My interview on US network The Real News about the United Arab Emirates using private, military contractors in the horrific war in Yemen and the involvement of Australia and the US:
My following book review appears in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age today:
Addicted? How Addiction Affects Every One of Us and What We Can Do About It
Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer
When the Australian Greens recently called for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, following moves in countless US states, Uruguay and Canada, the response from the federal government was immediate. Health Minister Greg Hunt dismissed the idea as “dangerous” and argued marijuana was a “gateway drug” to harder substances such as ice and heroin.
The evidence for Hunt’s theory is highly contested, with countless, reputable studies showing that poverty and troubled social environment have far more influence on a person’s drug intake than partaking in cannabis.
Hunt’s intervention followed a predictable route by opponents of serious drug reform (though he’s pushing for Australia to become a global leader in medical marijuana). As similar debates have taken place across the world – from opponents of Portugal’s successful decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001 to critics of heroin-assisted treatment in Switzerland – many sensible ideas are shunned by prohibition advocates to maintain a law and order response to illicit substances. Decades of these policies have singularly failed to stem drug taking; the Global Drug Survey consistently finds that Australians are some of the highest users per capita of illegal drugs.
These are just some of the concerns eloquently expressed in this important book by two workers on the frontlines of the drug debate. Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer work for the Noffs Foundation in Sydney, an organisation founded in 1970 by Reverend Ted Noffs and his wife Margaret. It’s dedicated to assisting young people with drug and alcohol problems.
The message of Addicted? is largely about challenging the dangerous myths around drug use and advocating a more sensible approach: “The causes of addiction are generalised: living in a rough area, being of lower-than-average intelligence, being of low socio-economic status, belonging to a particular culture, even having a certain skin colour. The inner qualities of addicts are also overgeneralised: they have no self-control, no willpower, no ambition, or have simply given up on life…Rarely, if ever, is substance dependence viewed as a health issue, affliction of the mind and body, perpetuated by poor or risky health-related behaviour.”
Noffs and Palmer successfully demolish the stereotypes around drugs, explaining how most people taking illegal substances aren’t addicted to them. With justified irony, they rightly ask whether the Western addiction to smartphones, devices used far more extensively than any illicit drug and undeniably causing negative impacts on societal relations, should be curtailed with a “Just Say No” public messaging campaign akin to what is still used against drugs?
“Regulation is the word here,” they write. “Some of the studies of smartphone addiction show that parents can take control of their children’s use and manage the potential problems that arise.” Banning smartphones is never seriously suggested as a solution and yet that’s what many nations believe should happen to drugs despite fewer people being affected.
Addicted? takes aim at the media’s coverage of drugs and asks why most stories we see rarely hear from users themselves. They’re often demeaned, judged and discarded as a lost cause, smeared as people who don’t deserve a second chance. Think of how often the commercial networks and ABC feature drug-bust stories; journalists are spoon-fed images and startling facts by police with little context or history. Because this isn’t a dry policy book, though it has strong suggestions for governments to treat all citizens with respect regardless of what they ingest, Noffs and Palmer offer the personal stories of resilience and success against addiction that the corporate press usually avoids.
Reminiscent in parts of Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, a powerful rebuke to the excessive prescribing of anti-depressants, Addicted? offers clear and proven ideas to enrich lives touched by trouble (though they’re equally relevant for everybody). “While addiction can be harmful and suck away our spirit, it need not be an eternal shackle,” they conclude. “It is a part of our biology and our being, but its destructiveness can be minimised and managed.”
In a book filled with generosity and insights, it’s heartening to feel compassion directed at the most marginalised and invisible members of society. Noffs and Palmer live this philosophy and in a just world they would be tasked to redesign Australia’s decrepit drug laws.
Antony Loewenstein’s book on the global drug war will be published next year.
My latest book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, tackles issues related to privatisation, the war in Afghanistan, crisis in Haiti and the private prison industry. Here’s my interview, via my UK/US publisher Verso, conducted a few months ago in Brooklyn, New York and just posted now:
Yesterday I appeared on ABC TV’s The Drum talking about refugees, terrorism, comedy and the “war on terror”:
Umm al-Nasr, Gaza Strip: Everybody in Gaza fears another war. After the 2014 conflict, which killed 2250 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, little has changed on the ground for the territory’s 2 million residents.
A local psychiatrist, Khaled Dahlan, recently told me in Gaza that Palestinians had multi-generational trauma, having been dispossessed and attacked for decades. “We have had so many conflicts” in the last 70 years, he said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the population has severe mental illness.
Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under former US president Barack Obama, recently warned that “the next war in Gaza is coming”.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, explained in late March that his country reacts “disproportionately” to rocket fire from the strip. “The reality in Gaza is volatile,” he said.
Eisenkot warned that the Hamas authority in Gaza was “continuing to dig [tunnels] underground and to build their abilities and defensive capabilities”. Israel claims Hamas has new heavy rockets with which to attack Israeli border towns.
Israel’s State Comptroller released a report on the 2014 war that found the Israeli government was uninterested in avoiding a military conflict. “There was no realistic diplomatic alternative concerning the Gaza Strip,” it stated.
Hamas recently elected a new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who reportedly opposes reconciliation with Israel. He served 22 years in an Israeli jail before being released in a prisoner swap in 2011. Tensions rose again after the alleged Israeli assassination in late March of a senior Hamas militant in Gaza.
Yet Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in late 2016 that his country would help rebuild Gaza – if Hamas disarmed.
“We will be the first to invest in a port, an airport and industrial areas”, he told a Palestinian newspaper in October. Israel’s Transport Minister Israel Katz proposes building an island near Gaza to service its people – but Israel would control its air, sea and land borders.
Hani Muqbel, head of the Hamas Youth Department, told me in Gaza that his group’s philosophy was different to Islamic State’s or al-Qaeda’s. “They’re destroying the image of Islam,” he said. In contrast, Hamas had built a “national liberation movement”.
He acknowledged the current difficulties in Gaza but blamed the “Israeli occupation, siege and the [rival Fatah-run] Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank]”.
Muqbel said that Hamas did not want another war but that its issue with Israel “wasn’t between Jews and Muslims. It’s not a religious war, it’s about land.”
He demanded that Western powers stop claiming Hamas “wanted to kill Jews because they’re Jews. We do not.”
The Israeli media largely ignores Gaza and Israelis are not legally allowed to visit. Yet former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo recently said that the occupation was the country’s only “existential threat“.
An editorial in the liberal newspaper Haaretz urged the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “immediately consider other ways of halting the deterioration in Gaza – first and foremost by alleviating the wretchedness of life there”.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha recently found that Israel had massively reduced the ability of Gazans to leave in the last months, dropping 40 per cent compared to last year’s average. In February, only 7301 people went through the Erez checkpoint, which connects Gaza to Israel and the occupied West Bank. It was the lowest number since the end of the 2014 war.
Countless Gazans haven’t left for years. Many told me that it was impossible to plan anything major in life, such as marriage or travel, with certainty because applications to leave Gaza were routinely rejected by Israel with no reason given. Often they were ignored entirely.
The effect of the wars and isolation has been dramatic on the domestic lives of men and women. The last years have seen an explosion of Western aid organisations in Gaza working with local NGOs on furthering women’s rights in a male-dominated society. Many women said that these courses gave them awareness of their legal and social rights along with the ability to resist and leave a violent marriage.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recently released a draft resolution that highlighted the status of Palestinian women. It expressed “deep concern” about the “ongoing illegal Israeli occupation and all of its manifestations”, including “incidents of domestic violence and declining health, education and living standards, including the rising incidence of trauma and the decline in psychological well-being”, especially for girls and women in Gaza.
A lawyer with the Gaza-based NGO Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection, Asma Abulehia, said that she met six to seven women every day who faced domestic abuse or economic uncertainty. However, many women couldn’t leave their houses to seek help, trapped by an abusive husband or family.
“The Israeli occupation is the main reason for these problems,” she told me. “The bad economic situation has worsened social problems, along with ignorance of Islam and unfair laws against women in Gaza.”
Due to the suffocating 10-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, support for Hamas has decreased. Many people long for a return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, though they aren’t convinced it would make much difference to their daily lives. Many said they wanted to leave and build a life elsewhere.
This month, Human Rights Watch released a new report, Unwilling or Unable, detailing Israeli restrictions on human rights workers entering Gaza to document breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. It accused Israel of severely curtailing the ability of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals to enter or leave Gaza and dismissed its reasons for doing so.
Human Rights Watch asked the International Criminal Court, currently investigating possible war crimes committed in Palestine including Gaza, to determine the “credibility” of Israeli domestic investigations and its restrictions of human rights workers in and out of Gaza.
In a 2015 report the United Nations voiced fears that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. It stated that the 2014 war had “effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid”.
“Hamas doesn’t care for the people,” Abulehia said. “They deny violence against women and drug abuse [of the opioid Tramadol] even exists.”
Abulehia said violence against women was worsening, though there were no reliable government figures. The Safe House, funded by the Hamas government and run by women in a secure location, is the Gaza Strip’s only women’s shelter, where up to 50 people can sleep overnight. The average stay is three months.
Many women I met at the Aisha office faced troubling options. Nineteen-year-old Noura al-Reefy married her husband three years ago and wanted a divorce. Her father-in-law sexually harassed her and her husband did nothing.
“He wanted to see my husband and me have sex in front of him and me naked without my hijab,” she told me. During multiple visits to Gaza, I’d never heard such graphic accounts of abuse from a woman.
Reefy had attempted suicide twice. She hadn’t finished high school but planned to complete her education after divorce. She was forced to marry her cousin “but it was a bad idea from the start. I wish it was easier for women to get divorced here..”
Buthaina Sobh, head of the Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care, told me in conservative Rafah, in the south of the territory, that sexual harassment at work, at home and on the streets was commonplace.
“In our society,” she said, “women can’t demand sexual pleasure, they’re considered a slut. Only men can. However, intellectual women now recognise that women have sexual desires and can ask for it privately.”
Sobh said the constant Israeli attacks made Palestinians “used to suffering”. She was pessimistic that women’s lives could change substantively until the siege was lifted.
Training facilities for women are still rare but slowly growing. In the conservative, Bedouin area of Umm al-Nasr in the strip’s north, I visited a multi-storey centre where women learnt tailoring and toymaking for local consumption. A showroom displayed the work for sale. Carpentry classes for women were initially resisted by traditionalist men in the village, but now the teaching of skills in a territory with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – at least 43 per cent – is being welcomed. The Hamas authority backs the centre and wants similar facilities established throughout the strip.
The centre also runs English courses and exercise classes. Working for the Italian NGO Vento Di Terra, project manager Sara Alafifi said that before the 2014 war many people thought that exercise for women was a waste of time but now healthy bodies were seen as a sensible way to manage stress.
There are alternatives. A group of Israeli and Palestinian economists recently released two studies with the World Bank that outlined a blueprint for economic development in the West Bank, Jordan Valley and Gaza. At the launch in Jerusalem, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch was blunt.
“There has been a deliberate Israeli policy to create deficiency,” he said. “The international community has to get involved – not as a donor, but to exert pressure.”
The constant threat of war against Gaza makes normality impossible. Hypertension, deep anxiety, increasing domestic violence and insomnia are ubiquitous amongst the population.
With hawkish Israeli commentators demanding another war with Hamas, and advocating the assassination of its leaders within days of any conflict commencing, prospects will only improve if the international community can put concerted effort into finding a new direction.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author.
I was pleased to be asked to sign the following statement in support of free speech and against blacklisting for “unpopular” views on Syria (though it’s equally relevant for Palestine, the “war on terror” etc). I sign alongside Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan and many others:
The cancellation of a lecture by journalist Rania Khalek, who was invited to speak on the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill campus by Students for Justice in Palestine on February 27, 2017, raises important issues of tactics and strategy within movements for social change.
The whole statement, posted on facebook the night before, reads:
“After receiving much feedback and after careful consideration, we have decided to cancel tomorrow’s event with Rania Khalek. We do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania’s analyses. Although Rania was not going to speak about Syria, we understand the Syrian conflict is a contentious issue and the invitation was met with a lot of anger. We appreciate the concerns of those who have reached out to us, especially our Syrian supporters and believe her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views. SJP supports liberation movements for all oppressed people and recognizes their right to self-determination.”
We note: the UNC-SJP event organizers cancelled the event (which was to be on the intersection of Palestinian rights organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement) based on the speaker’s views on Syria, a topic the speaker was “not going to speak about”, that “remain relatively unclear” to them, out of concern that “her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views”. This means that:
- No one was prepared to state what disqualified Khalek from speaking.
- The event was cancelled based on assertions about her views made by others.
- The cancellation was based on the notion that there is a political litmus test of views on Syria that are requisites to have a public voice in the Palestinian rights movement.
We also note that some of those who lobbied UNC-SJP to cancel the event have stated publicly that they want to destroy Khalek’s reputation and livelihood. This is a coordinated smear campaign, using many of the same tactics that Palestine solidarity activists have faced from pro-Israel organizations, and with many of the same targets.
The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently. But we feel that when a group seeking justice in Palestine subjects speakers or members to a political litmus test related to their views on Syria, it inevitably leads to splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust. It runs contrary to the possibility of people learning from one another, changing their minds, and educating one another through their activism. Disagreements about political issues exist inside every movement coalition. They must not be made fodder for targeted vilification of activists in the movement:
James W. Carden
Mnar A. Muhawesh
Al Awda SF
Col. Ann Wright
My just published article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers
By Joel Whitney
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, fear gripped the United States, and it wasn’t only conservatives who wanted to publicly show that they were committed to patriotic ideals. Filmmakers might be excused if, in that context, some nationalistic, propagandistic images made their way into theaters. But long before that fateful September day, liberal Hollywood had a long relationship with the CIA, the 1990s having just seen an obvious upsurge in collaboration. Former clandestine officer Chase Brandon joined the CIA in 1996 as a liaison between Hollywood studios and production companies, with the intent of crafting a positive image of the covert department, founded in 1947, that has overthrown dozens of regimes around the world since the 1940s and caused the death of innumerable people. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once called for the agency to be abolished.
Brandon later told the Guardian that the CIA had “always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
After 9/11, Hollywood rushed to embrace the CIA. Joel Surnow, creator of the pro-torture TV show 24, gushed to The New Yorkerin 2007 that “people in the [Bush] Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.” The program circulated widely among US troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Blatant propaganda, the series argued repeatedly that torture produced actionable intelligence, which has long been understood to be untrue, and which was dismissed as a lie by the landmark 2014 Senate report on torture. But it was too late, because the toxic message had already seeped into the bloodstream of the American public and US forces. Torture is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in the arsenal of the US government. It’s why President-elect Trump can claim he may accelerate its use.
The Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty had direct CIA assistance in its production and script. The central message of the movie, though, was false: that torture assisted the US in finding Osama Bin Laden. Both director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented access to CIA personnel and facilities, and they welcomed it. For the Hollywood duo, the CIA was the perfect host to strengthen their belief that the men and women of the CIA were committed to the noble pursuit of fighting terror in every corner of the globe. No matter that this “war on terror” involved many illegalities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and prisoner abuse. The risk of global terrorism is now far higher due to these immoral acts.
The CIA must have been pleased with the final product: Zero Dark Thirty was a huge commercial and critical success that solidified the legitimacy of the agency’s secretive work. Truth got lost on the cutting room floor.
In Finks: How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers, Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, has written an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture: the story of how TheParis Review and other magazines from the 1950s on were funded and backed by the CIA and became a central force in pushing leading writers of the day to produce propaganda for a hungry yet unsuspecting audience. The CIA even developed a large art collection in its curious approach to cultural hegemony.
Whitney explains in his introduction that the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with backing publications in Britain, India, Germany, France, and beyond, helped The Paris Review play a
“small role in the Cold War’s marshaling of culture against the Soviets […] We understand vaguely that our media are linked to our government still today, and to government’s stated foreign policy; and this understanding is enhanced by eavesdropping on The Paris Review’s bit part in this massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades, and whose hangover drives us still.”
Whitney succinctly explains how, during the Cold War, the US government was constantly worried about citizen morale and a fear that some would be attracted to the Soviet system. “Militant liberty” was the term for inserting propaganda into magazines, film scripts, and popular culture, pushing American-style values and decrying life under Communism in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as at home. The Pentagon and other government arms believed that it was possible for populations of these areas to ignore US violence if they read about the supposed glories of life in small town USA. Little has changed in the mindset of today’s propagandists, who still aim to deceive people through wartime lies.
The CIA-backed coup of Guatemala in 1954 was a classic case of misguided and criminal policy dressed up as a noble act. Whitney shows how any number of US publications were pushed to support it, despite vast evidence of its failure. A magazine called The New Leader encouraged US meddling in the country, claiming a Soviet plot to design land reforms unfavorable to US interests. The result was decades of instability and violence in the nation, culminating in the genocide of the 1980s by US-trained thug Efraín Ríos Montt.
Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions. Like journalists on the White House drip-feed today, these writers’ work helped legitimize deluded US policies that had direct and devastating impacts on millions of people’s lives. By the late 1960s, with the United States’s antiwar movement surging and the Vietnam conflict increasingly unpopular, the antiwar press seriously challenged the establishment points of view. Money didn’t always buy success or moral superiority, and the CIA struggled to win the battle of ideas. But this resistance proved “disposable and ephemeral” as the CIA renewed its efforts in film and television.
Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence. The author correctly argues that Train, in a small way, played a role in backing the very forces that eventually founded al-Qaeda.
“From Guatemala to Afghanistan, the American record on Cold War invasion and intervention had been a long string of failures that had to be rewritten by the propagandists. These little magazines, the television crews instrumentalized for warfare, and other secret propaganda instruments played an important role in erasing — and collectively forgetting — these mistakes.”
I think Whitney is being too kind here. These were not CIA “mistakes” but in fact crimes conducted with the full backing of the state.
Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.
Whitney urges The Paris Review and other similarly tainted magazines to honestly examine the past without fear or favor. That radical accounting of history is yet to be realized. In the age of President-elect Donald Trump and fake news, truth is an increasingly valuable commodity, agreed upon and deeply contested by nearly equal numbers of people.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian contributor, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
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.”
* * *
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.”
* * *
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.
The following conversation is published on US website Mondoweiss:
Antony Loewenstein came through New York recently to promote his new book Disaster Capitalism. He later related to me that at two NY events, he had gone off on journalists as a profession. I wanted to draw him out, and so we exchanged emails.
You said you’d developed real contempt for the profession of journalism. Why?
Loewenstein: Journalism has the potential to be transformative, to inform and provoke, or at the very least inform. Too often I see reporters desperate to be close to power, whether ministers, minders. Insiders. Being embedded, pre or post 9/11, isn’t just about partnering with US or Western troops in a war zone. Too often it’s a state of mind that requires journalists to not question an economic system (“capitalism is damaged but can be repaired”), or Israeli violence against Palestinians or the apparent necessity of “doing something” in the face of state collapse (as if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya aren’t cautionary tales). Vast parts of the world are routinely ignored by the Western media because they aren’t seen as having value or important enough. This could be “unpeople” such as most of the Muslim world, people of colour or poor whites.
I’ve been living in South Sudan this year and seen some fine and brave journalists, locals and Westerners, covering an incredibly brutal war. What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are “too depressing”. As if a reporter can prettify an ethic conflict to make Western audiences less uncomfortable when reading during breakfast on their iPhones.
I regularly ask myself what journalism is achieving apart from awareness that often brings little or no changes on the ground. It’s important and necessary to bear witness, and I’ll continue to do so, including in my new book, but what if seeing and witnessing simply isn’t enough?
I got the sense that you went on a more visceral rant against the profession at your events. I’m not going to stand up for the profession, any more than I want to stand up for the human race, but: Are there other professions that you have more admiration for than those parasitic journos?
I don’t have contempt for journalism as a profession, far from it, I have major issues with the ways it’s often undertaken. Media complicity in state violence – from the US bombing of Iraq and Libya, Israeli crimes in Palestine and US involvement in the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s – is the issue here. Reporters often claim they have to play a delicate dance or game with sources, especially in officialdom, to get access. But that access often means sanctioned leaks to a favored journalist. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography. I understand it’s often important to quote off the record information, I do it myself though sparingly, in a sensitive story. But the mentality that many in the media have – don’t stand out, join the crowd, fit in, be liked – means that independent journalism has never been more important.
My professional journalistic career began just after 9/11 so I’m a product of the last decade plus years. There are simply too many stark examples of wilful journalistic dishonesty (and lack of acknowledging mistakes) to believe countless reporters from many major media outlets don’t prefer being wrong to challenging state spin. It’s largely cost-free, career wise. Standing up to a lying Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dennis Ross or Barack Obama takes guts.
I admire many professions, from brain surgeons to environmental scientists.
As human beings, we are full of faults, contradictions and hypocrisy. Journalists are no exception. But I’ve long believed that reporters have an extra responsibility when covering matters of war, refugees, life and death. We are conveyors of information that can either inform a population, or lie to it. I wish more journalists left their offices and psychologically embedded positions and valued more pissing off those whose outcome (if not primary aim) is to harm civilians. Defending or justifying state violence is the most degrading of arts.
Your critique is a variation of Killing the messenger. The press has always and will always reflect the powers that be, by and large; because they are paid by those powers. It is the role of independent media to challenge the powers that be, but how do they achieve that independence? There are some true independent spirits, but the basis of independence is financial, too. And progressives are a distinct minority in this system; we represent dissent but we also require forms of social support. And we shouldn’t shut off communications with the MSM types. I realize I’m becoming a crabbed conservative in life, somewhat; but I do want a way forward, and for me that involves putting breadcrumbs on the trail for the mainstream journalists.
I’ve never argued that cutting all ties, irreconcilable differences with the MSM, is desirable. I regularly write for the MSM, and will continue doing so. Its audience remains strong and influential. Leading by example by the MSM is rare, very few mainstream reporters will take the way on important social issues. From the gay rights movement to Palestine, they’re often following years after activists have led a path and the general public is usually far savvier and smarter than the MSM (and many of us) presume. That’s fine and should continue. But you seem to be arguing that independent media is hard, and the path is tough and let’s not entirely shut out the possibility that the MSM may one day, say, support BDS because Israel is a pariah and will only change its behaviour though strong outside pressure. When ethics and business collide, the former rarely wins. If history is any guide, the MSM are unlikely to be leading on anything that will upset their power and advertising base.
For me, the constant failings of the MSM are that they don’t reflect the will of the people, views and ideas that are shared by many in the population. War isn’t popular, neither is privatization of public services. Full healthcare is backed by many Americans and yet it’s framed in the MSM as a bitter partisan ‘debate’. It is in Washington but many outside America laugh and cringe at the inability and unwillingness of the DC elite to provide publicly provided medical care for all. I want the MSM to be honest about its agenda and biases. We all have them and yet too often the myth of ‘objectivity’ is wheeled out as a weapon against indy media, as though the MSM is balanced and straight and indy reporters are inherently biased (check out the wonderful UK website Medialens and its recent analysis of the BBC and Afghanistan).