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Afghanistan: Land of Lies and Illusions

A new film captures some edgy, fearful truths.

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Kabul, July 2009 — I've come back to the Afghan capital again, after an absence of two years, to find it ruined in a new way. Not by bombs this time, but by security.

The heart of the city is now hidden behind piles of Hescos — giant, grey sandbags produced somewhere in Great Britain. They're stacked against the walls of government buildings, U.N. agencies, embassies, NGO offices, and army camps (of which there are a lot) — and they only seem to grow and multiply. A friend called just the other day from a U.N. building, distressed that the view from her office window was vanishing behind yet another row of Hescos. Urban life as Kabulis knew it in this once graceful city has been lost to the security needs of strangers.

The creation of Hescostan in the middle of Kabul is both an effect of, and a cause of, war: an effect because it seems to arise in response to devious enemy tactics that are still relatively new to Afghanistan, such as the use of roadside bombs (IEDs) and suicide bombers (though there has actually been no attack in Kabul for six months now); a cause because it is so clearly a projection, an externalization of the fears of men out of their depth. It is a paradox of such "force protection" that the more you have, the more you feel you need. What's called security generates fear. Now comes a documentary that projects that fear onto the screen.

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It is 2006, late in the year. A reporter stands on a rocky hillside near the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and points a wobbly camera at dark-clad gunmen ranged at a distance before him. They've wrapped the tails of their turbans to mask their faces. They carry their Kalashnikovs at the ready. The reporter shouts a question: "Does the Taliban receive support from Pakistan?"

As the camera jumps about to find the Talib who is speaking, a translator voices his answer: "Yes, Pakistan stands with us. On the other side of the border, we have our offices there. Some people in Pakistan is supporting us and the government of Pakistan does not say anything to us. They provide us with everything."

The reporter — Christian Parenti of the Nation magazine — has his story. For years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has charged Pakistan with backing the Taliban, while Pakistan's then-President Musharraf denied it, and officials of the Bush administration looked the other way. Now, Parenti has the word of armed Taliban. This is the kind of story a foreign correspondent can't get without a fixer; that is, a local guy who knows the language, the local politics, the protocols of custom — and how to arrange a meeting like this in the middle of nowhere with men who might kill you.

A Talib warns of an approaching reconnaissance plane. "We should go," the scared reporter says. The camera spins wildly across a vast empty expanse of rock and pale sky. "We should go." Moments later, safely back in a car speeding away, Parenti turns the camera on his own grinning face: "This is the most relieved American reporter in Afghanistan," he says, and describes the man sitting beside him — Ajmal Nashqbandi, a 24-year-old Pashtun from Kabul — as "the best fixer in Afghanistan." But we already know what Parenti doesn't (because filmmaker Ian Olds has told us up front before the titles even hit the screen): soon the fixer will be dead, murdered by the Taliban. We will be witnesses.

If this sounds harrowing, it is. Fixer is the best documentary I've seen on Afghanistan — so good it's hard to imagine a better one. It's all jagged edges, blurs, and disconnects, catching as it does both the forbidding emptiness of the land and the edginess of war-weary Afghans. One long segment, apparently showing the inside of Parenti's shawl as he conceals a camera from potentially hostile villagers, seems the visual correlative of the feeling that unsettles all outsiders from time to time in this country: the sense of being completely in the dark. In 2006-2007, as the Taliban surged back with kidnappings, murders, bombs, and jihadi suicide attacks, this is how Afghanistan felt. It's the feeling that still drives Hesco sales in the capital.

Full disclosure: both Parenti and I have written about Afghanistan for the Nation for several years. I write mostly about women, Parenti mostly about the war, and I admire his work. We met for the first time only a couple of months ago, after both of us were invited to take part in a conference on Afghanistan. He told me about Fixer, then playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. I went to see it, and when it ended I could hardly get out of my seat. Watching it again on DVD in Kabul made me weep.

By refusing to exploit Ajmal's murder for the sake of suspense — by revealing it at the start — Olds has chosen to make a film full of the kind of fear that seems to inhabit international centers of power in Afghanistan today. The film's nervous visual style is strikingly different from the clean-cut look of Occupation: Dreamland, his earlier documentary about American soldiers in Iraq. Critics will surely have much more to say about Fixer's importance as a film. It has already won a raft of prizes, including firsts at Documenta Madrid and the Pesaro (Italy) Film Festival, and Olds took home a Tribeca award this year as the best new documentary filmmaker.

How Lies Begat Illusions Begat Lies

What I want to focus on, though, is the way the film resonates with conditions in Afghanistan today. Olds has the good sense to insert a quick history lesson in this film, on the grounds that you can't understand the Taliban without knowing about America's covert operations in the region in the 1980s. Back then, President Ronald Reagan's administration, mainly through the CIA, used the Pakistani Intelligence services to fund, arm, and train Afghan and foreign Islamist jihadis to defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Pakistan subsequently used "channels built with U.S. money" to install in Afghanistan a friendly government — the Taliban.

Later, after the George W. Bush administration invaded the country and the U.S. ousted the Taliban, it installed Hamid Karzai as president and returned many of the old Islamist jihadis to power in his government. Thus, this peculiar, well-established fact underlies the current war in Afghanistan: the United States sponsored both sides.

Some analysts say the U.S. "invented" all the "enemies" involved; others, that the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) merely paid the bills, while Pakistan directed the action to its own advantage. Either way, this history — much of it still secret or repeatedly re-spun — leaves all parties to the current conflict in an intellectual sweat. They must plan for the future on the basis of a past they can't acknowledge. With national elections set for August 20th, the United States is planning for an Afghan future that still includes the jihadi buddies its officials know they should long ago have left behind.

Only the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has called, year after year, for a moral accounting. Its surveys of Afghan citizens consistently find that the people want lasting peace, and to attain it, they would prefer some sort of truth and reconciliation procedure, like the one that took place in South Africa, to cleanse the country and set it on an honest intellectual and moral footing.

For obvious reasons, the United States wants no part of the truth that would emerge from such a process. Just this week, the Obama administration first claimed it had no grounds to investigate General Abdul Rashid Dostum's infamous 2001 massacre of Taliban prisoners, even though Dostum seems to have been on the CIA payroll at the time, and his troops were backed by U.S. military operatives. Later, the president reversed course, ordering national security officials to "look into" the matter. In the end, President Obama may prefer to "move on." As does Dostum, who recently rejoined the Karzai administration.

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