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Afghanistan and After

An interview with Ann Jones, a leading authority on violence and its consequences.

Deborah Campbell 13 Mar

Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place. Her forthcoming book is A Disappearance in Damascus. She has written widely on international politics, and teaches in UBC's creative writing and journalism graduate programs.

Twelve years, $16-billion (at a minimum), 162 Canadian and uncounted thousands of Afghan lives later, Canada is pulling out of Afghanistan, the longest war in our history. But the truth is that war isn't over when it's over. That's been the driving concern of the writing of Ann Jones, one of the world's leading authorities on violence and its consequences. A historian, Nation correspondent, Guggenheim fellow, and author of eight books including the feminist classic Women Who Kill, Jones travelled to Afghanistan after 9/11 to witness the effects of war on a society where 95 per cent of women endure violence. Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan is a gripping, heartbreaking, essential account of the people most affected by our boots on the ground. Her latest book, They Were Soldiers, follows the war home through the lives of damaged fighters.

On Thursday, March 20 at 5 p.m., Jones will give a free public lecture on "Women and War in Afghanistan" at the University of British Columbia's Allard Hall, 1822 East Mall, as part of the "Utopia/Dystopia: Creating the Worlds We Want" lecture series organized by the Creative Writing Program and Green College.

The Tyee corresponded with Jones in Oslo, where she is currently a Fulbright scholar.

You first went to Afghanistan in 2002 to live and work among civilians, then later travelled with U.S. forces. What's it like to see both sides of that war?

"It changed my way of thinking about war. 'Both sides' usually means your own country's side and the 'enemy's' side. Civilians aren't a 'side' at all. They are ground zero, the baseline, the background, the people who happen to reside in what the military calls the battlespace. They suffer far more casualties than do the contending soldiers. Most of the civilian wounded and dead are those who find it hardest to flee: children, elderly people, the disabled, the sick, and the women who stay behind to care for them. Everyone knows this, but civilian casualties don't often figure in official bulletins and news reports, so it's easy for civilians safe at home in the U.S. and Canada to forget about them.

"I had worked among those civilians for eight years before I embedded with U.S. troops to get a firsthand look at what those swaggering, in-your-face troops that so anger Kabulis were doing in the combat zones. The forward operating bases seemed like remote summer church camps that offered air conditioned barracks and tents, chapel, internet, TV, over-equipped gym, laundry service, firing range with instruction, and full a la carte menu including lobster tail and seven flavours of ice cream served up by underpaid lackeys from destitute countries. But the camps also featured daily shelling and frequent solemn processions of patrols returning to base with men missing.

"The soldiers were just kids, homesick mostly, working the phones and the internet. They said they were there to help the Afghan people, and some of those who went out on patrol to Afghan villages were shocked by the poverty and hardship they saw. For some that was a life-changer that would later make it hard for them to resume a normal American life, shopping at Walmart. Many soldiers, of course, saw Afghans as the other: easy to mock, despise, and fear, perhaps even easy to shoot because they look and dress exactly like 'the enemy.'

"By chance I saw U.S. soldiers break down, and I began to see them differently. Many soldiers on those bases, and many more after they return to the States, take their own lives -- so many that those dead by their own hand outnumber those killed by the 'other side,' 'the enemy.' Now I think of U.S. soldiers as casualties of the great American war-making machine, interchangeable parts in a militarized economic/political system that transfers wealth from the public treasury to the pockets of the already rich. Ordinary civilians and soldiers of all nations should be on the same side. For ordinary people, in and out of uniform, the enemy is not 'over there' but much closer to home. He wears a suit and banks abroad."

You've written about the way foreign aid money was used and misused. What do you think are the root problems with foreign aid?

"The United States is the biggest donor to Afghanistan and the worst offender. Since 9/11, foreign aid under the U.S. Agency for International Development has been transformed. Republican ideologues stripped it of its career civil servants and expertise to make it -- in Hillary Clinton's words -- a privatized 'contracting shop.' The Agency sees its job as serving the 'national interest' of a nation at war without end, a task that includes creating 'free' markets for American enterprise. It still employs many well-intentioned people who don't get the picture, but basically it's another cog in the war-making machine. Programs still claiming to help 'the people' work from the top down, dispensing with strings attached what USAID deems appropriate. Never do they work from the ground up, guided by the people themselves.

"In Afghanistan, for example it took USAID years to think of giving some aid to farmers, who in 2002 represented 85 per cent of the population. That helps explain why so many programs are ineffective or counterproductive and why so much so-called foreign aid clings to the pockets of private US contractors and members of the Karzai government. When Afghan officials make off with aid money, that's called 'corruption'; when American contractors make off with it, that's called 'development.'

"Some other countries, notably the Scandinavians, do things differently and better. Canada was among them, but not anymore, not since it remodeled CIDA along American lines to make so called foreign aid pay off at home."

You recently reported on the historic destruction of military equipment and facilities underway in Afghanistan. What struck you most about that?

"Soldiers are busy destroying billions of dollars worth of equipment in Afghanistan, supposedly to save money. It's cheaper to scrap the stuff than ship it back to the U.S. or to any other of the hundreds of American bases around the world. So says a suddenly conscientious Pentagon, but it's a lame excuse. The destruction is a spectacular waste of taxpayer money, and a bonanza for America's arms manufacturers who now get to replace all that stuff with new and even more expensive war toys. In a sense, America's unnecessary wars of choice -- complete with uniformed sacrificial soldiers -- have become little more than public performances to convince the citizenry that all this expense is essential to our 'security.' If the public gets wise, perhaps we can skip the wars -- thereby saving the lives of both soldiers and civilians -- and just let contractors make stuff and destroy it themselves. That would be costly, but a lot cheaper than the current homicidal system."

Now that we've saved the women of Afghanistan, and troops are preparing to leave, what challenges do women there face?

"'Women's rights' were only a slogan for George W. Bush and the Washington men in suits. Sadly, what they missed -- or perhaps knew and didn't care for -- is that most of the extraordinarily brave women of Afghanistan who claim their 'human rights,' are backed by the men of their families, and together they make up a progressive, democratic force that perhaps still could determine the future of the country. But tens of thousands of such capable, progressive Afghans have left the country in the last two years, anticipating bad times ahead.

"No one knows what will happen, but women are afraid that either Karzai or the next government (to be chosen in April) will bargain away the progress women have made in a 'peace' agreement with the Taliban (Karzai's 'angry brothers'), or that the Taliban will simply take over. Women have worked hard and bravely all these years and would be much farther ahead now had not the Bonn Conference installed Karzai as president. He is, after all, a conservative Pashtun who keeps his wife at home. That President Karzai would do almost nothing to advance women and much to hold them back, the international kingmakers could have deduced, as perhaps they did. Misogyny flourishes in Washington and Westminster as well as in Kabul.

"Women's rights were inscribed on paper in the constitution of 2004 and multiple international conventions. Yet the last few years of the Karzai administration have seen those rights changed, amended, restricted, erased, and subsumed under extremist interpretations of Sharia law, the trump card also inscribed in the Afghan constitution. Quotas for women in provincial government have been reduced by law, while throughout the country, extremist men, some of them Taliban, have assassinated women leaders one by one -- a serial atrocity that has passed without charge or censure or the slightest remark from the Afghan president or the American president either.

"The last best hope for the country may come down to television. Its impact has been enormous. (To be fair, USAID helped fund the start up of the first and most important channel.) Most of the Afghan population is young -- a generation that's grown up on Bollywood movies, Turkish soap operas, and soccer. They are the first generation to see what the bigger, better world looks like, and they want it."

What is someone known for covering war and conflict doing in a peaceful place like Norway?

"People become what they look at and think about and talk about with their friends, and if that topic is war, we're in for more trouble. Our international 24-hour news focus on conflict and war and terrorism makes it seem normal, natural, inevitable, inescapable. But it's none of those things. War is a human invention that humans can set aside.

"I came to Norway to study peace instead. Norway specializes in it: creating the material/social conditions for peace at home and practicing a foreign policy of helping other nations make peace through peaceful means. Norway consistently tops the charts of international evaluations of public services and wellbeing, health and education, quality of life, standards of living, economic equality, gender equality, citizen participation and satisfaction, and plain old, flat out happiness. What holds that package together? Don't say North Sea oil. That's only the gravy. Peace itself starts with gender equality. It's not by chance male dominated Afghanistan is the worst place on earth to be a woman while egalitarian Norway is the best. I'll persuade you to that point of view -- but that's another book."  [Tyee]

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