Opinion » Ted Rall

The Other Bad War

The American torture of Afghanistan


NEW YORK--"In one of the great deceptive maneuvers in U.S. history," Bob Herbert wrote recently, "the military-industrial complex (with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as chairman and C.E.O., respectively) took its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan and launched the pointless but far more remunerative war in Iraq." Herbert, one of The New York Times' better pundits, ought to know better than to point to Afghanistan as the right fight at the right time. But he's not the only Pollyanna of America's other dirty war.

During his 2004 presidential primary campaign, Howard Dean said: "Our military has done an absolutely terrific job in Afghanistan, which is a war I supported ... I believe that, had Saddam been captured earlier, we might have been able to spend more time looking for Osama bin Laden, which is the real problem." John Kerry took the same position--Afghanistan war good/part of war on terror, Iraq war bad/distraction--in his run against Bush.

And so has the citizenry. Public disgust for the Iraq War, news coverage of which has been dominated by soaring body counts, torture scandals and the outbreak of civil war, has become bipartisan--only 30 percent of Americans tell the February 27 CBS News poll that they still support it.

The popularity of the occupation of Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a given. The U.S. military backing of Afghan president Hamid Karzai is so widely accepted that pollsters no longer ask voters about it. Opposition? There isn't any.

Liberal magazines like The Nation and The Progressive, the Air America radio network and the leftie blogosphere are packed with ferocious insults and attacks on the Bush Administration about the Iraq War, from how they conned us into it to their lack of postwar strategic planning to the profiteering and looting that ensued. But when Afghanistan makes one of its rare appearances in the leftie media, it's invariably held up as the war Bush ought to be fighting, the good war that got sidetracked when we went into Iraq.

Everyone loves Bush's war against Afghanistan, even though it was based on just as many lies as his assault on Iraq: Osama bin Laden probably wasn't in Afghanistan on 9/11 and was certainly not there by the time bombs began falling. People approve even though, as in Iraq, Bush didn't send enough troops--8,000 where 500,000 were required--to provide basic security. Even though Afghans didn't greet us as liberators. Even though, as in Iraq, he installed a government composed of corrupt, violent and vengeful minorities, guaranteeing sectarian bloodshed and civil war.

And even though the news from U.S.-occupied Afghanistan--if you can find any--is as relentlessly bleak as that from Iraq. Afghanistan suffers its own litany of roadside bombs, suicide bombs, massacres of foreign aid workers, citizens terrorized by kidnappers and rapists. It even has its own Abu Ghraib.

U.S. troops are jailing, torturing and occasionally murdering about 500 uncharged (and therefore legally innocent) inmates at a top-secret makeshift concentration camp at a disused Soviet-era machine shop at Bagram, about 40 miles south of Kabul. "Some of the detainees," reports The New York Times, "have already been held at Bagram for as long as two or three years." The paper says that the Bagram camp is "in many ways rougher and more bleak" than the notorious U.S. gulag at Guantánamo. "Men are held by the dozen in large wire cages ... sleeping on the floor on foam mats and, until about a year ago, often using plastic buckets for latrines." And if Abu Ghraib serves as a guide, check out what Army interrogator and self-admitted prisoner abuser Anthony Lagouranis says about those "terrorists": "90 percent of them were probably innocent."

American soldiers, intelligence officers and private contract torturers subject their victims to solitary confinement and sleep deprivation. Military officials confirm that their goons have hung Afghans by their arms from the ceilings of their cages, threatened them with attack dogs and beaten them to death. Claims that the torture has recently eased up are cast in doubt by the Pentagon's refusal to allow prisoners visits by lawyers or relatives. Defense Department officials aren't even as civilized as the Nazis, who permitted the Red Cross to inspect their POW camps during World War II. Under such circumstances, a reasonable observer must assume the worst.

It's widely accepted that the torture at Abu Ghraib, combined with U.S. troops' rough and intimidating treatment of civilians on streets and in their homes, motivates Iraqis to join, fund and provide logistical support to a growing resistance movement. Now we know that the same thing is going on in Afghanistan. When will American public opinion catch up with reality?

Both wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are equally unjustifiable, illegal, corrupt and unwinnable. Both make us less humane and less safe. Anti-Iraq War liberals who have given the administration a free pass on Afghanistan have merely encouraged more abuse. "For some reason," a senior Bush official marvels to the Times, "people did not have a problem with Bagram. It was in Afghanistan."