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Podcast: Journalist Anand Gopal on MSF Hospital Attack & Next Phase of Afghanistan War

The Afghanistan war returned to the headlines this past week, reminding Americans it is still ongoing. The U.S. bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the Kunduz province. General John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, appeared before congressional committee to make statements about the strike and also, with little specificity, address U.S. commitment to the next phase of war.

Fighting has escalated in recent weeks, especially in Kunduz, and it seems clear the war will not be brought to an end by President Barack Obama’s administration. Troop levels could remain the same or even increase, despite the fact there have been plans to reduce U.S. forces to only protecting the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Numerous Afghan militias, police units, and special forces trained and armed by the U.S. patrol the country, engaging in executions and other horrific acts that impact civilians.

On the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast this week, journalist Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, joins the show to discuss the war in Afghanistan, including the most recent hospital attack. Having reported from Afghanistan, he describes how the U.S. has funded and armed people who have become strongmen or warlords. He talks about how the U.S. adopts policy to look the other way when human rights violations occur.

During the discussion part of the show, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola talk about the latest developments in Israel-Palestine, including reported execution-style shooting of Palestinians by Israeli forces. We also highlight a decision at Purdue University to destroy all copies of a presentation by journalist Barton Gellman on NSA documents from Edward Snowden.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Anand Gopal.

GOSZTOLA: Suddenly, the Afghanistan War made it back into the headlines, and people seem to be recognizing for a moment that it is still ongoing—especially because we had this Doctors Without Borders hospital that was bombed by the United States.

We’re also hearing discussion about the next phase of the war, and it seems very likely there will be some kind of an escalation on the part of the United States in terms of involvement. The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan came before the Senate Armed Services Committee to talk about what sort of troop commitments might be made for the future. Talk to us about the Afghanistan War as it stands and what you see happening currently.

GOPAL: You’re absolutely right that people are just paying attention to this right now, but the war has been ongoing and it’s been really brutal. And it’s not really been covered. There was talk maybe a year or two ago about how the American war in Afghanistan was over, but actually it never ended. It’s been ongoing.

This year was a record year for the number of civilians who’ve been killed. There are — if you count them up — there are hundreds of hundreds of militias. There are Afghan police and Afghan army and in total something like 350,000 people under arms, who are being paid for and supported by the United States to fight its war. And on the other side, there’s tens of thousands of Taliban and that’s been the case for the past 14 years and it hasn’t changed.

GOSZTOLA: The real issue here is that we would send more troops or that we would continue this when it doesn’t seem like anything that has helped the Afghan people. You clearly document in your book the way that U.S. forces are tearing up Afghan society and also look at the different way tribal leaders or warlords—Those people are something we play off, and they end up working against each other.

GOPAL: The American presence in general has been a profoundly destabilizing presence in Afghanistan from the very beginning. The first reason is, as you said, U.S. troops when they’re on the ground they ally with local strongmen. In many cases, they create these strongmen. They create these warlords.

Sometimes people have this sense that, oh, Afghanistan is this place that’s always had warlords and warlordism. But, actually, these warlords have been created. They’re new to Afghan history. Even in the last 15 years, there’s been a whole host of warlords, who essentially have been created by the U.S. presence, by the guns and money that the Americans are handing out to local actors. If you want to be a strongman, the sole criteria that you need to pass is to be anti-Taliban. It doesn’t really matter what you stand for, as long as you’re anti-Taliban and have good links to the U.S. so you can get guns and money.

Kunduz province is actually a sort of perfect example for that. The Taliban captured Kunduz last week. The reason they did so is because Kunduz is a laboratory of sorts for this militia, for creating militias. Essentially, what the U.S. and the Afghan government over the last five or six years is they started handing out guns to all sorts of locals and creating hundreds of little militias. Those militias have been killing ordinary civilians. They’ve been stealing money. They’ve been raping people, and the Taliban have played on the anger of ordinary people against these militias and that’s what allowed them to make a comeback in Kunduz.

GOSZTOLA: You have these commanders like Campbell, who will sit before a committee and proclaim that nobody does more than the United States to protect civilians from being killed when we’re waging wars. I would like you to talk about your experience and how that is probably not true.

GOPAL: If the U.S. was seriously interested in civilians being killed, they would not be creating these strongmen and warlords, who are killing civilians every day. The difference is with these warlords that are created by the U.S. they are killing people with impunity and it’s not being reported.

The MSF strike was horrible and tragic, but we know about it because it was MSF. It was a Western organization. There are incidents like this that happen all the time, like night raids, air strikes. Even 15 to 20 miles away from the MSF hospital, just three or four years ago there was a NATO air strike on a fuel tanker, where the Taliban had capture a tanker of fuel and called out to villagers to get free fuel. As the villagers gathered around to get the fuel, NATO planes bombed the tanker and killed something like a 100 or 150 people. That made the news a few years ago.

There are other incidents that don’t make the news, where there’s night raids. There are militia forces that break into people’s homes. One of the big problems in Kunduz is the rape of young children, especially raping of boys. A lot of these militias have been notorious for stealing boys from families and keeping them as sex slaves. So, this is the sort of thing that happens.

From the point of view of Afghans living in a place like Kunduz, when you hear that the U.S. really cares about protecting civilians and then you see that the U.S. is handing out guns and money to these sorts of people, that claim falls on deaf ears.

GOSZTOLA: What about the way in which facilities or structures we would typically would think would be protected can suddenly become targets? Because it seems the way the generals manipulate language, they do so in such a way that medical facilities or religious institutions can suddenly become targets of war given certain situations.

GOPAL: What this experience over the last 14 years has shown is you can take really any facility and convert it into a target with the right justification. This hasn’t been the first time that an MSF facility has been targeted. In fact, this same MSF hospital just three or four months ago was raided by Afghan special forces.

Early on in the war, the U.S. bombed Red Cross facilities. They also numerous times have attacked journalists’ facilities. They bombed Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad early on in both wars. There have been journalists, Afghan journalist friends of mine, who have been killed by the U.S. I had another Afghan journalist friend, who was arrested because he had numbers of Taliban commanders in his phone—which every journalist has because they need to call them for interviews. But he was arrested and tortured severely a few years back.

The quintessential example of this is the wedding party. For some reason or another, the U.S. keeps attacking wedding parties. There is just so many cases in the last 15 years of wedding parties that were bombed and 100 or 150 people killed at a time.

What the war has done is, it’s done two things. It’s rendered the idea of neutrality obsolete, meaning there is nobody who is neutral. Everybody is sort of a suspect in some way. It renders the notion of institutions that are supposed to be protected—renders that idea obsolete as well. Really every type of institution has been targeted by all sides at one time or another.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."