To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogueby Ted Rall
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Introduction by Bill Maher. When U.S. bombs started raining on the Taliban, Rall jumped on a plane straight to the war zone to get the real story for himself. Featuring his Village Voice articles and a graphic novel.
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To Afghanistan and Back
By Ted Rall
NBM PublishingCopyright © 2002 Ted Rall
All rights reserved.
Giving War A Chance
NEW YORK, October 24
So we're going to war against Afghanistan. Big deal. We've been at war with Afghanistan for years.
This New War is merely an escalation of genocide by trade sanction, this time with a few old-fashioned bombs and covert commando raids thrown in for popular effect. And while the explosions will look cool on cable TV news and the vague rumors of American death squads trekking through the mountains will sound dashing in a Rudyard Kipling-cum-Rambo kind of way, it will accomplish exactly nothing.
On the other hand, this brand of ham-fisted foreign policy ensures that America will never run out of enemies.
On September 24th, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised that the Bush Administration would finally cough up definitive proof of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's involvement in the suicide plane bombings of the Pentagon and World Trade Center: "I think in the near future, we will be able to put out a paper, a document, that will describe quite clearly the evidence that we have linking him to this attack."
For the sake of argument, let's assume that Powell is telling the truth: that bin Laden, and by extension his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, financed, ordered or otherwise directly participated in the murder of 3,000 Americans.
Clearly, then, bin Laden ought to be hunted down and captured "dead or alive," in the John Wayne-informed lexicon of our appointed acting president. The Taliban should likewise suffer political capital punishment — being deposed by an overwhelming invasion force. Under military occupation, bin Laden's Al Qaeda network would be rounded up and shut down. Ditto for the training camps that educate terrorist wannabes for jihad against Western democracies. Within a year, cybercafes catering to backpacking college kids would spring up across Kabul.
Unfortunately, it won't make any difference. Most of the training camps for such radical guerrilla outfits as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which made a name for itself a few years back with its annual raids on southern Kyrgyzstan, are in Pakistan, Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. The Tajik and Kyrgyz governments are far too impoverished, politically weak and poorly armed to eject these insurgents, but both value their ten-year-old independence from the Soviet Union too much to allow foreign troops into their territory to do the job. Madrassas (religious schools) in the Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan continue to serve up Jihad 101, but the fragile military government of General Pervez Musharraf, ethnically aligned and beholden to the Taliban for battling the Indians in disputed Kashmir province, will never risk the wrath of Muslim extremists in their own country by shutting them down. Bottom line: bombing, destroying and militarily-occupying Afghanistan only shuts down a small fraction of the terrorist training facilities.
Now, let's escalate from the madness of an Afghan invasion (remember how well the same idea worked out for Britain and the USSR?) to full-fledged mayhem on a monumental scale. Assuming that we get the approval — and still better, military backing — of Russia's Vladimir Putin, U.S. troops could fan out across Central Asia. Tajikistan would come easy. Kyrgyzstan wouldn't require much effort. Pakistan is a nuclear state nowadays; perhaps we could pay them to close the madrassas.
It still wouldn't make much difference.
Tens of thousands of Arab fundamentalist militants have already graduated from those Taliban-affiliated training facilities. They're in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Syria ... and Florida. They belong to dozens of distinct organizations, each enjoying individual sources of financing and adhering to separate goals and ideologies. Putting their alma maters out of business won't prevent them from carrying out future attacks on the U.S.
Nonetheless, it's always possible to carry a hypothetical war on terrorism to its logical extreme: somehow, perhaps using satellite surveillance and pixie dust, the U.S. and its allies successfully hunt down every single member of every militant Islamic organization in the world and either jail or kill them. Who knows how? Anyway —
It still wouldn't matter. Those dead and jailed militants have mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. They have friends. And countless ordinary Muslim people would watch, driven to vengeance by the extraordinary ruthlessness of such a massive assault by America on individuals whose only proven sins are their beliefs. A new army of jihadists would rise from the ashes of Bush's 21st century crusade.
Nonetheless, America must have its vengeance. We're not the kind of people to sit around and mourn a few thousand dead office workers when there's some serious ass to kick. So we'll bomb or invade or something. It won't matter, but that doesn't matter. It's what we do.CHAPTER 2
The New Great Game
NEW YORK, October 9
Nursultan Nazarbayev has a terrible problem. He's the president and former Communist Party boss of Kazakhstan, the second-largest republic of the former Soviet Union. A few years ago, the giant country struck oil in the eastern portion of the Caspian Sea. Geologists estimate that sitting beneath the wind-blown steppes of Kazakhstan are 50 billion barrels of oil — by far the biggest untapped reserves in the world. (Saudi Arabia, currently the world's largest oil producer, is believed to have about 30 billion barrels remaining. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, may have unconfirmed reserves of up to 260 billion barrels.)
Kazakhstan's Soviet-subsidized economy collapsed immediately after independence in 1991. When I visited the then-capital of Almaty in 1997, I was struck by its utter absence of elderly people. One after another, Kazakhs confided that their parents had died of malnutrition during the brutal winters of 1993 and 1994. Middle-class residents of a superpower had been reduced to abject poverty virtually overnight; thirtysomething women who appeared sixtysomething hocked their wedding silver in underpasses next to reps for the Kazakh state art museum trying to move enough socialist realist paintings for a dollar each to keep the lights on. The average Kazakh earned $20 a month; those unwilling or unable to steal died of gangrene adjacent to long-winded tales of woe written on cardboard.
Autocrats tend to die badly during periods of downward mobility. Nazarbayev, therefore, has spent most of the last decade trying to get his land-locked oil out to sea. Once the oil starts flowing, it won't take long before Kazakhstan replaces Kuwait as the land of Benzes and ugly gold jewelry. But the longer the pipeline, the more expensive and vulnerable to sabotage it is. The shortest route runs through Iran but Kazakhstan is too closely aligned with the U.S. to offend it by cutting a deal with Teheran. Russia has helpfully offered to build a line connecting Kazakh oil rigs to the Black Sea, but neighboring Turkmenistan has experienced trouble with the Russians — they tend to divert the oil for their own uses without bothering to pay for it. There's even a plan to run crude out to the Pacific through China, but the proposed 5,300-mile line would be far too long to prove profitable.
The logical alternative, then, is Unocal's plan, which is to extend Turkmenistan's existing system west to the Kazakh field on the Caspian and southeast to the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. That project runs through Afghanistan.
As Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid describes in his 2000 book "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," the U.S. and Pakistan decided to install a stable regime into place in Afghanistan around 1994 — a regime that would end the country's civil war and thus ensure the safety of the Unocal pipeline project. Impressed by the ruthlessness and willingness of the then- emerging Taliban to cut a pipeline deal, the U.S. State Department and Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (I.S.I.) agency agreed to funnel arms and funding to the Taliban in their war against the ethnically Tajik Northern Alliance. As recently as 1999, U.S. taxpayers paid the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official, all in the hopes of returning to the days of dollar-a-gallon gas. Pakistan, naturally, would pick up revenues from a Karachi oil port facility. Harkening to 19th century power politics between Russia and British India, Rashid dubbed the struggle for control of post-Soviet Central Asia "the new Great Game."
Predictably, the Taliban Frankenstein got out of control. The regime's unholy alliance with Osama bin Laden's terror network, their penchant for invading their neighbors and their production of 50 percent of the world's opium made them unlikely partners for the desired oil deal. Then-President Bill Clinton's 1998 cruise missile attack on Afghanistan briefly brought the Taliban back into line — they even eradicated opium poppy cultivation in less than a year — but they nonetheless continued supporting countless militant Islamic groups. When a group whose members had trained in Afghanistan hijacked four airplanes and used them to kill more than 3,000 Americans on September 11th, Washington's patience with its former client finally expired.
Finally, the Bushies had the perfect excuse to do what the U.S. had wanted all along — invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime in Kabul. Realpolitik no more cares about the 3,000 dead than it concerns itself with oppressed women in Afghanistan; this ersatz war by a phony president is solely about getting an oil pipeline deal done without interference from annoying local middlemen.
Central Asian politics, however, is a house of cards: every time you remove one element, the whole thing comes crashing down. Muslim extremists in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, for instance, will support additional terror attacks on the U.S. to avenge the elimination of the Taliban. A U.S.-installed Northern Alliance can't hold Kabul without an army of occupation because Afghan legitimacy hinges on capturing the capital on your own. And even if we do this the right way by funding and training the Northern Alliance so that they can seize power themselves, Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun government won't long stand the replacement of their Pashtun brothers in the Taliban by Northern Alliance Tajiks. Without Pakistani cooperation, there's no getting the oil out and there's no chance for long-term stability in Afghanistan.
As Bush would say, make no mistake: this is about oil. It's always about oil. And to twist a late '90s cliché, it's only boring because it's true.CHAPTER 3
Nineteen Guys Who Shook The World
NEW YORK, September 18
"Power is an illusion," columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote during Watergate. At no time in our lives has that truism been more evident.
The demise of the Soviet Union, we know as surely as we can know anything nowadays, left us Americans in charge of the planet. What we never considered was how little it took to bring down our rival superpower: the C.I.A. dumping dollars on the floors of Moscow lavatories to destabilize the ruble. A nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.
It happened to them. Now it's happening to us.
Integral to the shaking fists and flag-waving hysteria and the funerals — thousands and thousands and thousands more of those to come, by the way — is a rage born of impotence. Conservatives applaud and liberals deplore our expensive governmental monitoring systems — what would we have argued about had we known that neither the C.I.A. nor the N.S.A. knew what was going to go down September 11th? For what does it profit a country to starve its schools if its fattened Pentagon can't even protect its own headquarters from a terrorist attack?
The United States has finally been unmasked as the greatest Potemkin ever conceived —"great magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms," in Breslin's words. Or to paraphrase Edward G. Robinson's classic dis of Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity": We thought we were smart, but we were wrong. We're just a little bigger.
Air-traffic controllers realized fairly quickly that those four jets had been hijacked. American Flight 11, out of Boston, took 46 minutes to hit Tower One of the World Trade Center. United Flight 175 struck Tower Two 65 minutes after leaving Boston. Most damning, American Flight 77 was aloft a total of 88 minutes — nearly an hour and a half — making it from Washington/Dulles to southern Ohio en route to Los Angeles before turning around. Math: the flight did a 180-degree turn at least 44 minutes away from the Pentagon. Why weren't our F-16s on top of that plane within 10 minutes? Why wasn't it shot down during the next 34 minutes after that? The answer, sheepishly admitted and buried deeply amid assorted tales of horror, was that there is no policy for forcing down a civilian airliner.
Unless, of course, there was. The Air Force denies shooting down United Flight 93, which crashed and burned in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the government's silence certifying celled-in media stories of heroic passengers rebelling against their captors. Those accounts, however, are cast into doubt by the government's refusal to release the plane's voice cockpit recorder tapes to the public. It's a safe bet, after all, that a bold struggle for control would at least make it out in transcript form. So it's possible that Bush or other officials made a terrible, yet courageous, decision to act; if so, the need to keep it secret provides ample testimony to the aftermath of last year's election-that- never-was — if Bush is the perfect president for this time, he's the empty-headed embodiment of our national cluelessness.
America's embarrassment of embarrassments continues apace. C.I.A. superspooks admit that their posse of white Mormons from Utah never learned Pashto or Tajik, Afghanistan's two principal languages. The loss of four planes and a few days of airport closures decimates the biggest airline industry in the world, resonating through the economy in the form of the biggest stock-market crash ever. Half a dozen buildings accounting for less than one percent of New York City's office space vanish; the national economy plunges decidedly into recession and beyond.
What would we do if we really were at war? How can the richest superpower in the history of mankind have been brought so low by 19 guys?
The United States, it turns out, entered the 21st century atop a crumbling house of cards. When the Soviet Union went away, we lost the ideological and economic competition that had kept us sharp after World War II. We became complacent, smug and arrogant. History, Francis Fukuyama told us in 1993, had ended. Global free-market capitalism, epitomized and led by United States corporations, represented the pinnacle of achievement of historical evolution. A power vacuum opened in Central Asia. Afghanistan disintegrated into civil war, anarchy and religious madness. Surrounding republics — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan — were sucked into a vortex of instability and anti-Western sentiment fueled by clumsy U.S. attempts to suck all the oil out of the region without paying off any of the locals. This, and America's blank check to Israel, inspired tens of thousands of militant Muslims to their facile conclusion: Sometimes the bull in the china shop won't leave voluntarily. That's when you kill it.
Osama and his jihad boys sized us up fairly well. Behind the high-tech metal detectors in our airports were underpaid incompetents. Manning our tactical defenses were dimwitted dolts devoid of imagination. Bolstering our outsized economy was a mountain of debt and an easily-spooked securities market. And behind the boast that the World Trade Center could withstand a collision with a jet was the horrible, awful truth: no amount of bluster can annul the laws of physics. As the cliché goes, we believed our own hype and now we're paying the price.
Our close-to-the-bone brand of capitalism turned out to be our economic Achilles' heel. Corporations that fill metal tubes with highly-combustible fuel and upper-middle-class citizens and propel them eight miles over the surface of the earth at high speeds ought to be prepared for an occasional mishap, but they're not — and neither are insurers who are, after all, in the business of risk appraisal. A week of reduced productivity has ruined crops (no crop dusters during the flight ban) and trashed the economies of states dependent on tourism. This, since George W. Bush and his tax-cutting maniacs have forgotten, is why governments and companies both need savings and surpluses. "It's my money," Republicans like to say, "and I can use it better than the government can." Worst of all, decades of increasing disparity of wealth has made it impossible for ordinary people to help out the only way they really could, by spending discretionary income. Now that we've let them steal all of our money, where are all the jobs rich people are supposed to create? This is the way empires end, with a bang and a whine.
Excerpted from To Afghanistan and Back by Ted Rall. Copyright © 2002 Ted Rall. Excerpted by permission of NBM Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Twice winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Ted Rall is a syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. His previous books include Revenge of the Latchkey Kids and 2024.
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