Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror by Barnett R. Rubin

This article first appeared in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state, writes Samaya Borom. Essays cover human rights, security, the narcotics trade, and post-conflict statebuilding.

Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Barnett R Rubin. Oxford University Press. April 2013.

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Not long after the 24th of September 2001, a Central Intelligence Agency operative carried $3 million in cash into the Panjshir Valley to disperse money to Afghan commanders to try to overthrow the Taliban and to ensure strategic alliance with the United States. After the funds were initially dispersed, the CIA Counterterrorist Center dispatched $10 million more and as the cashed up commanders exchanged their USD funds for local currency they flooded the market, devalued the dollar and effectively crippled Afghanistan’s economy.

The insights revealed throughout Barnett Rubin’s Afghanistan, from the Cold War through the War on Terror come from essays collated over more than a decade whilst Rubin was employed by the Council of Foreign Relations and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and crucially while he was also acting as a consultant to the United Nations mission to Afghanistan. Rubin is a world renowned political science expert, if not the expert, on Afghanistan and it is his intimate understandings of the country and the international and domestic political forces that have shaped it (and continue to shape it) that make this book a must read.Rubin’s previous book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System detailed the troublesome period of Afghan political history from the 1978 coup to the fall of Najibullah and the subsequent mujahideen taking Kabul. His newest collection of essays on Afghanistan cements his standing as a pre-eminent scholar of contemporary Afghan political history. The introductory chapter provides an illustration as to how deeply involved Rubin is with the country, from speaking to refugees camped by the road after fleeing fighting in Kabul to attending a meeting of the US State Department shortly after the 9/11 attacks and listening to intense debate about the role the US could or should play in nation building.

Though the book was written over a timespan of ten years, a common thread exists between the essays in that Afghanistan and its people have been shown to have suffered tirelessly and often needlessly at the hands of people and groups funded by powers that work towards an unseen strategic roadmap. It is a subject that Rubin revisits in most essays and is backed up with comprehensive evidence or references so that the collection is not merely looked upon as a collection of memoirs but rather a solid reference material in its own right.

An elderly Afghan man at an International Red Cross Distribution camp. Credit: United Nations Photo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the chapter “Blueprint for Afghanistan” Rubin explores how the country’s lack of monetary transparency or accountability allowed for international terrorism to gain a foothold in the region. Increased global awareness of the country saw a decrease in domestic participation in governmental and non-governmental institutions. The increase in external interest in ‘assisting’ Afghans to build institutions often saw donor and non-governmental agencies establishing themselves with relatively little frameworks in place to ensure that the requisite Afghan participation in activities occurred. The appearance of external groups on local real-estate markets was often disastrous and Kabul saw rent increases from $100 to $10,000 per month to accommodate the influx – to the detriment of local establishments who were unable to compete with the inflation and had to either move elsewhere or dissolve.

This chapter segways nicely to “The Politics of Center-Periphery Relations in Afghanistan”, co-researched with Helena Malikyar, an independent researcher and writer based in Kabul with extensive experience on governance related projects with the United Nations and USAID. It argues that the current administrative approach of the government is not a new approach, and that the country often looked to foreign support in order to maintain balance and control. This background proves essential in moving forward through subsequent essays that broach topics such as the difficulty in crafting a Constitution as a roadmap to re-establishing government institutional processes, and implementing and deploying a successful strategy to deal with insurgents where the occupying foreign forces disagree with local government.

The essays covered in the book vary in length and detail, however are all clearly well-researched. It is common for Rubin to include figures and graphs where referring to economic indicators or reconstruction efforts and these help to paint an intimate image of the Afghanistan he so clearly feels deeply about. Rubin’s professional standing, both at the international and domestic level, afforded him access to people and areas outside of the normal writer/researcher gaumut and this has allowed him to present material rich in observation as well as facts. The essays themselves work seamlessly together which is fortunate for the reader as it provides an authentic aggregated view of Afghanistan.

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state.

Utopia by John Pilgers Film Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia

Image: John Pilger


By Maya Borom

John Pilgers documentary Utopia is a damning account of the seemingly apartheid-style laws and policies that successive Australian governments have placed on Indigenous Australians. The documentary highlights governmental inaction at it’s very worst and showcases the often collusionary nature of politics when dealing with Indigenous issues and welfare.

Almost 28 years have passed since Pilger first shot The Secret Country, an expose on the Aboriginal community living in Utopia in the Northern Territory, and how governmental (non) intervention impacted upon their lives. It’s release shocked audiences around the world who decried the lack of governmental infrastructure and intervention in health, schooling and general wellbeing. Pilger revisited the community in Utopia to see if anything had changed – unsurprisingly it had not.

The passage of 28 years and different federal governments failed to bring much needed infrastructure and support to Australia’s most vulnerable communities. Pilger documents that scant, if little health care is available to the community and medical experts voice their opinion as to the sub-standard facilities they are expected to practice in – including no electricity and open sewers. Utopia is a place where people die needlessly and have health issues that have all but been eradicated in countries similar to Australia’s socio-economic rating – indeed, the United Nations have routinely criticised Australia for it’s failure to adhere to human rights conventions regarding Indigenous rights.

Access to electricity, water, schooling and adequate housing are wishes on an Indigenous Australian’s list that gets longer and longer as Australia becomes more wealthy …

Inadequate housing also invariably leads to health issues, with stories of cockroaches embedding themselves in eardrums of children who must sleep outside due to a chronic housing shortage, or whose parents choose to sleep outside as they don’t wish to sleep inside condemned asbestos houses. Pilger illustrates how the lack of infrastructure is in stark contrast to that which is routinely viewed as a right in urbanised Australian suburbs. Access to electricity, water, schooling and adequate housing are wishes on an Indigenous Australian’s list that gets longer and longer as Australia becomes more wealthy within the global landscape and continues to ignore its Indigenous population.

Interestingly, Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that does not have a treaty with it’s Indigenous population – therefore no formal mechanism exists whereby Indigenous communities can participate equally in an exchange of goods or services (i.e. land rights, mining rights for infrastructure, education).

The film is not only about Utopia as a destination, it touches upon the wider issue of Indigenous deaths in custody, the Stolen Generation and the 2007 ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response’ (‘the Intervention’) imposed upon Indigenous communities in a misguided and fraudulent attempt at breaking down so called ‘paedophile rings’. Pilger demonstrates how the ABC’s Lateline in conjunction with a concerted media/governmental joint effort allowed for the demonisation of indigenous Australians – a legacy that is still being felt in 2014. He presents a convincing argument as to how the mainstream media, corporations and various sections of the government constructs and presents a derogative image of indigenous Australia that prevents the nation as a whole from moving forward in indigenous rights and responsibilities.

John Pilger’s Utopia is a must-see documentary for those interested in the plight of Australia’s Indigenous population and illustrates how the country must work together to ensure we move away from an apartheid system that creates an ever widening divide between Australians.