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Two countries — common destiny?

Stubborn patriotism in Afghanistan and the United States

by Howard Williams

Most of us have seen her picture staring at the camera with intense green eyes often described as frightened, determined, or angry. Her photograph by Steve McCurry appeared on a National Geographic cover in 1985 and has been seen repeatedly since: on the cover of a volume of National Geographic photos and on the cover of Portraits, McCurry’s collection of images from all over the world. Her picture appeared again earlier this month on an MS/NBC TV report.

If you’ve only seen the picture and haven’t read the caption you may be surprised to learn that she was an Afghan girl in a Pakistan refugee camp. Along with her family and six million of her countryfolk she had fled from the Soviet invasion.

To most of us she appears as a very sympathetic yet tragically distant character. If she was like most Afghans who had just reached the Pakistan camps, she was homeless except for a tent that would eventually be replaced by a mud hut. She was probably denied an education and doomed to a childhood of hard labor. Sympathetic yet so far from us here in this free and prosperous country. Her intense gaze could compel our sympathy, but until last year we could never imagine that the tragedy of her world would come into ours.

When we read “A Nation Challenged” in each day’s New York Times we cannot help but notice that many of the articles in that section are about Afghanistan as well as America. Perhaps the Times should title that section “Two Nations Challenged.”

In the past Afghanistan and America have had converging interests, but after 1989 we had disengaged from the Afghans. After evicting the Soviets that year Afghanistan suffered through an endless war far from us and seemingly far from our interests and abilities. Western journalists referred to the war as a civil war between the ruling Taliban and the Northern Alliance. But to many Afghans it was a resistance to yet another foreign invader. To more and more Afghans the Taliban came to be seen as the puppets of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda legions and Pakistani military/fundamentalist rogue elements. And events have proven that the Taliban were just that: puppets of foreign masters.

The tragic events of September 11 and the subsequent war that saw us ally ourselves with anti-Taliban Afghans proved that our two nations have more in common than we thought. As Americans learned about Afghanistan after September 11, we only saw and heard the differences. We are a Judeo-Christian society; they are Muslim. We dress, eat, and transport ourselves differently. When the sun is rising over America, it is setting in Afghanistan.

But subtle yet important similarities exist. Both of our nations were born in the eighteenth century and struggled against the British Empire. In a region plagued by fundamentalism, most Afghans practice their faith moderately yet firmly. In the midst of secular Western civilization, most of us Americans also practice our faiths moderately. Most nations in the world have been conquered or colonized at one time or another in the past 200 years. Afghanistan and America are two conspicuous exceptions.

It is this last similarity that is the most relevant to the still unfolding situation.

Since September 9 and 11, the destinies of our two nations have begun to converge. For Afghans the seven-year struggle against the Taliban took a shocking turn for the worse on September 9, 2001 when two Arabs — almost certainly Al Qaeda operatives — murdered the great Afghan anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masood. Their method of attack: suicide bombing. Almost immediately Al Qaeda/Taliban forces launched a massive offensive against the Northern Alliance. The offensive was still in high gear when Al Qaeda terrorists attacked us two days later. The extremists’ plan for Afghanistan was to destroy the last vestiges of resistance against the Taliban so that the United States would have no allies on the ground in Afghanistan. With Masood dead and his forces in confusion, the offensive was expected to be successful while America was still reeling in shock from September 11. As recently as last April Masood had predicted that Al Qaeda would export its terror to U.S. soil. “If I could say one thing to President Bush, it would be that if he doesn’t take care of what is happening in Afghanistan the problem will not only hurt the Afghan people but the American people as well.” Bush’s response was to ignore Masood’s plea for his homeland and then drop the investigation of Ben Laden’s bombing of the USS Cole.

After Masood’s assassination, only one thing foiled the Taliban/Al Qaeda plot: his shocked and outgunned forces didn’t roll over. And when we were attacked on September 11, the Afghans knew what to do. Even while ignorant cyber-bigots were sending hate email to Afghan anti-Taliban websites and armchair strategists were demanding that moderate Muslims stand up to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance forces were somehow holding their precarious positions. “The world did not hear the suffering of the Afghan people,” declared Afghanistan’s former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, “but now they have started to because the same thing has happened to them.” Most Afghans dislike Rabbani, but his words hit the mark with them. After all, Al Qaeda has killed even more Afghans than Americans.

The heritage of national independence is the similarity that is most relevant to the situation because it is threatened here as well as there. Afghanistan helped America win the Cold War. Our two nations fought together to defeat Al Qaeda terrorists. Another common foe may confront us in the near future.

So far the goal of the American war effort has been to destroy the terrorist network that attacked us on September 11. Whether or not one agrees with the means (the war effort), no one can deny that this is an honorable goal. However, it is also a fact that multi-national oil corporations have long sought a pipeline through Afghanistan. Will the oil corporations seek to exploit the war effort and take advantage of the sacrifice of American and Afghan blood ? It would be hard to imagine them not doing so. A pipeline from the Central Asian oil fields to the ports and markets of India and Pakistan would be sold as an alternative to importing oil from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations. Americans are becoming conscious that importing oil from the Gulf finances bin Laden and his ilk yet we still want to drive SUVs to the corner store. Getting oil from Central Asia through an Afghan pipeline would allow us to do so without worrying about terrorists getting the money we spend at the gas pump . . . theoretically. The oil multi-nationals will probably sell us a trans-Afghan pipeline as a way to get Central Asian oil to Indian and Pakistani ports and then into Toyotas and Fords in the USA. However, we should really expect the oil multi-nationals to get the oil into Indian and Pakistani markets. With over a billion people and a rapidly growing middle class, the subcontinent is already being encouraged to develop its own addiction to cars and oil.

Where does that leave Afghanistan and where does it leave America? Each of us can expect to be seduced and exploited — in different ways but by the same oil multi-nationals and for the same purpose. The Afghans will provide the pipeline route while American soldiers will provide protection. That will be the exploitation. The seduction will be trinkets — a few Afghans will be pipeline mechanics and Afghanistan will probably get the oil at a discount. But with the pipeline crossing Afghanistan’s biggest river — the Helmand — Afghans will lose rare arable territory, forcing many farmers off their ancestral lands. The already fragile ecosytem of the Sistan wetlands will be endangered. The seduction for Americans will be the belief that the money they’re spending on gasoline will be going to Central Asian secularist dictators instead of Saudi fundamentalist sheiks. The truth will be that most Central Asian oil will stay in Asia and that will be fine with the oil multi-nationals.

Two possible results will be an even greater dependency by America on oil multi-nationals while Afghanistan becomes another Nigeria or pre-Khomeini Iran — in other words, a nation ruled by oil

multi-nationals. (Whatever their many faults, the Iranian fundamentalists did break the domination of foreign corporations in their oil industry.) For both our nations that will mean independence in name only. It would mean the loss of sovereignty by two of history’s greatest defenders of national integrity and a huge triumph for multi-national corporatism.

But that scenario is far from inevitable. Just as more and more Americans reject corporatism, so also do Afghans reject the concept of surrendering their sovereignty to outsiders. Our stubborn patriotisms — when not corrupted by jingoism — remain as potent forces that still inspire us to withstand assaults on our lives and our rights.

Only a few months ago bin Laden was a formidable foe to both our countries. Yet history will judge him as an insane megalomaniac, for who else but an insane man would even attempt to conquer both America and Afghanistan at the same time? Will the same judgment await the multi-national petro-corporations?

Howard A. Williams served as an aid worker on ten journeys to Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1989 and 1997. He is a member of ILWU Local 6.