My feature in the Australian literary journal Overland:
Flying into Bentiu, a town in northern South Sudan, is unnerving. The front of a broken plane, cockpit windows smashed, sits close to the dusty airstrip; long green grass sprouts around the cracked fuselage. Soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a former guerrilla movement and now the country’s official army, live in tin sheds around the rocky runway. The young men, some in uniform and many not, are armed with AK-47s. They loiter, looking bored. Gunfire can be heard in the background. The sky is heavy with grey clouds.
Bentiu occupies a grimly unique position within recent South Sudanese history. In 2014, the town was the sight of a massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war. Rebel forces killed hundreds of civilians and used public radio broadcasts to encourage the rape of women of different ethnicities, later releasing a statement that boasted of ‘mopping and cleaning-up operations’.
It’s July 2015, just a month before the signing of the peace agreement. I have been living in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, for most of the year, working as a freelance journalist; my partner is employed by an international NGO. Juba is a challenging place to be based; our existence was defined by security concerns, a collapsing economy, nightly curfews and growing crime. Temperatures in summer are regularly over forty-five degrees and water shortages are common.
South Sudan is land-locked, sharing borders with Uganda, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Like its neighbours, the country continues to endure the after effects of colonisation, having been occupied in the twentieth century by British interests. Much of the land is swamp or tropical forest, and the country hosts one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world.
I travelled to Bentiu by a slow-moving Russian UN helicopter. From the air, burnt-out buildings dot the swampy land. Tens of thousands of cattle are scattered among them, guarded by locals. Cattle-raiding is endemic in South Sudan, a brutal tactic used by government forces and militias to starve various groups of people. Cattle are the heart of the nation – cattle is not only used for food, but also for cultural practices, such as marriage (as bride price) and compensation after disputes – but years of war have left many without this precious commodity.
The trip from Juba took three hours and I was accompanied by Indian and Rwandan peacekeepers. There are over 12,500 uniformed UN peacekeepers in South Sudan – from a range of countries, including Cambodia, Australia, Zimbabwe and Yemen – making it one of the largest UN missions in the world.
A single muddy road littered with abandoned trucks and cars leads from the airport to Bentiu town and onto the sprawling UN base for internally displaced persons. The number of people seeking protection at the camp has swelled over the last two and a bit years of fighting; now, around 120,000 civilians live in a site originally built to house less than half that number. Almost every imaginable UN agency, international NGO and humanitarian group is involved in feeding, housing, rehabilitating and providing medical care.
The UN camp was established in December 2013, soon after violence erupted in Juba between President Salva Kiir’s faction, drawn primarily from the Dinka ethnic group, and those loyal to Riek Machar, Kiir’s former deputy, mainly from the Nuer ethnic group. At independence in 2011, both sides had been publicly committed to the new nation. But it didn’t last: tensions escalated, with both Kiir and Machar wanting more power. South Sudan is suffering today because these military men – both of whom spent decades fighting for independence – are unable to transition from combatants to democrats. Since it began in late 2013, the conflict has engulfed vast swathes of the state, destroying any hope that was felt locally and internationally in the first years of independence.
Indeed, the world’s newest nation has collapsed. ‘There has been so much killing, abuse and destruction of property here. It’s immense,’ an anonymous senior UN official at the refugee camp tells me (few UN authorities in Bentiu are authorised to speak openly to the media). Tens of thousands have been killed, and millions have been displaced internally and externally. Of the around twelve million people who live in South Sudan, 70 per cent face severe hunger. The economy is in freefall, with government forces and rebels fighting regularly over desperately needed oil reserves. Education and healthcare facilities have been unable to cope under the strain of the conflict. In 2014, the government hired former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his new firm, Frontier Services Group, to help boost oil output, but there is little evidence it’s working.
Bentiu heaves with broken humanity. The camp looks similar to those that have sprung up in response to other African conflicts, from Central African Republic to Congo. But things were supposed to be different in this new nation. South Sudan was born nearly five years ago amid so much hope – something much of Africa can’t claim. Yet the country has disintegrated. Many of the refugees in Bentiu are exhausted and confused, unsure how their country is again unsafe for them and their children. They can’t plan more than a few days ahead, and their hopes of a better future have been extinguished by fighting and ethnic strife. But this time things are different: the tensions, I am told, aren’t historical or cultural, but rather fuelled by leaders with grim agendas.
The Bentiu camp stretches as far as the eye can see. Flimsy houses made of bamboo and plastic sheets are positioned near little stalls selling flip-flops, baby formula, dresses, broken mobile phones, bags of sugar and glucose biscuits. During the rainy season, April to November, vast parts of the camp overflow with mud and debris. In the camps early days, flooding was common; some residents lived in water up their waists, and children drowned in their own homes. The UN was unprepared for the sheer numbers of arrivals: one official says the situation was ‘unforeseen’ because few expected the war to escalate so quickly. The UN has also been accused by Canadian Megan Nobert of ignoring her rape and not taking responsibility for the attack at their Bentiu base in 2015. The alleged attacker was subcontracted by the UN, but agencies failed to properly investigate.
I have looked at photos of the early days of the camp and can see that much has changed. The UN and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours on improving conditions. There is clear evidence of raised land, water channels and new wooden structures that are incomparably less dirty and cluttered than the old ones.
In one of the homes I meet Julia John, a 25-year-old woman who shares the space with her husband and three young children, as well as with her sister, her sister’s children and her mother. Their tidy space has just two single beds, a small table and rug, plastic chairs and dresses hung as wall decoration. Julia tells me of her desire to return home, but also of her fear of living alongside her ‘enemies’. She fled the fighting in January 2014 and has been in the camp ever since. ‘I hope for peace, but am not hopeful,’ she says.
Julia’s old property is only a few kilometres from the camp, but to her it feels so much further away. Every day when she leaves the UN base to search for firewood, she faces the threat of rape; soldiers routinely abduct, assault and disappear women. Julia has asked the UN and NGOs to provide firewood inside the camp to avoid the treacherous journey – so far they have not complied.
As a result of ongoing fighting in the region, around 200 new arrivals flow into the Bentiu camp each day. I hear testimony from survivors of horrific acts of violence committed against the Nuer by government soldiers and its militias. There are stories of boys being castrated and of women and girls being publicly gang raped. Nyaduop Machar Puot, a mother of five, explains that she recently witnessed ‘women and kids [being] burned alive in their tukuls [traditional South Sudanese huts]’ in her area of Koch county. She had to flee with her family because her own house was burned down and her cattle stolen.
In July last year, Human Rights Watch released a report that featured interviews with more than 170 victims and witnesses of government and militia enforced violence in Unity (one of South Sudan’s twenty-eight states). The report concludes that the mass rape, beating, killing and dislocation were the result of ‘decades of impunity’ in the region and a lack of accountability, trials or proper investigation. It predicts that this legacy will continue to fuel further crimes in South Sudan.
Back in Juba, the crowds gather for South Sudan’s fourth anniversary celebration. Locals sing and dance in colourful dresses and formal suits that glisten in the sun. Some listen as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the only major international dignitary to attend, ominously warns of ‘outsiders’ meddling in South Sudan’s affairs. He blames former colonial powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, for African woes and argues that ‘tribalism [and] sectarianism are wrong ideas’ that should be dismissed.
Uganda has provided thousands of troops to back the South Sudanese government since the 2013 conflict erupted. Most of these were withdrawn in 2015, though a handful remain. Israel and China also arm and back government forces, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir assists the opposition. South Sudan has become a proxy war. Sudan continues to destabilise a nation it never wanted to be independent (much of the valuable oil sits within South Sudanese borders), Israel has a long history of supporting African dictatorships and China wants access to South Sudan’s resources. Everybody has dirty, meddling hands. This is the modern face of imperialism. Foreign troops don’t need to occupy a nation for it to be controlled by outside forces.
Museveni’s speech is followed by President Kiir thanking his ‘fellow citizens’ for their years of struggle. He offers few practical solutions to the problems now facing the nation.
The mood at the event is muted – there is little to celebrate. People look forlorn, perhaps unsure why they have come, apart from loyalty to the independence cause. Not even the marching band can rouse the masses. I am looked at with suspicion; zealous security guards in sunglasses ask foreigners wearing sunglasses to remove them. Entrepreneurial women sell nuts and national flags, many of which wilt in the sun. Thousands of discarded, plastic water bottles litter the dusty ground.
South Sudan’s current crisis is entirely man made and yet the nation’s international backers chose to ignore the warning signs. There was a gaping democratic deficit at the heart of the liberation movement; its leaders’ known corruption was overlooked for geopolitical reasons.
Sovereignty wasn’t simply given to the South Sudanese by benign powers. The South Sudanese spent decades fighting for independence against an oppressive northern neighbour, and did so with international backing. I haven’t met any South Sudanese who don’t support separation from Khartoum. Decades of blood and pain were spent gaining freedom and this is why so many South Sudanese are today despairing at their country’s disintegration. ‘Everybody’s a loser in war,’ one man tells me when I visit Bor, in Jonglei state. ‘We’re all losers. We want peace.’
Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, but subsequent decades saw Khartoum’s leadership apply a similar mindset to its southern section as its former colonial rulers. In his classic 1966 novel on colonialism Season of Migration to the North, Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih eloquently encapsulates this attitude: ‘They have left behind them people who think as they do.’
There were decades of civil war between Khartoum and its southern population over land, oil, dignity and prestige. Between 1983, when then President Jaafar Nimeiri introduced Sharia law, and 2005, when a peace agreement was finally signed, two million people died and four million were displaced. Both the SPLA and the Sudanese forces committed widespread abuses. Human Rights Watch released a report in 1994 that was eerily prescient in its predictions, warning that ‘the leaders of the SPLA factions must address their own human rights problems and correct their own abuses, or risk a continuation of the war on tribal or political grounds in the future, even if they win autonomy or separation.’ The SPLA and its backers never undertook this necessary accounting.
Today, due to the war, some South Sudanese survive on a diet of roots, water lilies, grass and leaves. Whole families have been forced to hide in dirty marshes, sometime for days, to escape violence. While in Bentiu, a number of women recount to me the brutality of militias, describing how babies were killed before their eyes. These women don’t expect justice or compensation, though they want both. I ask whether they dream of soldiers facing trial for war crimes when the country eventually finds peace – the idea is dismissed as fanciful.
Last August’s peace agreement includes provisions for a hybrid court staffed with South Sudanese and African nationals. It’s a bold initiative that shuns the more traditional route of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body treated with suspicion across Africa because it rarely investigates crimes by Western nations. But there is little political will to establish this court for South Sudan because the organisation tasked to deliver it, the African Union, is made of leaders who are themselves facing warrants for arrest. This includes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with alleged genocide in Darfur.
In a tragic historical irony, South Sudan’s leaders are now mimicking its northern neighbour’s fraught relationship with the UN, the West and humanitarian groups. Government forces are stealing food from civilians, blocking the delivery of aid and studiously responding to allegations of abuse by claiming a Western and African conspiracy against their sovereignty. It’s an absurd suggestion, not least because the nation is only independent on paper; without foreign aid, the country and its population would not survive.
It’s an uneasy time for free speech in South Sudan. At least seven reporters were murdered in the country last year. None of the culprits have been found. In 2015, President Kiir threatened journalists critical of his leadership with death. Francis, a Juba-based reporter, tells me that he has to self-censor his work or he would not have a job. He doesn’t fear for his life, but knows his ability to be a critical journalist is severely curtailed.
As a state, South Sudan struggles to function in any capacity. Habib Dafalla Awonga, Director General for Programme Coordination at South Sudan’s HIV/AIDS Commission, explains to me how the war has hampered his ability to get reliable data on infection rates. He estimates that around 2.7 per cent of the population are HIV-positive, but has no way of sourcing definite numbers. It’s probably way higher, especially among soldiers sleeping with sex workers. Despite these concerns, Awonga accuses the West of ‘pushing a gay agenda’ because international HIV/AIDS bodies demanded protections for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.
This view that Western films, music and popular culture lead people towards sins such as homosexuality and sex work is commonly held across the continent. There are no publicly known gay groups in South Sudan, and being openly gay is impossible. Edward Emest Jubara, Acting Director General for Culture and Heritage in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, told a local newspaper in July that ‘a relationship between a man and a man is unacceptable in our society’. He was responding to comments made by President Obama during his July visit to Africa, when he urged the continent to abandon anti-gay discrimination. These attitudes are why American evangelical churches view South Sudan, as they do neighbouring Uganda, as prime territory for spreading their anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda. Though exact numbers are unknown, a growing number of American evangelical groups are operating in South Sudan, and they’re finding a receptive audience to their message.
South Sudan’s issues manifest in a range of other hurdles, too. Only 2 per cent of the nation’s roads are paved, making it near impossible to access remote communities in the rainy season (aid groups are forced to rely on expensive UN flights). This year the UN is trying to raise US$1.3 billion from governments for humanitarian efforts. It’s a tough call when there are so many other pressing crises. Because Africa is largely ignored in the international media unless there is an Ebola outbreak or genocide – Black lives don’t matter here – South Sudan can’t compete with a sectarian, proxy war in Syria or post-US invasion chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa is still easily framed as the dark continent: uncivilised, violent, savage. Yet South Sudan joins a long list of dysfunctional African states, from Burundi to Guinea-Bissau, that are crying out for peace.
Being based in South Sudan has forced me to examine the uniqueness of the country’s crisis and how it compares to other, equally horrific situations in nearby countries. The most media-savvy citizens in Juba know that their nation is mostly ignored by the international media, that the conflict is not deemed important enough to warrant serious attention – the victims are non-people, nameless and disposable. But they have learnt that the ‘international community’ – a generic term that usually means what Washington and its allies want – has been unable and unwilling to pressure the warring factions. They also know that President Obama’s focus has been on the various conflicts in the Middle East. And while no South Sudanese express a desire for American military intervention, many wish for Washington to be more assertive in resolving the current conflict.
There is no doubt that the level of brutality in South Sudan is worse than almost any other conflict I’ve reported; depraved attacks against Palestinians and Afghans are not uncommon, but the scale and intensity in South Sudan is particularly harrowing. The remoteness of the conflict and the lack of accountability for war crimes has exacerbated extremism against civilians. I hear again and again vivid descriptions of rape and murder that shock me to my core.
South Sudanese leaders and military chiefs understand little about governance and that has led to endemic corruption. Between the 2005 peace agreement with Sudan and independence in 2011, Juba obtained over US$13 billion in oil revenues; a significant amount of this went to security expenditure and salaries. Development was largely forgotten.
But what is often ignored in the just-ified criticisms of state officials is the complicity of self-interested outsiders. For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation was keen to establish firm ties with Juba both before and after independence, in order to become a major political player in East Africa. But flowing oil has done little for the local population.
In 2015, to protect its economic interests, China deployed 1051 combat-ready troops to bolster the UN mission in South Sudan. The other, less publicly discussed agenda was to protect its financial posit-ion in an unstable nation. This signals a significant shift in Beijing’s thinking towards Africa. There are now at least 3000 Chinese soldiers, sailors, engineers and medical staff stationed across the continent.
According to Eric Olander, chief editor of the China Africa Project, China’s long-held ideology of non-interference is being tested in South Sudan. ‘At what point,’ he asks, ‘does a peace process where China is actively immersed in Juba’s domestic politics along with Beijing’s first deployment of combat-ready troops in Africa cross the line from peacekeeping to intervening in another country’s internal affairs?’
These geo-strategic manoeuvrings have no relevance for the millions of South Sudanese civilians suffering due to the conflict. In Wai, for instance, around 25,000 people live under trees and in a few mud shelters. There are no tents. Women and children sit on the ground almost motionless, mosquitoes buzzing around them, waiting for basic medical care and food handouts of oil and sorghum. It reminds me of the infamous images from Ethiopia in the 1980s. There are tens of thousands of others like this across South Sudan: communities left to fend for themselves because they cannot be accessed by aid groups. Nobody knows how many have died in the last few years due to starvation. No-one is counting the numbers.
These gruesome realities are at least condemned by the Obama administration, though it’s mostly lip-service. During Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia in July, he accused Kiir and Machar of dragging their nation into the ‘despair of violence’. But the Obama years have seen significant – largely ignored – expansions of the US’ military footprint across Africa, including deepening relationships with some of the continent’s most brutal dictators. This has contributed to instability and abuses in Libya, Mali, the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere.
In his book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Nick Turse notes that at least forty-nine of Africa’s fifty-four countries have had some US military presence or involvement in the last decade. It’s arguably one of the greatest colonisation projects of the twenty-first century and virtually nobody knows about it. South Sudan was supposed to be central to this plan: a reliable client state in the heart of Africa, a base from which the US could challenge China’s growing military and political power on the continent. Its strategic importance for Washington, after years of losing influence to Chinese infrastructure and funding projects, has withered since the outbreak of the civil war. The failure of the US to assist in building infrastructure or to respond to human rights violations and state corruption has been critical in South Sudan’s ongoing instability.
But almost as soon as conflict erupted in 2013, Washington was distracted by the civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Uncritical praise for the South Sudanese regime soon became more circumspect, despite the billions of dollars being spent on propping up the government. One unnamed US official was recently reported as saying that ‘the parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify’.
Accountability for this catastrophe is difficult to find, especially from the high-profile American backers who spent years pushing for South Sudan’s independence. Few questions were asked on the suitability of South Sudanese leaders, their human rights record or their ability to manage a new state. This is hardly unsurprising: Beijing and Washington traditionally prefer partnering with reliable autocrats.
In the mid 1990s, a small group of American activists and officials began a campaign to push for South Sudanese independence. The three key individuals were Susan Rice (then assistant secretary of state for Africa, now Obama’s national security advisor), Gayle Smith (then at the National Security Council and now administrator of USAID) and John Prendergast (then at the National Security Council, soon the State Department and now co-founder of the Enough Project). Actor George Clooney later became active over Sudan’s abuses in Darfur. Arguably, South Sudan became a cause célèbre because helping build a new state seemed romantic and justified in a post-September 11 world.
Very few of these individuals looked too closely into who they were backing in South Sudan. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a leading Sudan expert, tells me that ‘South Sudan’s leaders believed that they had the backing of the US administration, with celebrity activists as their enforcers, to defy the rules of that club. The SPLA was permitted to get away with murder because they had a chorus of supporters who would unfailingly chant that the other side was worse.’
Thankfully, some have recognised the need for change. Last year the Enough Project launched ‘the Sentry’, a project targeting the financial enablers of violence in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa.
Meanwhile, in the southern town of Yei, near the borders with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an illusion of tranquillity. Many refugees fleeing Darfur and the Nuba Mountains reside here, and the dusty streets feel relatively peaceful. American and Australian evangelicals operate His House of Hope – Bet Eman Hospital for Women and Children and the Reconcile Peace Institute. Both organisations do important work, but nowhere is safe for long because of the sporadic outbreaks of violence. Civilians are scared, not trusting the words of politicians.
In South Sudan more generally, the hope that went with independence has largely evaporated. There is currently no indication that a comprehensive and sustainable peace deal will completely stop the violence and allow the country to develop its infrastructure and resources. A UN report from earlier this year concludes that both Kiir and Machar should face sanctions for their roles in the war. Without concerted international pressure to cease the violence and to establish accountable trials and a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, South Sudan is destined to remain mired in conflict. Its determined people deserve far better from the major global powers that, just a few years ago, promised them the world.
My essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” was recaptured by Mexican marines in January. It was the latest in a long history of farcical escapes and imprisonments that have dominated the life of the world’s most infamous drug boss.
His legacy is clear. Unmarked graves of mass killings are ubiquitous across Mexico, a product of both failed policies against cartels and complicity with them. The civilian death count in the last decade alone is estimated at over 100,000 people, with at least 25,000 missing — comparable to the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mystery still surrounds the drug trade. When the cartel head was recently interviewed by Sean Penn in Rolling Stone, veteran “war on drugs” chronicler Don Winslow condemned the article for its myopia, and bias. He called it a “brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer.”
Guzman’s capture, and the way it was covered, highlight a narrative about the “War on Drugs” that has dominated the media for years. It’s a myth that revolves around determined Mexican officials targeting drug bosses and successive American administrations funding a drug war to destroy the dealers, pushers, and producers. Anabel Hernandez exposed this narrative as a lie in her book Narcoland (2010), a massive bestseller in Mexico. In it, she detailed the intimate connections between every level of the Mexican state and the cartel run by Guzman, the Sinaloa. Washington was complicit in the game, according to Hernandez. Any real battle against drugs was an illusion, for show, she argued — and she named all the officials, including Mexican presidents, with ties to the narco trade.
The real Washington agenda in Mexico was compromised, and never about destroying the drug trade. In 2014, the Mexican newspaper El Universal found evidence in court documents that DEA agents had met Sinaloa cartel members between 2002 and 2012 and left its business free to operate in exchange for information on rival cartels. The DEA was willing to accept Sinaloa carnage to pursue another, apparently noble agenda, fatally breaking Washington’s publicly stated opposition to Guzman’s empire. It’s a tactic that’s been similarly used by the DEA, with equally devastating results, in Afghanistan and Colombia. In this worldview, civilian deaths are a necessary casualty.
Despite decades of narco killings, little is still known about the secretive “War on Drugs.” Journalist Ioan Grillo, author of the book Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, writes that both countries have wrongly pursued a “cartel decapitation strategy.” “While these kingpins rot in prisons and graves,” Grillo notes, “their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.” It’s an extreme form of cross-border capitalism that rewards groups involved in politics, mining, money laundering, fraud, and all forms of criminality. It’s arguable that these gangs would continue making money even if all drugs were legalized.
Narco History (OR Books, 2015) is a perfect backgrounder to the “War on Drugs.” In it, Mexican author Carmen Boullosa and American academic Mike Wallace uncover a century of failed drug policies that have only worsened the violence consuming Mexican and American communities. “We argue that the very term ‘Mexican Drug War’ is profoundly misleading,” they write, “as it diverts attention from the American role in its creation.” As they explain,
“Americans understandably view the blood-drenched bulletins from below the Rio Grande as dispatches from a different world. They are reports from a distant battlefield, limning a Mexican Drug War — presumably a conflict of Mexico’s making, hence Mexico’s responsibility alone. But we believe the term to be a misnomer, as the complex phenomena to which it refers were jointly constructed by Mexico and the United States over the last hundred years … What is perhaps less appreciated is how much the present situation dates to America’s long-ago coupling of a voracious demand for drugs with a prohibition on their use or purchase.”
Beginning in the 1910s, the authors explain, “Mexico was not a helpless, hapless victim. Powerful forces within the country profited hugely and happily from supplying gringos with what their government forbade them.” Prohibition, criminalization, and racism are early targets of the author’s wrath as key instigators of instability and corruption. They cite Southern American whites who believed that cocaine made black men rape white women. “It was not fear of drugs per se that drove the prohibitionists, so much as fear of the social groups who used them,” they argue. Henry Aslinger, the fanatical antidrug head in the US, was explicitly racist in his pronouncements. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said.
The authors clarify how the long and porous border between Mexico and the United States has contributed to the drug trade. In the early 1900s, “border crossing was a breeze because there were no official restrictions or quotas on Mexican movement north.” American agricultural companies wanted cheap labor and Mexicans were the solution (returning to their homeland in the winter). Drugs moved easily between the two countries, particularly opium.
Fearing an underclass that could challenge Mexico’s social and political hierarchies, Mexico launched a “war on drugs” that was essentially a war on the poor people most susceptible to the trade, mirroring the way Chinese and blacks were demonized for drug use in the United States. As Wallace and Boullosa write, “revolutionary elites associated alcoholism, opium addiction, and marijuana consumption with lower-class illiterates and (mistakenly) with indigenous Indians — ‘backward’ social sectors. Drugs were perceived as obstacles to forging a new model citizenry, one that could build a modern, progressive, and civilized Mexican nation.”
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in America pushed the drug onto the black market where it remains to this day, despite an increasing number of US states legalizing and regulating it. But even back then, voices of reason existed. Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, head of the Mexican Federal Narcotics Service, was a respected physician for his work at Mexico City’s Hospital for Drug Addicts. In October 1938 he published a prescient paper titled “The Myth of Marijuana,” in which he argued that it was a relatively harmless substance that didn’t induce criminal behavior or psychosis. He opposed Mexico’s prohibition of the drug and pushed for a government-sanctioned monopoly on drug distribution. America vigorously opposed the idea. Narco History doesn’t explicitly say it, but Viniegra’s report, had it been adopted by America and Mexico in the 1930s, could have saved both nations decades of violence, rampant corruption, and drug lords like Guzman.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox today claims that all drugs will be legalized in Mexico within 10 years, which may be one way to halt the apocalyptic drug-related violence that has wracked the nation for decades. Mexico’s Supreme Court approved in 2015 the growing of marijuana for recreational use, bringing the drug’s legalization one step closer.
By the mid-1970s, Mexico was supplying 75 percent of America’s marijuana, guaranteeing corruption on an industrial scale in both nations. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon declared an official “War on Drugs” that a new, more brutal phase emerged. “Not even Nixon still believed that marijuana drove people to rape and murder,” the book argues, “but he did believe, as did many cultural conservatives, that cannabis was doing something worse — undermining American civilization itself.”
Such a challenge required a monumental effort, and in 1974 Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At its inception, it had 1,470 agents and an annual budget of less than $75 million. Today, its budget is more than $5 billion annually, and it has offices in 62 countries. There are serious questions about whether the DEA, a government body that alleges clear connections between drug trafficking and terror plots, are stopping threats or just staging them against low-level drug pushers or innocent people, to prove they can effectively prosecute criminals. Although a senior DEA agent in Kenya recently told me that the “links can’t be shown [in court] because of the nature of the information,” hard evidence is mostly lacking.
Nixon’s legacy — an endless war against groups and individuals he believed were deviant —continued long after his resignation. Narco History artfully details President Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the drug war against the Mexican people (though it was never framed that way, the results were devastating for farmers and peasants who relied on the drug trade to make a pitiful living.) Marijuana, Reagan laughably said, was “probably the most dangerous drug in America.” Despite the American government pumping huge amounts of money into tackling Mexican drug barons, contraband continued flowing into America, a country with an insatiable appetite for illicit substances.
President Reagan wasn’t deterred. Perhaps the most egregious example of Washington’s hypocrisy in the “War on Drugs” involves the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The administration wanted to back the Contras, a paramilitary group aiming to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The cynicism and brutality of the policy is explained in Narco History:
“One idea they [the US government] hit upon was to covertly ferry arms to the Contras via Mexican drug dealers. Félix Gallardo, at that point running four tons of cocaine into the United States every month, provided ‘humanitarian aid’ to the Contras in the form of high-powered weaponry, hard cash, planes, and pilots. Indeed, a Caro Quintero ranch became a training facility, run by the DFS — the CIA’s faithful Mexican affiliate. In return, Washington looked the other way as enormous amounts of Mexican-processed crack cocaine flooded the streets of US cities, the super-addictive, mass-marketed drug wreaking havoc in poor communities, and triggering an Uzi-driven competition for market share that sent crime rates spiking.”
By the 2000s, drug violence was soaring in Mexico, a direct result of the US-backed, militarized “War on Drugs.” This led to a stream of Mexicans seeking shelter in America, millions over the years, and yet it was rarely explained in American political and media discourse why these individuals were coming in the first place. Drug and criminal gangs, such as the Zetas, were kidnapping, extorting, and killing the desperate souls fleeing for their lives (these stories are beautifully and painfully reported in The Beast by Óscar Martínez.) The Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land details how growing numbers of Mexicans are fighting back against the cartels and arming themselves for the battle.
There’s little evidence that either Mexico or America is intent on seriously changing its approach to drug gangs. Although Mexican towns like Juarez are less apocalyptically violent than a few years ago, Narco History concludes with a cautious tone. While noting large public acceptance in America for marijuana legalization, a massive shift since the 1960s, the authors argue that the “war on drugs” has always been a battle to subdue minorities — America’s culture of mass incarceration against Hispanics and African-Americans attests to this theory — and it continues to be the case in both Mexico and America:
“Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in ‘an era of clean thinking and clean living.'”
America’s role and responsibility in Mexico is contested. Despite many arguing for continued funding of Mexican political reform, a recent New York Times letter by Laura Carlson, Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program in the think tank Center for International Policy, questioned this morality. “As a political analyst living and working in Mexico for the last three decades,” she wrote,
“I have watched with horror how the United States-Mexico drug war strategy has led to the explosion of violence and criminal activity here. The deep-rooted complicity between government officials and security forces on the one hand and cartels on the other means that the training, equipment and firepower given in aid and sold to the Mexican government fuel violence on both sides […] Victim organizations that have organized throughout the country demand that the United States stop funding the drug war under any guise.”
Narco History, a timely, insightful, and passionately argued short volume, is essential reading to understand why both Mexico and America have been ravaged for over a century by cartels, politicians, and gangs. The authors aren’t starry-eyed about legalization (although they support it) because they fear that drug cartels, such as Guzman’s Sinaloa, could become corporations and sell marijuana or other drugs legally on the market. What’s required for a wholesome change in Mexico’s dysfunctional political structure is “a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime.” Tragically, at present, there’s too much money to be made for the war to stop.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author of many books including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
My book review in The Australian:
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is feted across the world, celebrated for rescuing his country after the 1994 genocide and bringing stability to a devastated nation. Kagame’s government has received billions of dollars in aid and weapons for more than 20 years from the US, Israel, Britain and the EU, not to mention the Clinton Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and many others. Just this year Kagame was invited to speak at the Harvard Business School, and feted in Toronto by its cultural and business elites.
Kagame rules over a country of spectacular beauty, rare mountain gorillas and streets of deceptive cleanliness. He feels protected, confident that his foreign donors will keep the money flowing while internal dissent is extinguished. Few questions are asked about his military forces killing tens — or perhaps hundreds — of thousands of people in the Congo after 1994. Nobody wants to hear about journalists and writers critical of the Kagame government, or military leaders, disappearing or being murdered in the capital Kigali and elsewhere. Grenade attacks against civilian targets are dismissed and rarely reported.
The revelations in this book, one of the finest works of reportage in living memory, reveal the depravity at the heart of modern Rwanda, backed and defended by guilt-ridden Western states. Author Anjan Sundaram, who lived in Kigali for years teaching journalism, funded by the EU and Britain, confronts an EU ambassador about his backing for state terror. “Aren’t you worried about giving money to a dictator?” Sundaram asks. “I have no problem with giving money to a director,” the man replies. “He runs one of the most efficient governments in Africa. I’m proud to be giving him money. By giving him money we influence their policies. We are for freedom of speech. We will influence the government in the right direction.”
Bad News dismisses this notion as wilful fantasy. Sundaram explains how Kagame and his cronies institute an “army of flatterers” to ask the President only softball questions at press conferences: “Your Excellency, I was asking myself the other day why our government is so capable and professional.” Loyalty is rewarded with favours, money and promotion.
Sundaram, whose fine first book, Stringer, reported on the largely ignored Congo conflict from the perspective of a young foreign correspondent, befriends Rwandan journalists in an attempt to understand why the country became an autocracy. He is told about how every part of the country is organised into administrative units to allow monitoring of citizens. There is no privacy. His friend Moses tells him that people want to please the state, fearing punishment if they do not, and will happily report anything suspicious to higher authorities.
Rwandans live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Gibson, a friend of Sundaram, says: “We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time. So you now see the truth in our country is hidden, you need to look not for what is there, but for what they hide. You cannot pay attention to what they show you, but need to listen to those who are kept quiet. You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear.”
This book’s strength lies in its ability to convey the nightmare of today’s Rwanda and the international community’s complicity in it. Sundaram cites the UN’s choice of Kagame as head of a high-profile committee on improving the welfare of citizens around the world. The group included Bill Gates, Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus and CNN founder Ted Turner. “[UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] said the committee would be a collection of development ‘superheroes’. A number of messages of congratulations for Kagame came in from foreign leaders and dignitaries. The President said in response that he was honoured. The more the President’s statements went unchallenged by Rwandan journalists and citizens, the more the world believed in their truth.”
The 1994 genocide permeates the book: for survivors, for outsiders who didn’t help, and for donors looking away once more in the face of repression. “Never again” in the case of Rwanda appears to mean tolerating a dictatorship because, were they to halt aid, donors fear being accused of ignoring a nation in need. Unquestioning Western aid is a justifiable target because Sundaram shows that building roads, schools and infrastructure is only one part of a nation’s rebirth. Without freedom of speech or movement, and civic life, Rwanda is almost guaranteed to face further serious violence.
Bad News offers no simple solutions to Rwanda’s descent into autocracy. Western states that offer almost uncritical backing of Kagame bear partial responsibility for creating millions of fearful citizens who know that obedience to the leader is essential for survival.
Antony Loewenstein is a Middle East-based independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
By Anjan Sundaram
Allen and Unwin, 240pp, $29.99
My column in the Guardian:
Charisma and persuasion matter in politics. Though neither trait guarantees fair policies or outlook – think Tony Blair backing the catastrophic war against Iraq, or Malcolm Turnbull hailing himself as a free speech champion before pressuring the ABC over its robust journalism – image is apparently more captivating than ever in the 21st century.
That’s the mainstream consensus, anyway. The last 12 months have challenged this reality. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour party and Bernie Sanders as a viable US Presidential candidate proves that the general public increasingly craves potential leaders who understand economic disenfranchisement (likewise the allure of Donald Trump).
Both men’s popularity is despite them being unconventional left-wing politicians, outsiders with little love for the Labour or Democratic elites, with strong messages against the political and media establishments.
Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that anybody remotely as critical of the system will appear in Australia to lead one of the two major political parties. A relatively buoyant economy – despite a growing homeless problem and rampant wealth inequality – has insulated Australia from the worst excesses of the global financial crisis. As a result, the country is left with leaders who rarely stray from reflexive, pro-US and neo-liberal positions on the economy, foreign affairs, intelligence and spying.
Both the United States and Britain have suffered greatly in the last decades from a bi-partisan obsession with supposedly free trade, crony capitalism and privatisation. America’s infrastructure is literally falling apart. The results are clear to see with four out of every 10 households in the UK below the poverty line and 46 million Americans equally poor.
These individuals are mostly invisible in political campaigns and yet Sanders and Corbyn are articulating how this happened and what to do about it. Austerity is rejected. For example, Sanders has an economic plan that favours high spending for vital services and increasing taxation on corporations. Many young people are flocking to him.
Latest opinion polls place Corbyn’s Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories despite Corbyn being accused of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in his own party. His ascension doesn’t mean that the Labour party isn’t still filled with politicians, officials and former leaders who loathe any deviance from the establishment view on politics and are committed to destroying Corbyn and what he claims to represent; the promotion of equality and justice for the majority of the population.
In Australia, why is it impossible to even imagine a person such as Corbyn or Sanders rising to a leadership position? Labor is led by Bill Shorten, a man of stunning unpopularity though both the Liberal and Labor parties are, according to the latest polls, as popular as each other. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is pandering to the far-right base of his party, men he fears could topple him. The Greens are languishing in third place.
The prospect of an election on 2 July (or whenever it may be) will bring little change to Shorten’s posture. His party’s long-term erroneous belief, despite diving membership numbers, is to differentiate itself only marginally from political opponents. Therefore, expect continued blind support for the Liberal party’s positions on foreign policy, spying for Washington through the Five Eyes network, and data retention.
There are some obvious reasons that a proudly left-wing candidate would have little chance in Australia. A reactionary Murdoch empire would aim to topple anybody pushing for, say, companies to pay more tax, asking questions about the nature of the US alliance over intelligence sharing, spying on neighbours and foreign companies. How about ending the privatisation of all prisons, public services and immigration detention centres? It would be deemed as radical, unfriendly to big business and shunning our biggest ally.
The majority of Australians oppose privatising public services, believe the government should be far more critical of Israeli actions in Palestine and want a strong and publicly-funded Medicare and university sector (the deregulated system for higher education in the US has led to massive student fees and institutions turning into corporations).
Of course there remains vital criticisms of the policies pushed by Corbyn and Sanders, including their ability to seriously challenge the might of corporate donors and big business if they made it to power. Recall the Syriza party in Greece promised to unwind harsh austerity then capitulated to even stricter economic strangulation.
But can you imagine an Australian political leader pledging to massively increase funding for schools and universities, hugely invest in sustainable energy solutions, reduce defence spending and not join every failed US misadventure in the Middle East? While much of this is the current Greens party platform, its failure to attract widespread political support is symptomatic of a political and media clique that hates genuine outsiders.
Political uniformity in Australia, with few politicians daring to vote against their party on issues of moral or social significance – sending asylum seekers to be abused on remote Pacific islands or increased surveillance powers – doesn’t create allegiance, but dogma.
What the rise of Corbyn and Sanders shows is that within the strict confines of mainstream politics it’s possible to generate huge public passion for politics. Corbyn has invigorated huge numbers of young Britons and Sanders attracts massive rallies. In Australia, Turnbull and Shorten are lucky to generate any passionate interest in themselves or their parties beyond the true believers.
My debut article in the New York Times:
Berlin — Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls the detention site in Dilley, Tex., a “family residential center.” But to the 2,000 migrant children and mothers who live there, it’s something else: “People who say this is not a prison are lying,” Yancy Maricela Mejia Guerra, a detainee from Central America, told Fusion last year. “It’s a prison for us and a prison for our children, but none of us are criminals.”
The Dilley center holds people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a government agency, but it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, America’s largest private prison and detention company. It is one part of a worrisome global trend of warehousing immigrants and asylum seekers at remote sites maintained by for-profit corporations. The United Nations estimates that one in every 122 people on the planet is displaced. This is a crisis that requires a humanitarian solution; unfortunately, some people view it as a business opportunity.
In recent decades, many Western governments have increasingly outsourced prisons to private companies, claiming that doing so saves money. As the number of migrants and asylum seekers has grown, governments have found a new use for the private-prison model.
It has become a multimillion-dollar industry. The company Hero Norway runs 90 refugee centers in Norway and 10 in Sweden, charging governments $31 to $75 per refugee per night. Australia’s government has contracted the company Broadspectrum to manage two detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum seekers. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government awarded the security firm Serco a seven-year contract in 2014 worth over $100 million for running the Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention center.
These private companies are too often plagued by scandal and accused of abuse. The Corrections Corporation of America has a long history of ignoring detainee safety and federal laws. Serco has been accused of inadequately training its guards and overcharging the British governmentfor substandard work. One doctor who worked at a site run by Broadspectrum in Nauru told The Guardian that the detention center was “reminiscent of Guantánamo Bay.”
The global flows of refugees are unlikely to abate anytime soon. Wars in the Middle East continue, as does the epidemic of gang violence in Central America. Climate change will send millions more people fleeing their homes in the years to come. Governments must accept that for-profit detention centers are not the way to deal with this issue.
State-run detention centers don’t necessarily guarantee more respect for human rights, but there is evidence that government control brings improvements: A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, found that private immigration detention centers in the United States were more crowded than state-run ones, and detainees in them had less access to educational programs and quality medical care. And public centers, while still flawed, are more transparent.
Opacity is a common denominator in the privatized detention system around the world. In Australia, Europe and the United States, journalists have less access to private prisons than they do to public ones; governments maintain less oversight. That’s not a coincidence. As Matthew J. Gibney, a political scientist at Oxford University, told The New York Times: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.”
Advocates of private immigration detention claim they are saving taxpayers money. But that seems unlikely. The American government spends more on immigrant detention today than it did 10 years ago, when the number of border crossings was higher. The Corrections Corporation of America and other companies have lobbied politicians to keep more people behind bars rather than deporting them. Congress requires that at least 34,000 people be housed daily in detention centers — a so-called detention bed mandate.
Making a profit doesn’t just require keeping beds filled, it can often lead companies to skimp on services. This means mental health care, outdoor activities and healthy food are far less available in private detention centers than at those run by the government. Last year, the United Nations described a camp for refugees in Traiskirchen, Austria, that is run by the Swiss firm ORS Service, as “inhumane” because of overcrowding. Similar reports are common not just on Europe’s frontiers but across the world.
Governments that receive migrants and asylum seekers must reverse their reliance on private companies. The current practice is a short-term fix that in the long run will cost governments more and subject refugees to worse conditions. In the meantime, governments from Canberra to Vienna to Washington should institute independent cost analyses to ensure that private centers give taxpayers the best value for their money. They should encourage more oversight of these sites, from government agencies and from the news media. And the 34,000-bed quota must also be done away with immediately.
In its 2014 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America worried that changes to American immigration policy could cut into the company’s bottom line. Many other such contractors might have similar fears. Let’s hope they do. Unless governments make drastic changes now, these corporations look likely to get richer and richer as more people around the world flee their homes, desperately seeking safety.
The human cost of the Afghan war has been devastating. The United Nations estimates that at least 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001 and violence is worsening across the country.
United States president Barack Obama, fearing an Iraq-style state collapse after withdrawing the bulk of US forces from there in 2011, has pledged to maintain an indefinite presence of 10,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of contractors (the Pentagon claims up to 30,000) and an unknown number of special forces. Foreign occupation is seemingly permanent.
Former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and commander of US special operations command, General David Petraeus, argued in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that Washington should step up its bombing campaign to halt a resurgent Taliban. There’s no evidence that this failed strategy, advanced in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade, would be any more successful this time.
Afghan resources, estimated to be worth billions of dollars, have provided very little money to the general population.
During my time in Afghanistan last year whilst investigating the mineral, oil and gas industries, I witnessed the suffering of local people around proposed mining sites, such as Mes Aynak in Logar province. They were kicked off their lands, without jobs, and were attacked by the Taliban, ISIL and the Afghan military.
Countless western and Afghan corporations have made a killing in the country since 2001, often replacing functions once undertaken by the state, and with little accountability. This policy has been pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
A 2010 US Congressional report, Warlord, Inc, found that the US military was indirectly paying the Taliban and warlords, via private contractors, to ensure safe passage for their goods across the country.
The ideology behind outsourcing war existed before September 11 but accelerated after the attacks on New York and Washington. Apart from enriching corporate friends of the George W Bush administration, it was framed as a way of saving money for the US taxpayer (the evidence for this is missing) and reducing the responsibility of the state to manage its own affairs.
Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of this policy. There is currently no sustainable vision by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to support his country when western aid inevitably reduces to a trickle.
The US defence department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) had grand ambitions in Afghanistan. Embarking on its work there in 2009, the Pentagon group pledged to exploit the country’s large and untapped mineral resources and to attract international investment.
Former head Paul Brinkley told the Washington Post in 2011 that, “we do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money. That mindset cannot exist in a humanitarian organisation. It’s like asking General Motors to make potato chips.”
After being established in 2006 to stabilize war-torn Iraq, TFBSO had remarkable freedom to act independently without adequate oversight. It attracted US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) in private investment commitment in Iraq with little long-term evidence that former state-run businesses benefitted from the money. In Afghanistan, Brinkley brought Google to Kabul to start an information technology industry while pledging to expand the nation’s fruit and carpet trades.
On-the-ground investigations, however, revealed the paucity of TFBSO’s legacy. The US government-appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar) has released a number of reports demanding accountability for the group’s spending. It has been stymied at every step of the way.
The US has spent more than $110bn in US taxpayer funds to support reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001. It is now the country’s longest war and yet the outcome has been desultory. Sigar head John F Sopko gave a speech in November at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University where he said that more than 300 reports issued since the group launched in 2008 had brought some successes.
Sigar had conducted “nearly 900 investigations, resulting in 103 arrests, 136 criminal charges, 100 convictions or guilty pleas, 78 sentencings, and roughly $945 million in savings for American taxpayers”, he said. This amount is a tiny fraction of the financial commitment made by Washington in the past 15 years.
In a November letter to US defence secretary Ashton Carter, Sigar showed how 20 per cent of TFBSO’s 2010-2014 $822m budget was spent on private villas and security guards in Kabul.
“If TFBSO employees had instead lived at DoD [department of defence] facilities in Afghanistan”, it said, “where housing, security and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge to DoD organisations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars.”
Sigar estimated that in 2014 alone, the 10 TFBSO staff would have paid just $1.8m to live at the US embassy.
Another report, released in October, accused TFBSO of spending up to $43m to build a natural gas filling station in the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan when a similar facility in Pakistan cost only $500,000.
“One of the most troubling aspects of this project”, Sigar said, “is that the department of defence claims that it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation or outcome.”
TFBSO was disbanded last year after consistent allegations of ethical breaches and financial irregularities. But its legacy lives on. The first Sigar report of 2016 found that TFBSO had spent up to $488m since 2009 attempting to develop viable oil, gas and mineral businesses in Afghanistan, but achieved nothing sustainable. Corruption and rampant violence conspired against it.
The lack of accountability of Washington’s war in Afghanistan was exposed when Sigar chief Sopko wrote to defence secretary Carter in October and chastised his department for “no longer having any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800m programme that reported directly to the office of the secretary of defence and only shut down a little over six months ago”.
I asked the department of defence to respond to Sigar’s allegations against TFBSO, and spokesman Army Lt Col Joe Sowers told me that, “we welcome continued review by Sigar in their effort to ensure the TFBSO activities are properly assessed and analysed. With respect to holding someone accountable, to our knowledge, Sigar has not identified or accused any particular individual of malfeasance. The department will cooperate fully with any investigations.”
Sigar said to me that there had been no official response from the department of defence to its 2015 report detailing extensive TFBSO use of private villas in Kabul. Likewise there was no substantive comment after Sigar accused TFBSO of massively overcharging for the natural gas filling station in Afghanistan.
Former TFBSO head Brinkley now runs the investment company Nawah, in Jordan. Critics accused him of entering the private sector too soon after leaving the US government in 2011 – only four months afterwards – though he told me that he “did so in accordance with the ethical rules established by the government to do so”.
Brinkley explained that during his time running TFBSO, from 2006 to 2011, oversight “was very, very rigorous. The recent media reports about Sigar studying TFBSO spending appear to be focused on activities that occurred after my departure. However, to assist in providing some important context and history, I voluntarily met with four members of the Sigar study team in mid-December”.
Brinkley believed that TFBSO was “based on the belief that the US government can offer economic improvements as instruments of foreign policy. Failing to provide a hopeful future for young people in conflict-ridden countries leads to frustration and sympathy with insurgents … I felt we served the [TFBSO] mission well”.
Amidst all the carnage and mismanagement in Afghanistan, it is the civilians who have suffered the most. The Taliban today control more territory than at any time since they were overthrown in 2001. The prospects for the country, after almost 15 years of foreign occupation, are grim. There is every indication that contractors, such as DynCorp and Fluor Corporation, will continue making a fortune profiting from the conflict. However, according to Sigar, it’s nearly impossible for American auditors to assess their work because they can only access about 10 per cent of the country due to insecurity.
These facts don’t mean that some outspoken Afghans aren’t still fighting for improvements.
Shughla, a Fulbright alumni from Kabul (and member of peace initiative the Afghan Fulbrighters for Peace), told me that she blamed many international agencies for ignoring the real needs of Afghan women since 2001. “There was a limited assessment of cultural and contextual background”, she said, “and gender relations in the policies were one of the reasons why Afghan women made fragile and hindering progress despite the gigantic investment.”
Shughla argued that there needed to be empirical research “undertaken by civil society, government agencies and international donors as to where, what and how to improve the livelihood of Afghan women who are manoeuvring in a highly patriarchal and tribe-oriented society.”
The general failure of the USAID project in Afghanistan can be attributed to many factors, but a lack of local consultation was fatal. “Mohammed”, an Afghan in Kabul working for an international financial organisation who requested anonymity over security fears, said that the majority of USAID-funded projects had “largely failed to have significant impact on the life of Afghan people. Those who develop these projects are sitting in Washington DC with very little understanding of the realities in this country”.
I asked Mohammed why projects condemned by Sigar were so ubiquitous in Afghanistan. “The contractors have little access beyond Kabul city”, he said, “with very poor understanding of the country, and try to remotely manage their projects. In order to keep their senior counterparts in the government happy, they usually provide them favours that can border on corruption. Accountability mechanisms are very weak.”
This accurately articulates a key problem for the US mission in Afghanistan since the beginning. A lack of transparency has bedevilled the project since 2001, and president Obama, despite pledging during his 2007 campaign to clean up the bloated contracting racket, has done nothing.
History will not be kind to the litany of American mistakes and crimes during its longest war.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
My investigation in the Guardian:
Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós islands look like a tourists’ paradise – the 88 mostly uninhabited islets are filled with palm trees and white, sandy beaches. But the archipelago has been best known as a smugglers’ paradise.
Described by the UN as a narco state, Guinea-Bissau has long been a drug trafficking hub for South American cocaine cartels. And although this illegal trade appears to be declining thanks to US and UN counter-narcotic policies, the country still bears the scars and remains dogged by the same poverty and institutional weaknesses that allowed the drugs industry to take hold in the first place.
On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no roads, just dirt tracks. People live in mud-brick homes, and pigs and dogs meander in the streets. Most of the small guesthouses are empty; despite nascent efforts to promote the islands’ rich biodiversity, tourism has yet to take off. At Bubaque’s airstrip on a November day, the small terminal was empty and men on bikes rode along the “runway”, hacked out of the grass and scrub.
This isolation was one of the elements that attracted drug traffickers to this area in the heyday of west African drug trafficking in the first decade of the millennium.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it became clear around 2005 that drugs worth billions of dollars were being shipped through west Africa. Between 2005 and 2007 (pdf), more than 20 major seizures were made in the region, most at sea but some on land. Hundreds of commercial air couriers were detected carrying cocaine from west Africa to Europe.
The UNODC noted that the same period saw coups, attempted coups and even the assassination of a president in Guinea-Bissau. “While the conflict appears to have occurred along well established political faultlines, competition for cocaine profits raised the stakes and augmented tensions between rival groups,” it said.
After the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Guinea-Bissau’s former navy chief, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, in 2013 for trafficking cocaine into the US, smuggling briefly slowed.
The ambassador of a European country in Bissau, who did not want to be named, said drug smuggling had declined since Na Tchuto was arrested. “Before this, local smugglers were brazen, driving around in expensive cars,” he said. “But after the arrest of Na Tchuto, people became scared. They thought US drones were flying above the country.” There is no evidence that US drones came anywhere near Guinea-Bissau.
The former justice minister Carmelita Pires denied Guinea-Bissau was a narco state but acknowledged that smuggling occurred. “We don’t produce drugs and people here don’t have enough money to consume drugs,” she said. During her last period in government in 2014 and 2015, only 15 locals and foreigners were in jail for drug trafficking and 13.5kg of cocaine was intercepted. She realised this made only a small dent, but added: “We don’t have money and drug smugglers have so much of it.”
In November, UNODC told a press conference in Bissau that about 34,000kg of cocaine and 22,000kg of marijuana had been seized in Guinea-Bissau since 2011, with 58 traffickers prosecuted. However, limited resources meant constant monitoring was impossible, and drugs inevitably got through.
One factor behind the drop in trade is the West African Coast Initiative, a joint project between UN agencies, Interpol and the regional bloc Ecowas, which began in 2009 to fight drug smuggling, organised crime and drug use in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
But the defence minister, Adiato Djaló Nandigna, said in December that the Bijagós islands were still the “most vulnerable” region in terms of drug smuggling. Portugal recently gave Guinea-Bissau two boats to plug surveillance gaps. According to multiple defence sources in Bissau, the country has no operational boats to fight the trade and no reliable police outposts outside the capital.
Fernando Jorge Barreto Costa, the deputy director of judicial police, said: “We have a lack of means to fight drug smugglers. Drugs are arriving more by sea than by plane and it’s very hard for us to investigate it. We don’t have the capability to intercept boats. If we receive news about drugs at sea, it takes two to three days to get an answer from authorities for action. This is too slow, and by then the drugs and people may have moved on.”
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 178 out of 188 in the UN’s human development index. Political instability has blighted the lives of its 1.8 million people; since independence in 1974, no leader has served a full term, and the nation is still recovering from a 2012 coup. In August, President José Mário Vaz sacked his government.
In March, international donors pledged more than €1bn (£726m) to support a 10-year development plan meant to attract tourists and investors, according to Reuters.
“Every effort must be deployed so that Guinea-Bissau will no longer be a burden on the international community but will instead become an example to be followed,” President Vaz said. Growth is expected to have risen to 4.7% in 2015, compared with 2.6% a year earlier, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Mario José Maia Moreira, UNODC’s representative in Guinea-Bissau, is leading a programme to support a transnational crime unit and the state’s first drug-testing lab. “Stability is the greatest issue facing Guinea-Bissau,” he said. “All the evidence shows that there’s a large quantity of drugs [still entering the nation], and whenever a political crisis comes you see [more].”
My investigation in Foreign Policy:
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — The headquarters of the Judicial Police, the government agency charged with prosecuting Guinea-Bissau’s war on drugs, sits on a dusty street in the middle of this deceptively quiet West African capital city. Inside is the country’s only drug-testing laboratory, a recent addition thanks to a surge in European Union funding to curb the flow of illegal narcotics north toward its borders.
Without guards or metal detectors, the lab hardly feels like the front line in a war against violent criminals thought to be trafficking billions of dollars worth of cocaine each year. But officials say the assorted vials and testing equipment here represent an important, if limited, first step toward routing the South American cartels that have ventured thousands of miles from their home turf to stake out an ideal drug transit point in one of Africa’s weakest states.
“We want to diminish 80 to 90 percent of the drug trade flowing into Guinea-Bissau,” said Sargento Natcha, the lab’s soft-spoken coordinator, as he tested a small sample of cocaine with a kit bought with donor funds. “The EU has promised to send more equipment.”
But the odds are stacked against Natcha and his team at the lab. Key players in the country’s notoriously corrupt government — the same government that must act on any leads produced by the lab — are thought to be backing the drug trade. The United Nations has dubbed Guinea-Bissau, an impoverished nation of 1.7 million, Africa’s first “narco-state.” For decades, its governing elite is known to have opened the country to South American drug barons who use it as a base for smuggling vast quantities of cocaine to Europe, according to the United Nations. According to the United Nations, 60 percent of the cocaine consumed in Western Europe makes its way through West Africa.
The routes are varied, with some drugs transported through the Sahara — passing through Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco and then on to Southern Europe — and other shipments crossing the Atlantic bound for the United States. Guinea-Bissau is a key hub in both cases. According to a 2012 U.N. report, an estimated 50 Colombian drug lords were based in Guinea-Bissau, operating alongside members of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. The report estimated that they were flying 2,200 pounds of cocaine into the West African nation every night.
Smugglers have gained a foothold in the tiny West African nation in part because of its persistent political instability, experts say. Since independence in 1974, the military has participated in nine coups or attempted coups and no elected political leader has ever served a full term in office. Current President José Mário Vaz fired two prime ministers in 2015, deepening a political crisis that has strengthened the resolve of the military brass to protect cocaine trafficking as their key source of income.
“During military dictatorships [that lasted until 1994] the military was used to getting benefits [from drug trafficking],” said Miguel Trovoada, head of the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau, adding that desire to control the drug trade has fostered political instability since then. “In all the coups, the military didn’t take over governance responsibilities, leaving that to others.”
Much of the country’s ruling class is now thought to be implicated in the trade, forming what Mark Shaw, a professor of criminology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls an “elite protection network” for the cartels. Senior military figures in particular provide security and logistics to South American drug cartels in exchange for money and drugs, according to Shaw.
Examples of corrupt military officials abound: In 2013, the former army chief of staff, Gen. Antonio Indjai, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for trying to import cocaine into the United States, though he denies the allegations and remains a free man in Guinea-Bissau. Likewise, former navy chief José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto was captured in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2013 and a year later pleaded guilty to importing narcotics, including cocaine, into the United States.
The international community has gradually woken up to the problem. The United States, European Union, and United Nations, in particular, have invested billions of dollars in recent years in battling the drug trade and supporting development. In addition to Natcha’s lab, aid dollars have helped set up a transnational crime unit that supports the government’s anti-corruption department, according to Mário José Maia Moreira, the representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Guinea-Bissau. Moreira said his office is also working to obtain boats that can be used to conduct seizures, since the country’s counternarcotics units currently lack operational vessels.
But progress has been slow. Moreira estimates that dozens of tons of cocaine still move through Guinea-Bissau every year, a figure that he reckons is less than in the past but still worth more than “the entire annual military budget of many West African countries.” This year, only 11 kilograms of cocaine have been seized so far — or a tiny fraction of the estimated total that flows through the country en route to European countries every year.
“If you were a drug smuggler from South America, wouldn’t you choose Guinea-Bissau, considering the system and the fragility of the country itself?” said Moreira. “The authorities are still very fragile in terms of resources.”
A recent report by the respected Jane’s Intelligence Review confirms Moreira’s assessment. In addition to accusing the military for being “complicit” in the drug trade, the report concludes that Guinea-Bissau “remains an important hub for cocaine trafficking to Europe, despite the anti-trafficking initiatives of the United Nations and other international organisations.”
Outside the capital city, drug smugglers operate virtually unmolested by authorities. In the fishing village of Kassumba, a known smuggling hub near the border with Guinea, law enforcement has no visible presence at all. White sandy beaches and palm trees give the impression of calm, but the reality is very different: According to the UNODC’s Moreira, smugglers drop sealed packages containing small quantities of cocaine into the coastal waters here. The packages are retrieved by local fishermen and passed on to military officials and politicians, who oversee their safe transport to Bissau.
Those members of the security services that are not a part of the official smuggling racket remain woefully under-equipped. On Bubaque Island in the Bijagós island chain, an archipelago of mostly uninhabited land known as a center for smugglers, five hours by slow boat from Bissau, a soldier named Djibril Sanha explained how he’d been tasked with combating drug trafficking and illegal fishing, but had been given virtually no resources.
“We have no boats, no communication devices, and only our mobile phone,” he said in an interview. “I don’t understand what I’m doing here. You give us a head and stomach but no legs.”
Despite billions of dollars spent over the last decade by international donors, the weakness of West African states like Guinea-Bissau continues to attract opportunistic traffickers. Much of the aid has simply been swallowed up by corrupt officials who are in on the game; some of what was promised was never disbursed because of fears that this might happen. Meanwhile, collaboration between drug traffickers and the government has only deepened, according to U.N. officials.
Back in the drug-testing lab in Bissau, the scale of the challenge before officials like Natcha was clearly on display. The coordinator furnished a list of names of traffickers who had been caught at the airport in 2015 with cocaine in their stomachs: None was carrying more than 2.5 kilograms (about 5.5 pounds). But more importantly, none had any known affiliation with the government.
My investigative feature in The Nation:
efore its failed occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union discovered that the country was rich in natural resources. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts drafted maps and collected data that would lay dormant in the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban. These charts documented a vast amount of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium.
Fearing what the Taliban might do with this wealth, a tiny group of Afghan geologists hid the maps in their homes until the arrival of American forces in 2001. By 2007, the US Geological Survey had undertaken the most comprehensive study of the mineral deposits below the country’s surface. An internal Pentagon memo claimed that Afghanistan could develop into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the mineral that is an integral component of laptop and smartphone batteries.
Washington was ecstatic about the findings and in 2010 claimed that at least $1 trillion in resources was up for grabs. “There is stunning potential here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, speaking to The New York Times. US officials said that the deposits could sustain the Afghan economy and generate thousands of jobs, reducing corruption and reliance on foreign aid. Currently, with 60 percent of the country’s budget provided by foreign donors, outside investment is crucial. Acknowledging the inability of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to handle a burgeoning resource industry, the US government pledged to help implement accountability mechanisms. However, regulations like the mining law—revised in 2014 to bring greater transparency—have had little effect on illegal mining and the non-payment of royalties.
The warning signs were there. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” Jack Medlin, a geologist in the US Geological Survey’s international-affairs program, told the Times. During my visit to Afghanistan in May, I often heard from locals that the resource industry was never going to provide enough money to support the economy once foreign aid dried up. Afghan mining expert Javed Noorani told The Nation that President Ashraf Ghani is “more constrained in his actions against the criminal networks operating in the mining sector than President [Hamid] Karzai was. Today there is open plunder of gemstones by the partners in his government, and his silence and passivity puzzle me, like many others.”
Mining and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba told Iranian mining officials in October that only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s mines had been identified, indicating that the US mineral survey perhaps wasn’t as comprehensive as claimed. In 2015, according to Saba, the government will earn only $30 million from resources for the third consecutive year—far less than the projected $1.5 billion. “Unfortunately, we have failed to well manage and well control our mining sector,” the minister told Bloomberg News in October. “With the current fragile and messy situation, it’s really hard to say when Afghanistan should expect any profits from it.”
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The facts on the ground explain the troubles. Logar Province hasn’t seen peace for decades. Situated close to Kabul, the country’s capital, the area was a main supply route for the American-backed mujahideen as they poured in from Pakistan in the late 1970s and early ’80s during the Soviet occupation. Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist visited the province in 1982 and commented that “the most common sight, except for ruins, are graves.”
By 1995, the Taliban controlled Logar, and today, all sides of the modern Afghan conflict intersect there. Insurgents rule large swaths of the area, and suicide bombings kill civilians and Afghan security forces. The locals are caught between the Taliban, a small but growing Islamic State (ISIS) presence, and Afghan troops.
Logar is also home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, at Mes Aynak. The Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) controls the $3 billion mine, having obtained rights to the area in 2007, but operations haven’t commenced because of security concerns and the discovery by archaeologists of ancient Buddhist relics dating back to the Bronze Age.
Local and international archaeologists have spent years finding, cleaning, and preserving the relics, and they remain opposed to the mine. Nor do they have much faith that the security situation would allow the mine to operate successfully. One Afghan archaeologist working at the site, Aziz Wafa, told Reuters in April that “for the Chinese [violence] is a problem, but not for the Afghans. I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and I will die in a war.”
When Ghani visited Beijing in October 2014, he was asked by the Chinese government to cut the royalty rate from 19.5 percent to roughly 10 percent, which would cost the Afghan government an estimated $114 million annually. Chinese frustrations with the project, especially regarding the lack of security, were behind the demands.
MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, and the Afghan government has few if any other companies willing to take over the contract in such a volatile region. Global copper prices have dropped 40 percent since 2011; there’s no reliable transportation route for taking the metal out of the landlocked country; and MCC withdrew its workers from the site in 2014. The firm claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be indirectly created if operations commenced. MCC refused my requests for comment.
Logar Province is dangerous, unfriendly to outsiders, and only marginally safe to visit before the afternoon fades into night. I drove there in May with Noorani—who is also a founding member of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting mining-affected communities across the country—and the American filmmaker Thor Neureiter. The journey from Kabul took us over paved roads and past lonely gas stations, chicken sellers, men in salwar kameez and beanies, and many burqa-clad women. Closer to Davo, a village near Aynak, the landscape became lush, with vast green fields, mud houses, and a skyline hazy from heat.
On the ground in Logar Province, civilians are angry, frustrated, and scared. Mohammed Nazir Muslimyar told me that “life is no longer normal here because of the mine. There’s too much hardship. There are engineers in this community who are doing very low-level jobs.” The advertised benefits of Afghanistan’s mining boom had not reached Davo.
I arrived at a mud compound as American helicopters flew overhead and was quickly ushered into an open room with red rugs on the floor. Ten men with long beards, white turbans, salwar kameez, and brown waistcoats were waiting to share their stories, and chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan said our presence could result in the insurgents intimidating them after we’d left. Over piping-hot tea and biscuits, Mirjan told me that the Chinese had confiscated his family’s property and never paid compensation or explained what they were doing. There was an information vacuum filled with rumors spread by scared locals, corrupt officials, and the Taliban.
“People have been displaced, and there’s been no incentive or employment offered to local people,” Mirjan said. “When the roads are built for the mine, water in the area will be affected. When extraction begins, it will get more polluted under the ground, in the air and the soil. There’s been no good intention on the part of the government and the company. If there were, the small village where I come from would have had some peace over the last five years. We feel like we’ve been invaded.”
Mirjan explained that the police we saw stationed near his home “were to protect the company, not us. They will never come to defend us.” The Taliban attacked these forces almost daily. Meanwhile, the police insulted and beat up the local shepherds, who weren’t allowed to graze their sheep around the mine site. Mirjan and some other elders weren’t absolutely opposed to the MCC’s mine; they would accept its presence if the revenues were spent on developing the local infrastructure, including dams, canals, and electrical service. “We want to turn this into a sustainable economy,” he said. “If the mining elite spend the money on building villas in Kabul, it’s not going to be any benefit to us.”
Despite years of protest by civil-society activists and international NGOs, the contract between the MCC and the Afghan government was never released publicly. Finally, Kabul posted the contract online this year with very little fanfare. The document proposed only lax environmental protections as well as a feasibility study that was never undertaken. According to public comments by Saba, the MCC didn’t consider the social costs of its proposed operations (although the Afghan government was also neglecting its responsibilities when it signed the deal).
During my visit to the country in May, Saba refused to speak to me about his ministry’s work, despite repeated requests for an interview. The Ghani administration was just as secretive and as unaccountable as its predecessor under Karzai. After trying for weeks to obtain an interview with Saba, I spoke to his chief of staff, Shafiqullah Shahrani, who repeatedly assured me that the Aynak mine would go forward and that the local residents were being consulted about how it might benefit them. When I informed him that I had just visited the area and been told the exact opposite, he defended his government’s commitment to raising revenue.
President Obama’s recent announcement of an indefinite continuation of US military presence in the country—9,800 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of private contractors—will result in no meaningful change to this reality. In fact, it may even worsen the insurgency with the expansion of militias under the Afghan Local Police, as such groups have become notorious for heinous abuses across the state. Village elders in Logar Province have said that their livelihoods are increasingly threatened around the Aynak mine because of these lawless militias. In Davo, Mirjan said that the international community—especially the United States—has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan since 2001 and that “it was stolen. Very little of it came to the people.”
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In April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government body, released a report noting that Washington “did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries.” Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries, supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.
This money, SIGAR explained, did nothing to build a viable and well-regulated mining industry in Afghanistan. Instead, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum lacked “the technical capacity to research, award, and manage new contracts without external support,” while the US government—including USAID and the Defense Department—had failed in its mission to help create “self-sustaining Afghan extractive industries,” which “still seems a very distant goal.”
Take one project central to US government strategy: the Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline in northern Afghanistan. Originally built by the Soviet Union, the pipeline is just one example of how US resource strategies—in this case, to help Afghan engineers repair and maintain aging and damaged equipment—led nowhere. SIGAR found in 2014 that rampant corrosion had left the pipeline in poor shape, and the $33.7 million invested by the US government between 2011 and 2014 had not contributed to its stability. A SIGAR official told The Nationthat this project was now viewed by USAID and the State Department as a “liability…due to safety concerns, lack of sustainability, and other problems.”
The SIGAR official pointed out that the “development of mineral resources is a long-term endeavor and not a quick fix for Afghanistan’s budgetary challenges…. Unfortunately, US assistance in this area does not appear to have [made] much of a difference, and the sector shows virtually no signs of measurably improving in the immediate future.” The SIGAR official also admitted that the Defense Department had offered no response to the April audit and that USAID had “not yet implemented any of [our] recommendations.”
Illegal mining is also rampant throughout Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 such sites raising money for warlords and the insurgency. Historically, Pakistan has been a major recipient of these illicitly obtained minerals. A SIGAR report found that illegal mining has been costing the state up to $300 million annually since the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Insecurity in eastern Nangarhar Province and elsewhere prompted Saba to warn Afghan lawmakers in 2015 that monitoring the thousands of mines around the country was impossible and that the complete and unrestrained looting of local resources could happen in the absence of a peace deal with the Taliban.
A senior source at the US embassy in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told me that mineral revenues today were barely enough to support the operations of the mining ministry itself. He claimed that although Ghani now recognizes that natural resources won’t resolve the country’s budgetary problems, no alternative solutions have been proposed. “China is absolutely waiting in the wings, with many transport corridors and investment options [contingent on] improved Afghan security,” he explained. “They take a longer view and will be players in time, but for now they’ve been burned over copper [at Aynak], so they’ve stepped back.”
Yet mining remains a key plank of the Ghani administration’s economic plans as international aid dwindles. Stephen Carter, the Afghanistan campaign leader at Global Witness, told The Nation that after meeting with Ghani this year in Kabul, he sensed a new “sensible, strategic approach from the government—they have said they do not want to do any large-scale mining” (Aynak is the major exception), “and even small-scale is doubtful until they get stronger oversight and management capacity.” But, Carter added, “the government will inevitably be judged on actions, not words, and the next six months will be crucial. If there is not progress in substantive reforms in this time frame, it will be very worrying.” Six months after those comments were made, the signs are ominous: There is no evidence that the Ghani government is willing or able to eradicate the massive mineral theft by the Taliban or to institute a regulated resource sector.
Whether Afghanistan should actively pursue a mining industry or ignore its vast mineral wealth is a contentious issue. Pajhwok Afghan News journalist Ahmad Zia Rahimzai told me in Kabul that “many Afghans believe that our resources should stay in the ground until laws and accountability in the country are stronger.” Arguably, the risks incurred by leaving resources in the ground are both fewer and less severe than those posed by rampant exploitation. Noorani has argued that the Ghani administration should “leave the resources underground” because warlords control today’s industry. Indeed, minerals are the Taliban’s second major source of funds, after narcotics.
Global Witness’s Carter concurs, arguing that only in the long term should the country pursue mining: “It is too important a source of revenue and growth to ignore, given the desperate need, [but] be ready not to mine for however long it takes to put in place the right structures.” At this point, Afghanistan is years away from such a resolution.
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The hazards posed by climate change and environmental degradation appear nowhere in the US government’s assessments of the Afghan resource industry. Mining without environmental safeguards guarantees worsening air and water pollution. Countless residents of Kabul visit hospitals every day because of health complications caused by poor air quality. Open sewers and the burning of dung only add to the problem. The illegal and uncontrolled extraction of coal happens daily across the city. In addition to low-quality fuel, Afghanistan is already suffering seasonal shifts in its rain and snowfall, and many farmers complain of declining agricultural yields due to climate change. A huge mining industry in vulnerable parts of the country would only exacerbate these issues.
Carter pointed to the increasingly international initiative to leave resources in the ground to reduce global temperatures. “Afghanistan should be first in line for compensation in return for nonexploitation,” he said, “which might also provide a chance to get the money out of the hands” of local warlords.
President Obama, during his announcement in October of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan, claimed that US troops “could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve.” He was against fighting an “endless war,” he said. But that’s exactly what Afghanistan has become: the longest war in American history. In terms of civilian casualties, 2014 was the deadliest year for the people of Afghanistan since the United Nations started compiling figures in 2009. Today, nobody is seriously talking about a viable resource industry funding the country’s future. Indefinite occupation is the preferred solution.