September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document
Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2001 21:14:41 -0400
Subject: FW: [LIFILM] Pete Hamill on Afghanistan
For those of you who are interested in our potential future military
involvement in Afghanistan please take a look at this Pete Hamill article.
It's pretty incredible.
Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2001 17:03:51 -0400
Subject: [LIFILM] Pete Hamill on Afghanistan
It's Far From Land
Of Milk and Honey
Afghanis face poverty, illness
[Pete Hamill] The immediate target of American wrath lies at 33 degrees
north latitude, 65 degrees east, and its official name is the Islamic State
of Afghanistan. It is, by virtually any standard, one of the most wretched
countries on Earth. And it is a terrible place in which to fight a war. Ask
the British. Ask the Russians.
To begin with, Afghanistan is 250,000 square miles, about twice the size of
Vietnam. In the wounded Pentagon today, the generals are almost certainly
urging great caution upon the civilians who run our government. Colin Powell
and Anthony Principi â" who heads Veterans Affairs â" the only cabinet
members who have ever been shot at, must be doing the same.
All military leaders remember that peak American troop strength in Vietnam
was roughly 500,000. To match that ratio of troops to land area, the
Americans and their allies would need to send in a minimum of a million
The country is landlocked, mountainous and arid, with brutal summers and
fierce winters. The tallest peak is Nowshak, at 25,000 feet. The
southwestern deserts get less than 9 inches of rain a year. Only 12% of the
land is arable, and because of a prolonged drought, overgrazing, the cutting
of trees for fuel and soil degradation, even that small percentage of land
is turning to dust. Twenty-five percent of the population is on the edge of
starvation. Farmers have been converted into nomads, searching for water and
"The herds are often below a sustainable size," said a report from the
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "There are
few or no lactating animals, and there are evident signs of dehydration and
malnutrition. These nomads are gathering near towns or canals or other
potential water sources. The same water is used by animals and by humans for
drinking, washing and sanitation."
In the event of a prolonged invasion and occupation (what was called in
Algeria and Vietnam a "pacification program"), a communications system would
have to be built almost from scratch. According to the CIA's country
profile, Afghanistan is a country with only 31,200 telephones to serve 26
million people. The only international telephone link runs from western
Afghanistan to Iran. There is no national television network, only sporadic
broadcasting by local factions. There are five AM radio stations, no FM
stations and two shortwave stations. Newspapers are wretched, controlled by
the ruling Taliban, and only 31.5% of the population can read.
There are 14 airports with paved runways and 32 that use dirt and gravel.
Even if neighboring Pakistan agreed to open its airports to the military of
the U.S. and its allies, any serious invasion force contemplating "a long
war" (as President Bush describes it) would need to build at least one huge
in-country airport, on the scale of Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay. Many of the
existing airports are used to maintain the export trade. There is only one
lucrative export (other than terrorism): heroin.
One Huge Cash Crop
Afghanistan is now the world's largest producer of opium, having surpassed
Burma in the past few years. It is estimated â" by the CIA, the Drug
Enforcement Administration and the U.S. State Department â" that in 1999 it
produced 1,670 metric tons of opium, up 23% from 1998. Some 51,500 hectares
are under cultivation. An intricate shipping network has existed since the
time of the 1979-89 war with the Soviet Union, with raw opium base moving
into Pakistan for refinement into heroin (and increasingly being refined in
Afghanistan itself), and then on to Turkey, Canada and the streets of
American cities, including New York.
The misery of the inhabitants is appalling. Since the Soviets invaded to aid
a Communist government on Christmas Eve 1979, there has been constant war.
The Afghans have been fighting outsiders since the time of Alexander the
Great and they seem to enjoy doing it. The Soviets abandoned the place in
1989, and a long civil war followed. Afghan killed Afghan, usually over
differing interpretations of the Koran, but also to control the drug trade.
The human consequences are only suggested by the statistics.
The average Afghan life expectancy is 45.8 years. Males live a bit longer
than females, because so many women die in childbirth. According to United
Nations figures, the infant mortality rate is 161 deaths among every 1,000
live births, the absolute worst in the world â" in the U.S. the rate in
1999 was 7.1. Even with these dreadful numbers, more than half the
population is under 14. Many of them could end up as collateral damage.
Certainly there will be very few human targets. The rich and the
nonfundamentalist middle class fled long ago to Pakistan (along with 2
million other Afghans), leaving behind farmers, nomadic herdsmen and the
most marginalized citizens of the capital of Kabul and the few other cities.
Reuters reported yesterday that the Taliban leaders are also fleeing Kabul,
unconcerned about the corpses that might soon appear on its streets, as long
as the female corpses wear veils. Kandahar, in the southwest, is also
emptying. Everywhere, food supplies are running low. The currency is
The gathering of medical statistics has now virtually ceased under the
Taliban (just another treacherous habit of the West), but the country is
filthy with plague, cholera, diphtheria, malaria, meningitis, amoebic
dysentery and typhus. The water system, damaged in the endless wars, has
been corrupted. Open toilets are everywhere, unflushed, unclean. Rats prowl
the cities. Disease must be worse now, not better, than it was at the time
of the war with the Soviets. It is definitely a hazard for anyone who walks
into the country, holding a rifle. Possibly more dangerous than armed
Afghans. Certainly one major cause of the Soviet defeat was disease.
About 650,000 Soviet soldiers served in Afghanistan. According to a report
by Lt. Col. Lester Grau (U.S. Army, retired) and Maj. William Jorgensen
(U.S. Army Reserve), 415,932 â" an astounding 88.6% â" were hospitalized
at various times with serious diseases, the most common being infectious
To be sure, most of these wounds were self-inflicted. The Soviets ran a
slovenly army. Personal discipline was wretched. Food was vile, usually
served cold in the field, ladled from silvery tins that flashed welcome
signals to their Afghan opponents. In base camps, the cooks were slobs,
helping spread disease. There were shortages of purified water, and soldiers
often drank local water (hating the taste of the purified version) and
quickly fell down in agony. Troops wore uniforms (including 75-pound field
packs) suited for a war on the northern plains of Europe, not the mountains
of Afghanistan. Their boots were so heavy that many fought battles wearing
sneakers. In the later stages of their war (as in the later stages of
Vietnam), drugs and alcohol further weakened the ability to fight. That war
was the beginning of the end of the Communist empire called the Soviet
But for the rest of the world, and now most particularly for New York, the
most devastating consequence of the war with the invading Soviets was the
rise of the fanatical Islamic fundamentalists. Almost all the radical
Muslims now planning and executing terrorism are veterans of the Afghan
campaigns. All benefited from the CIA's massive intervention in the war, led
by Ronald Reagan's CIA director, William Casey. The plan was simple: Find
and enlist as many Muslim zealots as possible. Train them. Arm them. Fund
them. And send them against the Russians.
One of those zealots was the now-famous Saudi Arabian rich boy, Osama Bin
Laden, who began as a dilettante of war. His story is well-known. But he
wasn't a major figure in Afghanistan. He was a relatively minor player in
the very loose resistance called the mujahedeen. The radicals who joined up
with the mujahedeen benefited from the $3.5 billion contributed by the CIA,
and hundreds of millions in Saudi funds channeled through a CIA account in
Switzerland. The British Secret Intelligence Service was also heavily
involved in training and dispersing. The control centers were in Cairo and
in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Many of the camps now operated by Bin
Laden and other radicals, including the Taliban, were built with American
Most of the radicals were drawn to the fierce Afghan fundamentalism of
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose group was called Herzb-I-Islam (according to one
1994 report, the CIA/SIS-trained fundamentalists included 2,800 Algerians,
370 Iraqis, 2,000 Egyptians, 300 Yemenis, 200 Libyans). They were tough,
ferocious fighters, as motivated as the foreigners who fought for the
Spanish Republic in the 1930s. When they received their American-made
Stinger missiles, they began hammering Soviet helicopters out of the sky.
The war was soon over.
They did not all give up the gun when the last Soviet tank rolled over the
northern border. Many saw the war as the first stage of a triumphant Islamic
jihad against modernity (with its skepticism and doubt), liberalism (with
its tolerance and generosity) and all things secular, from dancing to
card-playing. In addition to Bin Laden, there were other veterans of the
Afghan war who vowed to keep fighting. They went off to other countries,
hardened in battle, burning with faith.
Civil War Rages
Afghan veterans unleashed the revolt in Algeria in 1992, after the army
threw out the results of an election that was an apparent victory for Muslim
fundamentalists. That war goes on, and has cost at least 100,000 lives,
including seven on Friday. Afghan veterans shaped the Armed Islamic Group,
started by killing scores of Westerners, murdering Muslim moderates, and
over the past year have specialized in massacring Algerian villagers,
usually by slitting the throats of men, women and children. Some Afghan
veterans have been killed by the army; the war goes on.
In Egypt, Afghan veterans started their own campaign, forming a group called
Gamat Ismailia. A man named Mohammed Shawky al-Istrambouli was one of the
leaders. His brother led the group that murdered Anwar Sadat in 1981. He
made contacts with the mujahedeen in 1983, at a forward base in Pakistan,
raised funds there, and in Iran, and soon began killing Egyptians. The
object was to destroy the government of Hosni Mubarak and create a
fundamentalist Islamic regime. After being sentenced to death in absentia in
Egypt, Istrambouli found safety in, of course, Afghanistan. His organization
agreed to a truce in 1998, but most members are believed to have joined Bin
Laden's umbrella group, Al Qaeda (the Base).
Istrambouli had many contacts. In 1990, in Pakistan, he met with Sheik Omar
Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric. The man later convicted of setting up the
1993 assault on the World Trade Center and planning other atrocities in the
New York area. Two of the sheik's sons served in the Afghanistan war. At
least two of the 1993 bombers had served in Afghanistan. In Israel,
Palestinian areas and Syria, Afghan veterans are believed to be active in
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Those contacts made in the mountains of Afghanistan most likely remain
essential to the various networks of which Bin Laden is at once a part, and
through Al Qaeda, a leader. People who were shot at together form personal
bonds that almost never break. These surviving groups are well-funded, most
likely in devious ways â" with Arab oil states, including Saudi Arabia,
bribing them to leave their own countries alone. Some experts fear that a
radical Muslim trap is being set, that Pakistan will succumb to the
carrot-and-stick pressure and allow the Americans to use it as a base, then
a massive rising of fundamentalists would overthrow that government and
bring radical fundamentalism to a country that has the atom bomb.
"The Pakistani people would never accept an American presence on their
soil," said Gen. Hameed Gul, former head of Pakistani military intelligence,
in an interview in Paris with Reuters. "The price to pay would be high for
everybody. Pakistan would be completely destabilized, and that would have
grave repercussions, especially for the United States."
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine agrees. He supports the Americans in
their need for justice after the slaughter at the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. But he warned Sunday against making this too wide and ruthless a
"We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all cost," he said. "One has
to avoid falling into this huge trap, this monstrous trap, even if this was
the calculated intention of some."
Where's Bin Laden?
Nobody is certain about the whereabouts of Bin Laden today. He might have
slipped out of his camps around Khost, which survived Soviet missiles,
500-pound bombs and artillery. He might be across the border in Pakistan. It
is unlikely that he is where intelligence services think he is. If he is
found, and killed, his movement will likely go on, waving the banners of his
In this great surge of Islamic fundamentalism, with its longing for the
certainties of the 11th century and the lost Islamic kingdoms, there is,
alas, no Mr. Big. For too many people, death is a mere step into paradise.
But one thing we do know: There in Afghanistan, waiting for the bombs to
fall, live some of the most miserable human beings on the planet. For them,
dying might be as meaningless as living.
Original Publication Date: 9/18/01
Email Date:Tue, 18 Sep 2001
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