Bleeding Afghanistan

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Last Friday in UC 103, a healthy crowd of 100 plus turned up (on a Friday night no less) to hear discussion on the current situation in Afghanistan and Canada’s involvement there in conjunction with the launch of the new book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.

In attendance were the book’s authors Sonail Kolhatkar and James Ingalis as well as Toronto-based journalist Justin Podur. The event put on by the CSA Human Rights Office was not just an opportunity to promote a new book about a very hot topic, but it was also a chance to raise awareness of an Afghan charity called Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) . RAWA is a non-profit that helps Afghan women and children get healthcare, build and administer schools, hospitals and orphanages as well as organizing Afghan women to pursue advocacy for greater freedoms. Donations were collected for RAWA to help them continue in their goals of creating a better standard of life for Afghan women.

The talk started with a few general comments about the turnout as it was remarked that this launch in the “small market” of Guelph was larger than those that came to the Toronto launch. As the talk went on, Kolhatkar mentioned how while touring in Canada (she’s from the US) she’s generally noticed a more open willingness to seriously debate the merits of military operations abroad, even considering the way US pundits are remarking about the deteriorating support in their country for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Speaking first was Podur, who didn’t go into specifics about what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, but rather talked about the nature of the mission from the Canadian perspective. Podur has reported from Haiti, Venezuela and Israel, but he began his talk by discussing commonalities between the US government’s approach to fighting the Drug War in Columbia and our current struggles in Afghanistan. Comparisons between the two countries are apt because of the Afghan government’s alliance with the warlords and the fact that, despite democratic advances, Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.

He went on to discuss Canada’s “policy of hypocrisy”; according to Podur, this is a foreign policy stance where our country projects itself as a peacekeeper and honest broker while ignoring our own colonialist tendencies. Podur went on to say that this the election of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives that has changed since the government is no longer “speaking out of both side’s of its mouth,” although he notes that this is not an improvement considering how Harper has followed in lock-step with the world outlook of the Bush administration. Podur ended his portion by noting the national media’s propensity for turning the suffering of others in another country into our own national trauma, and he wonders how long till our country starts looking inside and talking about how the slaughter of innocent Afghans affects us more than them.

Next to speak was Ingalis who began by noting that Canada, at the very least, shows signs of having a much healthier democracy than the US where the debate is about arguing semantics over how bad the war is rather anyone actually working for change. Ingalis went on to discuss how the security in Afghanistan is currently at its worst level since 2001 and the failure on both sides to distinguish between the forces they’re fighting. For the Afghans there’s little, if any, difference between the US and NATO forces, while our government and news media mistakenly label every Afghan killed as a Taliban fighter. The consequence of this reporting is that it makes it look like that regular, everyday Afghan’s have no problem with the NATO forces and it’s just a select few roustabouts that are making all the noise.

While 75 per cent of Afghans enthusiastically turned out to the polls in order to vote, they have quickly turned sour against their elected parliament. People are angry at the US presence in their country with ongoing issues involving lack of safety and infrastructure; there are still parts of the country that only get electricity for three hours a day. But mostly it’s safety concerns as the new insurgents aren’t even former Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but non-aligned Afghans looking to focus their anger against westerners. Every time an Afghan is killed, a whole new family joins the swelling ranks of anti-American sentiment. Ingalis believes that there needs to be a fundamental policy change so that maybe the tide can be turned the other way and Afghanistan can get back on track towards being a safe and functioning democracy.

Finally, it was Kolhatkar’s turn at the microphone and she also noted how the book has gotten more attention in Canada than the US. She began by talking at length about the modern history and how RAWA began in 1987 in order to address women’s issues, but developed a secondary, anti-Imperialist component during the Soviet invasion. She talked about the little discussed fact that the US funded the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the fight against the Soviets and compared that situation to a hypothetical foreign power offering aid and money to the Ku Klux Klan.

Kolhatkar went on to talk about how it wasn’t until 9/11 that people in the west “remembered” about Afghanistan, that the plight of the women in that country had all been ignored as they suffered under years of misogynist rule. This where RAWA comes in as it was the closest thing to a relief agency that existed in Afghanistan in order to help the oppressed women and children there. Kolhatkar left a cushy job at the California Institute of Technology in order to advance RAWA’s mission through the non-profit Afghan Women’s Mission, which she founded co-directs with Ingalis. She hopes that RAWA represents a non-violent path to creating a secular democracy and that they will continue working towards greater freedoms for the women of Afghanistan and a government that doesn’t sanction the abuse of Islam in order to rule of them with an iron fist.

The floor was opened to questions and a great many hands went, proving that the U of G campus remains a fertile ground for rigorous political thought. Overall, it was a most informative evening. For more information concerning the book Bleeding Afghanistan, click here .

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