BILL MOYERS: May was the deadliest month of the year for American forces in Iraq — 126 dead and 652 wounded. Seventeen more have already died in June. This escalating carnage in Iraq makes it difficult to remember there is another war going on in Afghanistan.
Five and a half years ago, American forces went after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime of religious fundamentalists who had given him sanctuary. Osama bin Laden escaped but the Taliban were routed. When the Bush administration turned immediately to planning the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan became America's forgotten war — old news if news at all. In fact, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Afghanistan this week, meeting with President Karzai, who made this announcement: "The war has been won. It is the finish touch that we're dealing with now."
BILL MOYERS: But is that true? According to other accounts, the Taliban are once again gaining in strength and just as determined to foist strict Muslim law on the country. Over the last year, the Taliban guerrillas have been using tactics employed by Iraqi insurgents: car bombs, suicide attacks and the targeting of civilians. a thousand Afghan civilians were killed last year alone according to human rights watch, the most since 2001. Nearly 400 civilians have died this year.
BILL MOYERS: While most of these civilian deaths have come from insurgent attacks, many Afghans have been killed during air strikes and ground operations by American and NATO forces — so called collateral damage. The deaths have produced protests from angry Afghans and new sympathy for the Taliban in towns and villages outside the main cities. Some government officials are even calling for negotiations with the Taliban and the withdrawal of American and NATO troops.
Security is said to be fast disappearing across the country, and reconstruction projects have been slowed. So Afghan farmers are once again growing poppies in order to survive, and the flourishing trade has made the country the number one provider of the world's heroin supply. Just this week the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan told reporters that poppy is a defining characteristic of the country, with the Taliban linked to the drug trade.
Here to talk about the story in Afghanistan is Christian Parenti, who has just returned from his fourth trip there. The author of three books and the recent recipient of a Stanley Foundation Reporting Award, Parenti was on assignment this time for Playboy. Thanks for joining me.
BILL MOYERS: Your fourth trip. Why do you keep going back?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I like Afghanistan, and huge pieces of world politics hinge on what is happening in that country.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It was the kick-off for Bush's global war on terror. It was the stepping-stone that his administration used to get to Iraq, and in that regard, and there's still 17,000 U.S. troops there, and 26 NATO countries there. And so it matters what is happening in that country.
BILL MOYERS: Is it a safer place to be today than those first three visits?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: No, each time it becomes less safe. Each time I've gone there, the Taliban control more and more territory. And what's particularly disturbing is that the Taliban even have a type default popular support among people who originally supported the government. And it's not that many people who are starting to support the Taliban like the Taliban program, but they've become so frustrated with the corruption and criminality of the Kabul government that they —
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean corruption?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: The government in Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt institutions on the planet. Policeman pay to get jobs as cops, not because they want the $80 to $100 a month salary, but because they want the right to shakedown traffic on the highways for bribes. A friend of mine who worked for the ministry of women's affairs told me that that ministry had to bribe the transportation ministry to get licenses for their vehicles to drive around. So that's the level of corruption that government ministries have to bribe each other.
BILL MOYERS: Life under the Taliban was no bed of roses. I mean —
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It wasn't at all. But what happens is people start getting nostalgic, and then they also start hoping that the Taliban have changed. This friend of mine, Ajmal, who ended up being killed by the Taliban, before — a couple of months before that happened was thinking that "Oh, the Taliban had changed, and at least they won't be corrupt. It'll be severe. I'll have to grow a beard. I'll be, you know, forced to pray five times a day..." But he thought, "Well, at least I won't be shaken down by judges and I won't have to pay bribes at every turn."
BILL MOYERS: Your friend was a translator and he was a Muslim and he believed in the future of Afghanistan and he was killed.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yes, my friend and translator named Ajmal Naqshbandi was captured, interviewing the Taliban, in Helmand Province. He was with an Italian journalist and —
BILL MOYERS: Captured by?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: The Taliban, kidnapped.
BILL MOYERS: How did they kill him?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: They cut his head off.
BILL MOYERS: He was a journalist.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: He was a journalist. He wrote for a Japanese newspaper and he shot video sometimes for a Korean television station. And he would work as a fixer which is to say, you know, arranging interviews and helping journalists like myself, and an interpreter.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he got overly confident about his ability to relate to the Taliban?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: He did. I think the wishful thinking that was borne from his frustration with the corruption of the Karzai government made him think that the Taliban wouldn't kill him, because he was a Muslim, because he was an Afghan. And he had had contact, he'd arranged interviews. And I think he thought that he had good enough relations with various sections of the Taliban and nothing could go wrong, but it did. Horribly. It was just wishful thinking. That was born of frustration about the lack of real progress, the lack of meaningful development. There has been some economic development. There's been the paving of several major roads, and in the cities there's a burgeoning service sector because of the money, both aid money and drug money that flushes through those areas. But most of Afghanistan's 28 million people live in the countryside. They suffer under seven year drought and they are not seeing any of those benefits.
BILL MOYERS: Did he have a family?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: He had just gotten married to a young woman. And the situation for women in Afghanistan is such — even middle class, urban women that — it will be very hard for this woman to relaunch her life.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Having been married, not being a virgin, means that it will be very hard for her to marry someone her age or that she would have been compatible with and the life of a widow is very hard in Afghanistan, even if she's in this case, the woman is, I think, 18 or 19. And she was only with Ajmal for six months. So, in those situations typically the best thing that can happen for a woman is she marries the brother of her former husband. Maybe she becomes somebody's second or third wife. It's — the life of a widow is very, very hard.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see his widow when you were there?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: No, I mean, Afghan culture is such that even in Kabul, you would never see somebody's wife. I didn't see his mother. I went to his house, his father's house many — you know, four or five times. I spent afternoons there. And in mixed company, maybe one on one with his father, you know, it would be okay to ask about his mother or his widow. But for example if there were other men in the room, it would be very rude and impolite to even inquire after the well being of this woman. The polite thing is to just not acknowledge her existence. And when you're in a living room in an Afghan house and the guests, the male guests get up to leave, one of the younger men will go before you, leave the room, and shoo the women out of the way so you don't even see them. And this is in the city, in Kabul.
This is also helpful you know, to understand that kind of culture might help people understand why Afghans pick up the gun. It is — it would — no American would like a SWAT team or a foreign military to come through their house and look through their underwear drawers and in their bookshelves.
But can you imagine how infuriating and humiliating a search by U.S. soldiers, even a politely conducted search, would be for people who have this set of cultural standards where guests are not supposed to see women or it's rude to ask about women, and then foreign troops come in and search the women's quarters at four in the morning? And this kind of thing happens. That's part of counter-insurgency. And believe me, it infuriates Afghan men and will drive them to pick up the gun again.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that Americans don't seem to — American policymakers don't seem to grasp that?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I think it has to do with a number of things. One is that people cycle through these war zones on one-year contracts and their goal is primarily the advancement of their career, secondarily the advancement of the larger project. And it's usually not good for your career to say, "Hey, the larger project isn't going well. Sorry to be the jerk in the organization, but I disagree with the scenario that's being laid here." That's usually not good for an intelligence analyst you know, State Department person. So, there's institutional pressures to just keep your mouth shut and go along with the program. And then that means that the higher-ups have no idea what's really happening. And there are people on the ground in Kabul who know what's happening, but no one wants to hear from them.
I think it's similar to Vietnam which, you know, nobody wanted to say, "Things aren't working out," because it was bad for their careers. So, the decision makers were genuinely, despite all their power and all of the information presumably at their disposal, were often genuinely confused about the real nature of what was happening on the ground.
BILL MOYERS: It will soon be six years since, from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden masterminded the attacks of 9/11. Why can't we find him?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I think partly it has to do with the fact that our indispensable ally in the war on terror, Pakistan, is playing both sides of the game. That the Pakistani intelligence is not in fact committed to finding Osama bin Laden. That elements of the Pakistani intelligence actually are allowing him to continue operating out of parts of Pakistan. So, that's one reason. And the other reason is that it's — you know, it's an enormous terrain.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It's like flying over the Rocky Mountains and imagine looking down for one guy who might be hiding out there. And, you can't do that simply with hi-tech gadgetry. If you don't have the people on the side of the project of trying to find Osama bin Laden he will never be turned in. If he can find sanctuary in these villages, if he's seen as a liberator who's opposing these infidel invaders who are defiling the culture and the religion, then it'll be very, very hard to find him.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I think sometimes there's a misperception, and we think that because America has such incredible hi-tech intelligence and military capacities and can drop satellite guided bombs onto people's cell phones that it should be easy to find Osama bin Laden. But there's a cultural, political human element to the whole thing which is that if the people in the place where he's operating don't support the U.S. and they do support him, then the project of tracking him down is pretty hopeless.
BILL MOYERS: Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, recently reiterated his support for the war on terrorism. What do you make of that?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Musharraf is brilliant at saying what the U.S. wants to hear and doing on the ground, on the border in Afghanistan, what is good for — what he thinks is good for Pakistan's interests and what the military, the officer class in Pakistan, for the entire 50 years of its history has thought was good to do -- which is to weaken Afghanistan and to use the tribal militias on the border to fight a proxy war against the Afghan government. So, there's no reason he can't have it both ways. Write a book, publish it in D.C., say whatever people want to hear in America and then do something different on the border with Afghanistan.
BILL MOYERS: Americans keep talking about wanting a capitalist democracy in Afghanistan. Any chance that a capitalist democracy is taking root, any signs, any seeds?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: One can travel around Kabul and imagine that that's what's happening, because unlike Iraq, the central cities tend to be fairly safe in Afghanistan. There are suicide bombings — there was one when I was there but it's not the front lines like cities are in Iraq.
You do see lots of new buildings going up. A lot of that is drug profits being laundered through real estate, and there were elections. And so, you know, if you blur your eyes, you can look around in the cities and say, "Well, this looks like a capitalist democracy taking form." But if you drive out of town, you see that the economy is based on growing poppies to produce heroin and opium, and that there is no democracy or free speech and that there is a state of criminality and war unfortunately throughout much of the countryside.
BILL MOYERS: What is the endgame to the American NATO in Afghanistan?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: The optimistic state department types and who pass through for one year have a version of the endgame that I think is highly unrealistic which is the originally story we were all told. That Afghanistan turns into a functioning capitalist democracy with a developed economy. More realistically people talk quietly about negotiating with the Taliban and letting the Taliban into the government. And then a sort of third version of things is a return to the collapse and open civil war that marked life in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
BILL MOYERS: So this would lead to Afghanistan once again becoming a rogue state from which terrorists are free to operate.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, and the south of it sort of already is. It already is essentially a failed narco-state which harbors terrorists. But within this failed narco-state there are — there's an archipelago of cities, Herat, Kabul, Mazar-i-sharif where law and order functions and where foreigners can operate in relative safety despite, you know, the bi-weekly suicide bombings, but essentially it already is, yes, a failed state, a failed narco-state that's a operating ground for terrorists.
BILL MOYERS: Christian Parenti, thank you.
Because the drug trade in Afghanistan is so pervasive, Congress stepped in this week — with the House passing a bill to cut off American money to local governments with ties to the opium market. The White House said that's unrealistic.
That's it for this week. you can submit questions for Christian Parenti on the blog at pbs.org. See you next week. I'm Bill Moyers.