Waltzing With Warlords | The Nation


Waltzing With Warlords

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Ann Jones, an American author who has written a number of books about women and violence, arrived in Kabul in the winter of 2002: "Kabul in winter is the color of dust...dust fills the lungs, tightens the chest. Lies in the eyes like gravel, so that you look out on this obscure drab landscape always with something like tears." Like Chayes, Jones has written an angry book about Afghanistan and, also like Chayes, she writes evocatively to illuminate another little-known world, that of poor, marginalized women in Kabul.

About the Author

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen, a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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Unfortunately, Jones's reading of recent Afghan history is sometimes marred by a tendency to see sinister conspiracies where they don't exist. She writes, for instance, that the United States was initially willing to play ball with the Taliban in the mid-1990s because of energy interests eager to build a pipeline across the country from the gas fields of Central Asia and withdrew its support only because the Taliban could not provide "security" for such a project, rather than acknowledging the real reasons the United States turned against the Taliban, which were their antediluvian treatment of women and harboring of Al Qaeda. The one thing the Taliban did provide was security, which is why they had legitimacy and popularity when they came to power. And today, five years after the occupation of the country by the United States, there is still no pipeline across Afghanistan because it just doesn't make any economic sense to build it.

Jones also recycles the trope that the CIA trained and funded the "Arab Afghans" to the tune of $800 million during the 1980s war against the Soviet Union, when, in fact, as journalist Steve Coll has shown in Ghost Wars, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of American involvement in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that the agency had any direct dealings with Osama bin Laden and his crew of foreign fighters.

Where Kabul in Winter begins to take off is in Jones's devastating critique of American aid to Afghanistan, which is consumed all too often by foreigners, evident in the fleets of Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers that choke Kabul's smog-filled streets. Jones wryly observes: "Afghanistan, we learned from TV, had been 'rebuilt' thanks to millions of dollars of international aid pouring into the country. Where was it?" In a conversation with an American education expert Jones receives a depressing answer to that question. The expert explains that 80 to 90 percent of American aid goes to US contractors to cover overhead for back offices in the States as well as housing and office space in Kabul, and perks such as drivers, R and R, imported food, furniture and alcohol.

Jones points out that in contrast to countries like Sweden, which allocates only 4 percent of its aid costs to "technical assistance" that goes back home to pay Swedes, "eighty-six cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom aid" that will line American pockets rather than go directly to Afghans. According to Jones, only France has a worse record in this area.

The heart of Jones's book is her deeply reported description of her work trying to improve conditions for women prisoners and female hospital patients in Kabul. Dickensian is far too mild an adjective to describe the conditions that she encounters:

In the dirty emergency room...lies a young girl. Perhaps sixteen.... The head nurse stands at the foot of the bed and outlines the case dispassionately, as if the patient were not there. This girl was made to marry an old man, she says. Then he accused her of adultery because a friend of his saw her talking to a boy in the street; he told her to return to her father's house. She hadn't wanted to marry this husband, but to go back was to spread shame on her family, like a stain. She was afraid her father would kill her to wash it away. In this crisis, she went for advice to her neighbor, who said: Why don't you burn yourself? So she did. She drenched her body in diesel fuel and set herself alight. The flames burned 90 percent of her skin and spared only her head, which lies now on a tear-drenched pillow in a kind of separate agony of consciousness and pain.

Jones explains that Afghan customary law, which treats women as property, underlies the self-immolations and honor killings: "Afghans themselves have a saying that names the three sources of social discord as 'zan, zar, zamin'--women, gold and land. When Afghans name threats to social order, they name women first." Afghan customary law is not about justice as it is understood in the West but about the restoration of social order, an order that is entirely dominated by men. And so, in disputes about family honor involving women, it is invariably a woman who ends up paying the price of restoring the social order either by being killed or committing suicide. In the western city of Herat, for instance, there were an estimated 190 self-immolations in 2003.

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