The spinmeisters of the Harper government in Canada, side-by-side with the Bush regime, NATO, and the embattled Pres. Karzai in Kabul, continue to try to portray the political and security situation in Afghanistan as "improving". But once in a while word leaks out from a more neutral source that exposes the true situation.
CBC Radio's flagship program is "As It Happens", featuring phone interviews on public affairs stories all over the world. On Friday evening they broadcast an interview with retired CIA agent John Kiriakou, who was hired by Paramount Pictures in July to visit Kabul. What he had to say was eye-opening, to say the least.
More over the flip...
Paramount has completed filming of a movie, "The Kite Runner", based on the first novel by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini. But the release of the film has been delayed over concerns for the young actors' safety.
"The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated greatly since we originally cast the boys for their roles," the studio said.
"In watching this change on the ground in Kabul, it became apparent to us we needed an aggressive and comprehensive plan to ensure their safety," it said.
There is sexual content in the film, including the homosexual rape of a Haziri boy by a Pashtun boy, and another scene where a Haziri boy is forced to dance for a group of Pashtuns. Conflict between the two ethnic groups is a long-simmering issue in Afghanistan.
Kiriakou was hired, based on his expertise in Afghanistan, to assess whether the threat to the boys is real. In the interview, he says it is, and that the issue could blow up into something much larger.
(I've made the following transcriptions based on an mp3 of the interview. I'd urge you to listen to the entire interview, which can be downloaded using QuickTime here. The interviewer is Carol Off.)
OFF: And what did you learn when you were in Kabul?
KIRIAKOU: Two things; first, that the threat is very real to the boys, although it's not in the immediate term. Once the DVD is bootlegged and makes its way into Afghanistan, which will happen within weeks of its release in the States, people are going to see it and there will be a real threat to the boys and they will have to be evacuated. But one thing that was a surprise to me, and it's something that every Afghan national I spoke with brought up, is that the entire film, with its depiction of the relation between Pashtuns and Hazaras, was so objectionable to all Afghans, that it could lead to sectarian violence between the two groups.
OFF: And do you think that's an accurate assessment?
KIRIAKOU: As far as the children are concerned, I think yes. I think it's prudent to get them out, at least for a short period of time, and see if the situation blows over and see if it's safe to bring them back. As far as sectarian violence, no-one expected the Danish cartoons incident to blow up like it was, like it did, rather. But Afghanistan, I should point out, is a listening culture; people get their information by word-of-mouth,and a lot of that is rumour. Sometimes rumours get out of control and one thing leads to another, and then you have rioting in the streets. And I think a lot of Afghans are afraid that the same kind of thing would happen in Afghanistan once the movie comes out.
As bad as this situation is, what really got my attention is what Kiriakou had to say in the last third of the interview, about his recent experiences in Kabul, which is supposedly the most stable part of the country:
OFF: You've worked as a CIA counter-terrorism official in that region... Were you surprised at the security situation in Kabul this year in August?
KIRIAKOU: I was. I was surprised and disappointed. I had last been in Kabul in 2002, and it was quite different. This time... well, I should say that in 2002 there was a sense of optimism, really, that pervaded everything. And you saw it in every town and every village, not just in Kabul itself, but all over the countryside. This time, people were hunkered down; there's a very new and very serious problem with street crime, which Kabul has never experienced before, and people are more concerned about a resurgence of the Taleban that they've already seen in Helmand province and in Khandahar province, making its way westward back into Kabul.
OFF: We heard from our own government, who's telling us that in Kabul things are much better, we hear that from the Karzai government, we hear that from NATO that's in the country... It's not your experience then that things have improved?
KIRIAKOU: No, it's not my experience. There are pockets where westerners tend to live, work and congregate in the centre of the city that are safe only because they're completely locked down. Ah, for example, the road where the American Embassy is from is closed to any vehicular traffic that is not US or NATO-specific. I happened to have occasion to stand out there for 30 minutes, waiting for my own ride to show up, and the only things I saw in the street were armoured personnel carriers belonging to the Macedonians, the Canadians and the Turks. There was no other traffic. Even Americans who are working in the embassy are not permitted to cross the street to visit the US Agency for Development headquarters directly across the street. They have to use a tunnel because they're not allowed to go out in public even on this closed road for fear of being hit by a sniper or a rocket-propelled grenade.
OFF: Gee, that's even changed since even a year and a half ago when I was there. You could walk the streets freely and go for coffee and dinner.
KIRIAKOU: It's, it's terrible. The restaurants now are even unmarked. The only way to know that there's a restaurant, if you don't already know it's there, is to see an armed guard, someone standing with an AK-47, you pull up and say, "Is this a restaurant?", and he sees that you're a westerner and he opens the door and lets you in.
I have no way to assess the bona-fides of Mr. Kiriakou. He struck me as sincere (and sincerely disappointed with the situation he found), with no political axe to grind. He's done a job for a movie company, and I expect his employers would have been happier if he'd come back and said "Everything's OK, no cause for alarm." But he is alarmed, and his testimony gives the lie to Harper, Bush, Karzai, NATO, and every other politician who says things are looking up in Afghanistan.
They aren't. After 6 years, things aren't even staying stable. They're getting worse. Is that in spite of our presence, or because of it?