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AFGHANISTAN: On The Record

Arthur Kent filmed his first documentary in Afghanistan in 1980. Since then he has reported regularly from the region for networks including PBS, the CBC, NBC News, BBC News, Global TV, and The History Channel; and for publications including The Observer, the Toronto Star, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Calgary Herald and Maclean’s magazine.

Here’s a sample of his reporting and commentary over the years:

 

On the Afghan People

January, 1989
NBC Nightly News
Soviets soldiers know the end of their tour is near. The New Year promises relief for them, but they will leave behind a wounded nation, where the epitaph to nine years of Soviet occupation is written on the wind. The burial flag has become Afghanistan’s only common banner, uniting the war dead of both sides – those buried here on Martyrs’ Hill, who died fighting for the Soviet-backed Afghan Army, and those who fought against them, Mujahideen guerrillas, laid to rest in countryside they held from Soviet control.

Including civilian casualties, the war has claimed at least one million lives. The bloodshed has deepened the divisions that started the civil war. Soviet armour enforces a businesslike calm on the streets of Kabul, concealing the anguish of a people at war.

This house is in mourning for 18-year-old Mohammed Humayun. He had wanted to become a doctor. Instead, he died a soldier, struck down in a firefight with Mujahideen guerrillas. “Both sides are to blame for this,” says Humayun’s father. “Why should an innocent boy like our brother be killed,” says his sister. “The big men on both sides kill for power. They kill to rule. Tell the world that young Afghans are being slaughtered – and for nothing.”

In spite of the Soviet withdrawal, neither the Afghan government nor the guerrillas are willing to compromise. To many flags have been raised over Afghanistan. And up on Martyrs’ Hill, they’re keeping the shovels close at hand.

 

October 24, 1991
NBC Nightly News
Mujahideen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, made powerful by the largest-ever CIA covert support operation, reject pleas from the United Nations to talk peace. On the other side, President Najibullah refuses to resign. He says he’s president now, and he’ll run for president in any future election. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans, exhausted by the war, can only wait while warlords like Najibullah and Hekmatyar fight it out. A new generation of Mujahideen is harassing government troops in places like Kandahar. Vengeance, not hope, rules this crippled land.

 

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September, 1994
CBC Man Alive
Even during the Soviet occupation, Kabul was a fascinating place to be. It’s artefacts and buildings were like some vast open history book. You could walk these streets and look back over a dozen centuries, and find traces of Genghis Khan, Tamberlane and Alexander the Great. Now the record shows that Kabul’s most destructive period was the war of the late 20th century, initiated and aggravated by outside nations, who finally deserted Afghanistan and left its capital city to its fate.

 

June 12, 2001
PBS Television
AFGHANISTAN: Captives of the Warlords
Whenever I return, people ask: what’s the toughest part of covering the war?  The answer’s easy - the endless brutality, and the fact that nothing tangible is being done to stop the bloodshed. Our own countries are much too busy pursuing wealth and security to bother with a land that peace forgot.

 

July 21, 2001
The Calgary Herald
Invested with arbitrary powers by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police make all the other state security thugs the Afghans have known - the KGB, the Afghan Communists’ KHAD – seem faint-hearted by comparison. According to Red Cross doctors, the Taliban enforcers, resplendent in their white turbans, dragged an injured man from their hospital one afternoon last year and threw him from the highest rooftop in Kabul. His crime? Alleged homosexuality. Another accused wrongdoer treated by the Red Cross had been bludgeoned in the rectum with rifle butts. Surgeons had to remove two large vegetables from the man’s intestine.

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Imprisoning stubborn teachers is just routine in a land where accused adulterers have been stoned to death in public, and where last September a woman found guilty of killing her abusive husband was made to kneel before a crowd in Kabul’s football stadium before a machine-gun was fired point-blank at the back of her head.

 

Sept 17, 2001
Public Radio International
To The Point
The American people need to know that if there is a population in the world that is more anxious than they, after the events last week in Washington and New York, it is the ordinary people of Afghanistan, who in their refugee camps and as internal refugees, many millions of them in their own country, recognize here yet again is another opening act in another military drama that is likely going to hurt them more than anyone else.

 

Nov. 23, 2001
Public Radio International
To The Point
Now is a great opportunity. All of us who have seen Afghanistan destroyed, piece by piece, province by province, family by family, for the past 23 years, all of us have come to care very deeply to see it rebuilt. Because this is a country that can be saved. It’s got a small population. It’s got an agricultural base that could very swiftly respond to outside aid. It’s a mudbrick culture, we’re not rebuilding skyscrapers here. And more than that, the Afghan people, friendly and open towards the West, could be our closest allies in creating the bridge, which is vital, to the Muslim world, to try to destroy once and forever this murderous brand of distorted militant Islam that Osama has brought upon us.

 

December 31, 2001
The History Channel
AFGHANISTAN: Legacy of War
As history shows, there’s never really a military solution in Afghanistan. Only the co-operation of the Afghan people, or the lack of it, will determine if terrorists are removed once and for all from this country. The Afghans are ready and willing to succeed.  Empowering them is, in many ways, up to us.

 

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On Outsiders’ Failures in Afghanistan

February 15, 1989
Rocky Mountain News
It’s nearly over – nine years of Soviet occupation, of guns and bloodshed and defeat by stalemate.  One of the first units to cross onto Afghan soil in December 1979, the Western Division’s tanks and troop carriers made up the last big convoy of the withdrawal.

The Berlin Armored Assault Regiment, named for its victorious drive into the heart of Nazi Germany, was now finding itself, 44 years later, heading home empty-handed. Despite the official line about the Afghan campaign having fulfilled the Red Army’s “internationalist duty,” many Soviet soldiers see it a different way. “It’s time for a change in our army,” one tank commander said as he clamped a replacement tread into place. “it’s time we changed our whole attitude toward life.”

 

February, 1990
NBC Sunday Today
On both sides of the war, dissent is put down by force - force made possible by US or Soviet supplied weapons. Kabul regime president Mohammed Najib’s men get their guns from Moscow, while his enemies, the Mujahideen, are equipped by Washington. They claim they use American aid to fight oppression. But radical groups like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party have been linked with kidnappings and assassinations of refugees opposed to Mujahideen policies. Most refugees refuse to speak about violence here, for fear they will be next to disappear… President Najib talks about national reconcilation, but Amnesty International says that in his prisons, dissidents face torture and execution.

In the refugee communities of Pakistan and Iran, and right here at home in Afghanistan, most Afghan civilians have a simple rule to live by: don’t talk back to your local warlord. Survival, for an ordinary Afghan, means political silence, and quiet obedience to the law of the gun.

 

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19 April, 1992
The Observer

The superpowers invested their Afghan client armies with the power of sudden death, not the gifts of reason and mercy. Unless the lords of battle on all sides can find a means of talking their way out of the arena, the city of Kabul, magnificent still despite years of war, will once again be defiled in blood, to the shame of all those who took up arms and every nation that made those arms available.

 

November, 1992
NBC Nightly News
The war in Afghanistan, now in its 14th year, is good for the business of heroin smuggling. Poppy fields flourish in countryside where there is no law. Many Mujahideen guerrilla groups, financed by the CIA, bring in additional cash by helping to smuggle opium and heroin to the US, where it’s worth 20 times its original cost. A kilogram bought for $5,000 in Southwest Asia can be sold for $100,000. Meanwhile, the same nations trying to fight the drug trade are still bankrolling the war that helps the poppies grow.

 

17 July, 1994
The Observer
No fewer than nine factions grapple for a throne amid the pitiful debris of Kabul. The (former Mujahideen) parties have discredited themselves so thoroughly in the eyes of the people that even the old Communist regime is remembered fondly. “The people can see that none of these leaders has their interests at heart,” says Dr. Saleti Ramez, the medical chief of Kabul’s Karte Se hospital for war wounded. “We can cleanse our people’s wounds, but no one believes that any of these leaders – or anyone outside Afghanistan – is working to heal the nation’s wounds.”

 

February, 1995
BBC Correspondent
No one is trying to stop the war. Not the Russians and Americans, whose rivalry here created the arsenals that still fuel the fighting. Not the United Nations, whose efforts have been faltering at best. Afghanistan, and Kabul, are the unwanted orphans of the Cold War.

 

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June 12, 2001, PBS Television
AFGHANISTAN: Captives of the Warlords
Neither America nor the other foreign powers who have invested heavily in the Afghan wars have contributed a fraction of those sums for peace. And so a third decade proceeds exactly as the two before it. At war.

 

Nov. 23, 2001
Public Radio International
To The Point
It think it is important to note the predicament we find ourselves in now, as western nations, with the US-led coalition having made virtually no follow up plan to its smashing of the Taliban regime.  It’s alarming to see that there is no plan in place, in motion, to try to stabilize this country, to achieve both the goal of capturing Osama bin Laden and neutralizing his organization, and bringing stability to Afghanistan so as to rid it of terror forever.

 

Nov. 23, 2001
Public Radio International
To The Point
We’ve had the Northern Alliance sweep to power on the back of US bombing. We have the Jalalabad council or shura taking control in Jalalabad. In other words, we have precisely the same former mujahideen parties in their pre-Taliban fighting and governing positions. And this is the result of Western countries, the US and Britain in particular, not having a follow up plan in place so as to prevent the country falling into the same lawless patterns that we saw before. And I’m afraid this is just a glimmer of tragedies to come.

 

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Feb 4, 2002
Public Radio International
To The Point
It is incorrect to say, as the President has said, that tyranny has been conquered in Afghanistan. Let me tell you as someone who has just returned from there, the tyranny of chaos and disorder continues. Having re-militarized the nation, the United States and its coalition partners have a responsibility to get on the ground, and as the interim government has suggested, deliver more troops, ground forces, who can help normalize regions of the country and make that interim government and the new U.N.-sponsored initiative a success. Otherwise, the war against terrorism in Afghanistan will be thrown backward, and North Americans will be at greater, not less, risk of terrorist attack from that region.”

 

April 29, 2002
Maclean’s
The Bush administration’s war against terrorism has lost its way in the Afghan wilderness, and did so because a smokescreen of triumphalism obscured even the fog of war… Hamid Karzai (is) himself a living symbol of the lost opportunities of Washington’s Afghan adventure. Ever since his swearing-in last December, Karzai has appealed in vain to the Bush administration and the UN for more peacekeeping troops. Without them, he warned, the countryside would descend into chaos as the old warlords reclaimed their fiefdoms.

That blowback-prone veteran of the Afghan wars, America’s CIA, seems unable to shake off bad habits formed in the pre-Taliban and Soviet eras. Even while Bush repeats the mantra, “There must be an end to warlordism in Afghanistan,” the CIA has tried to buy the loyalties of local warlords the old-fashioned way – by stuffing a lot of money in their pockets.

 

September 16, 2002
Maclean’s
Exactly how well have our nations performed in trying to prevent future 9/11s, in shutting down the terrorists, in stabilizing the regions they haunt for fresh recruits and sanctuary?  One year on, there are few answers. Instead, there’s growing suspicion about the gulf between our leaders’ pronouncements and the absence of proof that any meaningful progress has been made. In Afghanistan, U.S. and allied troop deployments at no point have reached even one-third the number of NATO soldiers still keeping the peace in parts of the former Yugoslavia – despite those Balkan territories being only about one-eighth the size of Afghanistan.

 

On Pakistan’s Role in Afghanistan

13 August, 1989
The Observer
What confounds experienced Afghan hands still braving outrageous fortune on the North-West Frontier is the inability of the guerrillas’ principal supplier of arms, finance and encouragement - the United States government – to adapt to changing circumstances and encourage the unruly guerrilla leaders to turn their sights back on to their common enemy.

The inflexibility of US policy in South-West Asia leads one congressional investigator in Washington to complain:  “We’ve seen the signs of trouble with in the Mujahideen before – the missed opportunities, the in-fighting and the waste of military and non-military aid. Now we’ve got a war on hold and an army of resistance falling apart. We’ve got to accept part of the blame for that, and we’ve got to come up with some new initiatives.”

These are thin on the ground in Islamabad. There is no sign the ISI will steer a new course away from the Pakistan military establishment’s favoured treatment of right-wing Islamic fundamentalists, chiefly (Gulbuddin) Hekmatyar, among the Mujahideen. Nor is there any trace of an ISI swing away from its emphasis on military as distinct from political initiatives to spur on the Mujahideen.”

 

August 27, 1998
St. Louis Post Dispatch
It would be a major miscalculation to assume that a majority of Muslims accept the harsh and inflexible interpretation of Islam instituted at gunpoint by bin Laden and his hosts, the Taliban militia. That Taliban owe their hold on Afghanistan to financial backing from Sunni Muslim extremists in Pakistan and from Saudi Arabia. These funds enabled the Taliban leadership to purchase the cooperation of tribal chiefs in strategic regions, just as bin Laden uses his own money to create safe havens where extremism can flourish.

 

June 12, 2001, PBS Television
AFGHANISTAN: Captives of the Warlords
More American tax dollars were invested in the CIA proxy war against the Red Army in Afghanistan than in any other covert operation in the agency’s history. But much of the aid ultimately bankrolled anti-Western extremists. The CIA secretly channelled funds through front companies and middlemen. Weapons were purchased from neutral and anti-Soviet countries, then shipped to Pakistan.  There, Pakistan’s military espionage agency, the ISI, made certain that most aid fell in to the hands of Afghan extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Pakistanis backed guerrillas they could control, instead of moderate or nationalist Afghans.

Only one U.S. objective was achieved: the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989. But civil war plunged the nation deeper in to chaos. Radicals became dominant. Perversely, American policy had indirectly encouraged terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden.  I filmed these followers of Bin Laden - Saudi, Egyptian and Turkish fighters - near Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1988. These zealots regularly threatened Western aid workers and journalists. Yet little was done by the CIA to sideline them, or restrain the Afghan warlords who protected them. Today, Pakistan’s military dictatorship still backs extremists in Afghanistan. Afghans seeking peace are frustrated.”

 

July 8, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle
The civil war between the Taliban and their rival warlords in the central and northern regions of the country is dragging on. Hard-liners within Pakistan’s military and religious establishments are funding and arming Taliban forces.”

 

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Nov. 23, 2001
Public Radio International
To The Point
All of us feel, especially those of us who’ve been covering the war for a long time, deeply frustrated to see our countries, our wealthy and secure countries in the West, continuing to make the same mistakes in Afghanistan. This was an ideal opportunity for the US government, for the Bush administration, to redress past mistakes. The biggest mistake that previous US administrations have made was squandering the advantage that the United States had in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. It was, after all, US aid that enabled the Afghan resistance to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But instead of staying in the country and normalizing the situation, the United States turned its attention elsewhere, left its Pakistani middleman in the Afghan aid operation to continue with its attempt to gain influence in Afghanistan, and that indirectly led to the rise of the Taliban, who again were supported by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. Now we’ve had a case where the Taliban have been routed and put to flight, but the United States and Britain and their coalition partners have got nothing better to put on the ground than to turn, at this late hour, to the United Nations and to ask essentially for a miracle of a negotiated settlement.

 

June 26, 2002
G8 Kananaskis Summit
The Calgary Herald

While the West falters and fumbles for a premature exit strategy, the villains of the piece - the terrorists and their allies - have shown remarkable staying power. Mullah Mohammad Omar and most of his key subordinates in the Taliban leadership remain in hiding, mainly in Helmand province and in Pakistan's tribal agencies. In Pakistan, too, Osama bin Laden is suspected to be lying low, waiting to fight another day, in much the same way as the former mujahedeen groups patiently passed the time prior to the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Against this, the U.S. military has few tangible victories to its credit, having relied too heavily on air power, and on the dubious pledges of Pakistan's military intelligence service to seal the Afghan border during American sweeps against Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives.

 


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