Michael Winterbottom’s In This World

This text was delivered on 3 October 2004 as an introduction to the first film shown in my colleague Paul Salmon's Beyond Hollywood 2004/2005 series at the University of Guelph. It has not previously been published.



The remarkable film that we are going to see this-evening, Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, is at once a documentary and a drama. At intervals documentary-style voice-overs will give us crucial historical and contextual information; and we will see on contour maps the itinerary followed by two young Afghans who are seeking to get to London from the refugee camp outside Peshawar which has been their home. The film is shot with hand-held cameras, to which the people who appear on camera are sometimes clearly responding. There is a story-line, established by the film crew in advance—and yet that story-line consists simply of a journey through actually-existing networks of refugee-trafficking. The two principal characters in the film are paid actors, but also real refugees. Their dialogue, and that of the other people in the film, is unscripted: they are saying what it comes into their own minds to say in the situations they find themselves in. The Iranian border policemen are real border policemen, whom Winterbottom and his colleagues persuaded to participate in their narrative. And at the end of the film the younger refugee, Jamal, is living in London, though subject to a deportation order which is to be activated the day before his eighteenth birthday: his journey to London has been both fictive and actual. His companion Enayatullah returns to his wife and young children in the camp at Peshawar; with the money he has made from the film, he is able to buy a pick-up truck and start a small business.

* * *

My goal in introducing this film is to offer some additional understanding of the historical events that led after the Soviet intervention in December 1979 to the collapse of civil society in Afghanistan and to the long-term refugee crisis. (Sixteen-year-old Jamal was born in the Peshawar camp, and until his departure for London knew no other home.)

Afghanistan’s internal divisions flared into civil war after 1979—perhaps less because of the country’s internal socio-political dynamics than as a result of imperial geopolitics. During the nineteenth century Afghanistan, as the ‘Northwest Frontier’ of British India, was the site of a ‘Great Game’ of intrigue, diplomacy, and intermittent border warfare played out between the British and Russian empires and their surrogates. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, explained in a 1998 interview that after July 1979 it became the deliberate policy of the United States to revive this ‘Great Game’ in a new form by seeking to destabilize Afghanistan’s secular and (thanks to a recent coup d'état) pro-USSR government. The calculation was that the Russians would not tolerate the collapse of a friendly regime on their southern border, and could thus be drawn into a counter-insurgency war that the U.S., with the help of Islamist guerrilla forces supplied from Pakistan, could turn into the USSR’s “own Vietnam war.”1

This strategy succeeded: the Afghan war broke the morale of the Red Army and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A significant part of the ‘Western’ costs of the war was borne by U.S. surrogates, especially Saudi Arabia, which also provided Islamist moujahidin (among them Osama bin Laden) to fight godless secularism in Afghanistan. But the human costs to Afghans were appalling: they were exposed both to the horrors of Russian aerial bombardments and helicopter attacks, and also to the tyrannies of the competing warlords who eventually overthrew the Russian-supported Najibullah regime, and who then proceeded to reduce the capital city of Kabul to rubble with their own internecine struggles for supreme power. Urban Afghan women lost the civil rights they had begun to enjoy under secular governments. Opium poppy production sky-rocketed, with the Afghan warlords and the CIA using the profits of the drug trade to finance their respective endeavours.2 Fighting among the warlord factions ended only in 1998 when they were militarily defeated in all but the northern provinces of Afghanistan by a puritanical Islamist movement known as the Taliban—which was, by the way, created and run by Pakistan’s own CIA, the Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

In the mean time, a different kind of geopolitical pressure was emerging. During the 1990s, the United States gave public notice of a new strategy aimed at gaining military and economic control over the hydrocarbon reserves both of the Middle East and of Central Asia—and at denying access to these reserves by competing powers such as Russia, China, India, Japan, and France. This new ‘Great Game,’ discussed in documents published by the Congressional Committee on International Relations in February 1998, was adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Silk Road Strategy Act of March 19, 1999.3

The 1991 Gulf War had advanced American military-geopolitical and oil interests very significantly: Iraq, a major regional power, was removed from contention, and the U.S. was able to establish bases in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Other aspects of the emerging Silk Road Strategy fell into place when the United States established a regional military alliance, under NATO protection, with Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and secured permission to construct air bases in Tajikistan, Kyrgistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

The importance of Afghanistan in relation to this strategy has been underlined by Michel Chossudovsky:

It not only borders the “Silk Road Corridor” linking the Caucasus to China’s Western border, it is also at the hub of five nuclear powers: China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. [….] Afghanistan is at the strategic crossroads of the Eurasian pipeline and transport routes. It also constitutes a potential land bridge for the southbound oil pipeline from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan to the Arabian Sea across Pakistan….4

Such a pipeline from the Caspian Basin oilfields across Afghanistan was negotiated by the oil giant Unocal with the Taliban government, though by early 2001 the Taliban had lost interest in the idea. In the summer of 2001 the Taliban was informed by American diplomats that it should expect to be overthrown by the U.S. military by October.

When it came, the American attack upon Afghanistan in October, 2001 was legitimized in world opinion by the terrorist attacks upon the United States of September 11, 2001, the generally accepted mastermind of which, Osama bin Laden, enjoyed the protection of the Taliban state. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 called “on all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks”—which, as Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert have observed, “is a far cry from authorizing the United States to decide unilaterally to wage a war against Afghanistan.”5

There is reason to believe, as I have already implied, that the primary motivation for the American attack on Afghanistan had more to do with geopolitics than with any desire to capture the planners of the terrorist crimes of September 11th. The London Daily Telegraph reported on October 4, 2001 that the government of Pakistan had rejected an agreement reached by the Taliban according to which Bin Laden would be extradited to Pakistan to stand trial there for the September 11 attacks before an international tribunal. It has been suggested that the United States vetoed this proposal—which seems plausible, given other evidence that the U.S. was less keen on capturing Bin Laden than it professed to be. (For example, a U.S. official was quoted during the war as saying that “casting the objectives too narrowly would risk a premature collapse of the international effort if by some lucky chance Mr bin Laden were captured.”)6

Two important new books cast further retrospective light upon the Afghan war. In The New Pearl Harbor, David Ray Griffin, a distinguished American theologian and philosopher, concludes after a lucid and careful weighing of the evidence that there are a total of forty distinct reasons—“smoking guns,” he calls them—which point to complicity by the government of President George W. Bush in the attacks of September 11.7 Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD detective, goes further in his forthcoming book Crossing the Rubicon, which presents evidence that the Bush administration was not merely complicitous in 9/11, but actually organized the attacks.8

During the year after October 7, 2001, the United States lavished some ten billion dollars on Afghanistan—84% of which “was spent to bomb the country and to finance anti-Taliban fighters [….] paying warlords $100,000 each and supplying them with truckloads of weapons.”9 Although estimates of casualties resulting from the bombing campaign can be no more than approximations, it seems that some 3,000 civilians were killed, and that a further 20,000 died from causes such as starvation and disease as an indirect result of the bombing.10

President Bush claimed in his State of the Union address in January 2002 that the United States had “saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression.” Wrong on both counts. On September 6, 2001 the World Food Program had announced, in response to “widespread pre-famine conditions,” a new project to provide food aid to 5.5 million Afghans; but the aid convoys were blocked when, at U.S. insistence, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was closed on September 16. By October 2002, the mortality rate in one northern refugee camp had risen to twice what it had been before the bombing. A policy brief published by the aid agency CARE in September 2002 suggested that “promises [to rebuild Afghanistan] now look increasingly suspect”: though reconstruction needs were “significantly higher” than in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, or East Timor, the international aid pledged to Afghanistan was less than 30% of the average per capita rate for those countries in 2002—and the amount pledged for the following five years was only 17% of that rate.11

“Today,” George Bush said in that same State of the Union address, “[Afghan] women are free.” Wrong again. On March 2, 2003, CBC Newsworld showed the documentary The Daughters of Afghanistan, featuring the journalist Sally Armstrong. As Michele Landsberg wrote in the Toronto Star, “Armstrong says that only about 30 per cent of Afghan girls attend school today, due to lack of resources and a Taliban-like fundamentalist grip on the country outside the capital. The warlords are still running the country, and their rule is cruel, violent, and deeply misogynist. Outside of Kabul, girls and women are still jailed for trying to escape forced marriages. They are forced to wear the burqa, attacked by fanatic vice squads […]. Schools are firebombed; warlords’ troops rape with impunity.”12

The war exacerbated the refugee situation as a result of what can only be described as terror bombing of civilian populations. The manner in which the ground war was fought would appear also to have been designed to provoke terror. There is evidence, for example, that American troops, CIA agents, and the forces of Northern Alliance General Dostum collaborated in major war crimes in November 2001 following the surrender of Taliban forces in Kunduz. The murder of more than 3,000 prisoners of war at Mazar-i-Sharif has been very thoroughly documented, in part by the Irish director Jamie Doran’s film Massacre in Mazar. (This film was a major news story in Europe after it was shown in June 2002 to deputies and members of the press at the European parliament in Strasbourg; news of it was blacked out by the American media.)13

What is the current situation in Afghanistan? The American-imposed Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, a former employee of Unocal, has been described as effectively no more than the mayor of Kabul. Within the territories he and his close allies control, corruption, thievery, and a resurgent opium trade are rampant.14 The rest of the country is controlled either by U.S.-allied warlords or else, intermittently, by a resurgent Taliban resistance. The U.S. is spending $950 million per month to keep 9,000 pairs of boots on the ground in Afghanistan (with a further 35,000 support troops outside the country providing logistical support); other countries, among them Canada and Germany, have provided brigade-level forces for what amounts to a garrison of Kabul. There has been some movement of refugees back to their communities from the camps into which they had been driven by war and starvation, but large parts of the country remain humanitarian disaster areas—not least because of growing resentment against the American occupation forces and an intensifying insurgency. (As of February 2004, the mortality rate for U.S. troops in Afghanistan was three times higher than for U.S. troops in Iraq.)

As Marc Herold writes, “violence is endemic, corruption and extortion are rampant, the countryside is balkanized into fiefdoms, opium is the crop of choice, most Afghans (87%) still have no access to clean water, the lot of women has barely improved….”15 One can understand why, in 2004 no less than in 2001 or 2002, Afghan refugees might think the long, dangerous, and ruinously expensive journey from their dusty camps to the safety of Western Europe to be worth attempting.16

Welcome to “this world.”




1  The quoted words are Brzezinski’s. See John K. Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (2nd ed., London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 19.

2  See Cooley, pp. 127-61.

3  See Michel Chossudovsky, War and Globalization: The Truth Behind September 11 (Shanty Bay, ON: Global Outlook, 2002), pp. 66-68.

4  Chossudovsky, War and Globalization, p. 69.

5  Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert, “9/11 and Afghanistan: Part B of 45 Questions on U.S. Foreign Policy,” ZNet (October 9, 2002), http://www.zmag.org//content/showarticle.cfm?SectionD=40&ItemID=2447.

6  See Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 37-38.

7  David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (2nd ed., Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004), pp. 196-201.

8  Michael Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil. Ruppert made a preliminary presentation of his case in an address to San Francisco’s prestigious Commonwealth Club on August 31, 2004; much of the evidence presented in his book is available at Ruppert’s website, http://www.copvcia.

9  James Ingalls, “Afghanistan: The First Puppet Regime in the Post Sept 11 World (Talk given at the Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 30, 2002),” ZNet, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=49&ItemID=2565.

10  See the articles of Ingalls and of Shalom and Albert cited above, and also Marc W. Herold, “A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting [revised],” Cursor (March, 2002), http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm.

11  See the article by Ingalls cited above.

12  Michele Landsberg, “Afghanistan documentary exposes Bush’s promises,” Toronto Star (March 2, 2003).

13  See Stefan Steinberg, “Afghan war documentary charges US with mass killings of POWs,” World Socialist Web Site (June 17, 2002), http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jun2002/afgh-j17.shtml.

14  See Marc W. Herold, “AfghaniScam: Livin’ Large Inside Karzai’s Reconstruction Bubble,” Cursor (September 24, 2003).

15  Herold, “The Taliban’s Second Coming,” Cursor (February 29, 2004), http://cursor.org/stories/secondcoming.html. 

16  For an account of the actual journey of a young Afghan refugee (also named Jamal!) to Norway, see Aseem Shrivastava, “Which Way Now? The Saga of an Anguished Afghan,” CounterPunch (August 7-8, 2004).