas, actually preferred to wear this traditional garment, was ignored. Naturally enough, they regard the covering as a minor issue compared to their lack of access to health care and education.

In Afghanistan, "cultural backwardness" is a trait shared by many rival tribes: as bad as he is, the Taliban is only one of many offenders. A broader context from the media would have revealed that the abuse of women is no better in other parts of central Asia, such as eastern Turkey, rural Pakistan, and India. Of course, during the Soviet occupation, it was off the agenda to reveal the attitude towards women of the US-backed mujahedeen or "freedom fighters" (and forerunners of the Taliban).

The new Western campaign against the burqa turned it into a simplistic symbol of women’s oppression. As Kolhatkar and Ingalls point out, it reinforced negative stereotypes and failed to reflect the contemporary history of women’s movements in Afghanistan. RAWA, for example, has extended its mandate by opposing both indigenous fundamentalism and Western imperialism. Clearly, for the Western media, this would not do. Kolhatkar and Ingalls point out that "Militant and vocal Afghan women are not as easy to ‘liberate’ as those who are voiceless and faceless and can be portrayed as dependent on the benevolence of foreigners." The authors remind us that, after the impending invasion of Afghanistan was announced, a spate of "blue burqa books" soon appeared which condemned Taliban repression against women. However, the narrow focus of this curiously-timed new industry implied that Afghan women’s problems began with the Taliban. This selective moral outrage was highly serviceable to US policy.

On January, 2002, in his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush remarked that "the last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school… Today, the women of Afghanistan are free…" Thus, the media were signaled by Washington to provide coverage of a liberated people. On the ground in Afghanistan, TV journalists paid Afghan women to remove their tent-like garments, toss them into a bonfire, and parade their newly-liberated selves before the TV cameras. After the cameras were switched off, the women promptly donned new burqas. Such propaganda works. Among US Congress members who opposed the war and occupation of Iraq, virtually all have supported the war in Afghanistan; among US soldiers who applied for conscientious objector status in Iraq, most indicated a willingness to serve in the "good" war in Afghanistan.

Little has changed for women or impoverished Afghans under the rule of our new warlord friends, for whom Hamid Karzai serves as front man. The US media now engages in what Kolhatkar and Ingalls call "the propaganda of silence" (shifting focus elsewhere to reinforce the belief that Afghanistan’s problems were solved by the US). These days, the subject of women’s oppression is "no longer fashionable to discuss, as it is perpetrated by US allies and is inconsistent with the supposed ‘liberation’ of Afghan women [so] there are few if any such books published."

The notion that foreign troops can elevate a society from cultural lag is an absurdity. In reality, a legacy of lawlessness has been restored under another faction, the former Soviet collaborators of the Northern Alliance, whose warlords, drug lords, and unpunished war criminals serve as part of Afghanistan’s fledgling "democracy," to the outrage of many Afghanis. In Canada, roughly half the population is skeptical of its leading role in support of Washington’s geopolitical designs, and greater numbers of Americans are now beginning to oppose the Afghan mission as well.(2)

In a stage-managed election held in December, 2004, Washington’s man was sworn in as the newly elected President. All parties opposed to the American occupation were excluded, including the Pashtun majority. To his credit, Hamid Karzai is a liberal Pashtun and no warlord, yet not only was he an unknown figure on the world stage, he was largely unknown to Afghans as well. An oft-heard charge against Karzai concerns his possible ties to Unocal. After one year of research in the country, the authors of Bleeding Afghanistan found that the charge is without foundation. However, Karzai’s previous utility as a CIA asset explains why the "Mayor of Kabul" was hand-picked by Washington to be the face of the new US- and NATO-backed coalition government. Recently, Afghanis have begun to chant "Death to Karzai" alongside "Death to America." The paid hirelings who protect him will be needed for as long as he pretends to represent people who overwhelmingly regard him as an American satrap.

This book also gives the lie to the claim that soldiers can assist aid workers in reconstruction. Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of the country in 2004.(3) Such organizations as CARE have also complained of the increased dangers to their workers when the distinction between them and soldiers is blurred. The military have sometimes offered "conditional" aid to Afghans in exchange for their cooperation in identifying insurgents. What our media don’t tell us is that rural Afghanis often claim that their lives were better under Taliban rule, since they now have less security, electricity, or clean water than before the US-led war and occupation. Such a perspective is elided here, as it would encourage cognitive dissonance in the Western public.

The "propaganda of silence" can easily be seen following the Soviet pullout in 1989, which resulted in a catastrophic civil war (1992-1996). This corresponded to a drastic decline in coverage. Kolhatkar and Ingalls searched an online database representing the five major newspapers comprising the prestige press (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor). Reviewing the extent of news coverage between 1975 and 2005, their quantitative analysis reveals a pattern whereby coverage reflects the strategic importance of Afghanistan to Washington policymakers (not concern about the plight of Afghanis). The authors cite an editorial from the conservative newsmagazine The Economist, which revealed the underlying values:

The war may be sad for Afghans, but does it matter to the rest of the world? For nine years, while the Soviet army was in occupation it had the status of an international problem… then, suddenly, the invaders were gone, driven out by the mujahedeen… anyway, problem over.

– that is, our problems were over, not theirs. After the Soviets left, Afghanistan’s internecine civil war was of little concern to Western governments, so it became irrelevant to media managers as well: those who see nothing wrong with jumping on the bandwagon to help "clarify" our strategic interests at other times.

The record of the warlords of the Northern Alliance during the Soviet occupation revealed them to be even more brutal than the Taliban. Their depredations were so extreme that the Taliban was initially welcomed by Afghans hoping for the restoration of some kind of order. Yet it has never been Washington’s goal to tamp down the ethnic rivalries that plague such countries. As noted, Kolhatkar and Ingalls make clear that "the primary concern was the Soviet presence and its threat to US influence." Then, as now,

The price of this for the Afghan people was never considered. Progressive or secular groups interested in gaining control over their own country might not be willing to shed enough blood. To the US, the Afghans were cannon fodder.

It is easy to predict that the failed campaign in Iraq will prompt the US government-media axis to resume Afghanistan coverage in order to consolidate Washington’s "war on terror" there. Against an impending PR blitz, this book is an essential antidote to the skewed media picture of a "successful" occupation undertaken by a benevolent Western coalition.

The authors counsel against the arrogance of paternalism. If the major powers really wanted to "help Afghans," they emphasize, instead of deciding which warlord faction to support in our own interest, we would ask the Afghan people what they want. Such a standpoint, of course, is remote from that of our political and military establishments, whose mantra is that "we" will decide what is best, both for Afghans and for our "national interest" (and when these conflict, it is easy to guess whose interests will prevail).

Surprisingly, Kolhatkar and Ingalls do not suggest that all foreign troops should simply go home. They remind us that we have a collective responsibility to face up to the crimes of our governments against the Afghan people. By way of restitution, foreign troops not operating under OEF or NATO could gradually return, but solely as peacekeepers with the goal of preventing another civil war, not to hunt down designated "terrorists." Such troops could assist Western aid workers to provide security, disarm warlords, and help to rebuild infrastructure.

Of course, this is what Western propaganda claims the soldiers are doing now, but the reality is that the US and NATO have prevented the introduction of an international peacekeeping force. The insurgents recognize what we do not: that the goal of propping up the puppet regime in Kabul and consolidating a Western presence in this strategic area has priority over all humanitarian endeavors. Like the Iraqis, the Afghanis know their history, and recognize that, like every invader before it, the US-led NATO alliance acts in accordance with the self-interest of its member states. Washington has promised NATO members privileged access to the area’s energy resources in exchange for their cooperation in the humanitarian endeavor of helping Afghans by hunting Afghans.

Today, Afghanistan is a US- and NATO-controlled narcostate, which actively prioritizes search and destroy missions (which kill innocent civilians) over anti-poverty or reconstruction programs. In 2006, more than 4000 Afghan civilians died in the violence: twice as many as the previous year. The number of attacks against troops skyrocketed in 2006 as well. As is well known, the focus on a military solution is the problem. For every insurgent killed, a dozen more are recruited. The year 2006 witnessed as many US aerial bombing campaigns in Afghanistan as the previous five years, yet NATO forces suffered their highest casualty rate since the beginning of the occupation.

We are bleeding the Afghans, but not to death: these fierce tribal warriors represent a long history of resistance to would-be conquerors. As a result, the current spring offensive is not another Western response to what used to be a "low-intensity war." The resurgent (4) Taliban are assisted by new recruits who do not share the sectarian religious ideology of the Taliban but concur with their anti-imperialist goals. The Iraq debacle is a foretaste of our future in a doomed occupation in Afghanistan as well, with increasingly hated Western forces facing xenophobic nationalists who comprise the Pashtun majority. All foreigners who arrive to "help Afghans" – while propping up a non-representative, puppet government – eventually learn this lesson, from the Macedonians of Alexander to the former Soviet Union. As former Soviet soldier and veteran Afghan fighter Sergey Kirjushin (5) recently remarked: "Every nation that goes to fight in Afghanistan discovers [that] nobody has ever conquered that place. Even children were involved. They would blow up our tanks."


Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006.

Contributor Richard Alan Leach most recently taught at the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) in South Korea. He writes on Asian and English literatures, East Asian politics, and defense and security issues. In addition to his academic writing, he has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, and editorials.


1. Marc Herold, “A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan.”  

2. For the First Time, Americans Oppose Afghan War,” Angus Reid, January 25, 2007.

3. MSF Leaves Afghanistan After 24 Years.”

4. Afghanistan Five Years Later: the Return of the Taliban,” Senlis Council Report.

5. Mathew Fisher, Victoria Times-Colonist, Oct. 26, 2006. “Veterans of Russia;s Afghan Wars Says It’s ‘impossible to win there."