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November 5, 2013

State-Organized Crimes in Afghanistan

Talk for the Afghan Students Association, Wilfrid Laurier University

Paul Martin Centre, March 13, 2013

Peter Eglin (Sociology, WLU)

“Oppression involves a failure of the imagination: the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings” (Margaret Atwood)

It’s the 13th of March, 2013, my name is Peter Eglin and you’ll notice that I am tall, six foot two for most of my life.

On 4 February 2002, American forces in Afghanistan killed Daraz Khan because he was tall. They killed him, and two other Afghan villagers who happened to be with him hunting for scrap metal, with a ‘Hellfire’ missile launched from a pilotless ‘Predator’ drone. They did it on the off-chance that, because he was tall, he might have been Osama bin Laden. Daraz Khan and his friends together left a dozen wives and children to mourn them (Mandel 2004: 29).[1]

The only time before today that I have stood at a podium in the Paul Martin Centre was on Saturday, 6th of July, 1996. It was my wedding day, the day Debbie Chapman and I got married. We had the reception in here. There must have been at least sixty people present. It’s a nice room. I like it.

In July 2002, an American AC-130 ‘Spectre’ gunship attacked a Pashtun village with cannon-fire, killing at least 54, mostly women and children, and wounding more than 120. An entire wedding party of 25 was wiped out (Mandel, 30).

So I particularly want to thank Ferishta Abdulsaboor and Khaled Wahab for inviting me on behalf of the Afghan Students Association to give a talk about state-organized crimes in Afghanistan, and for securing this prime, not to say closely guarded, location for the event. It has happy memories for my wife and me. At the same time, it’s the first time that I’ve actually given a talk here that’s related to my academic life. As some of you will know nearly all my public speaking around human rights issues has been done from the academic margins – street corners, town squares, outside MPs’ offices, from the edges of Senate or Board meetings or the side of the WLU concourse, announced or otherwise, with or without oil drum accompaniment. But today, in here, after nearly 37 years of teaching at Laurier including 23 years of being a nuisance, I finally feel that I’ve arrived. I didn’t have time to get a haircut for the occasion, but I trimmed my eyebrows and ear hairs. Nevertheless, being here, at the centre, is somehow discomfiting, a little disquieting. That’s not just because of the setting but because of the circumstances of the talk, its subject, its audience, and, indeed, my own relation to all the above.

In late May [2002], six-year-old Zargunah was killed while she was trying to hide during an attack on her village near Kandahar by American and Canadian forces acting on incorrect information that there were senior Taliban and al-Qaeda officials there. The Americans nevertheless considered the raid a success because they managed to kill one 70-year-old ‘supporter’ of Taliban leader Mullah Omar (Mandel, 29).

So, there is the very premise of this talk. I, an affluent, white, male, Canadian academic, have been asked to talk about a subject that my hosts and inviters know far better than me. What could I possibly have to say that they don’t know already, and know in their bones, in their hearts, in the lives of their families and relatives and friends and neighbours back in the home country from which they or their parents come? “Most of the refugees in the world have fled from five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Of those, Afghanistan has for the past 32 years held the top spot: one of every four of the world’s refugees is an Afghan” (John Heilprin, “Number of refugees rises to 18-year high, as a result of Syrian conflict,” Globe and Mail, 20 June 2013, A13). Moreover, who am I, as a citizen of a country whose armed forces have participated in devastating their country of origin, to speak to them about their suffering? Should I tell them how we did it? Should I say sorry?

President Hamid Karzai has rejected an American apology for the killing of nine Afghan boys in a Nato air attack and said civilian casualties were no longer acceptable. According to a statement from his office, Karzai told General David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, that expressing regret was not sufficient for the killing of the boys, aged 12 and under, by coalition helicopters. Nato has also apologised for the deaths.

… The boys were killed on 1 March when helicopters were deployed after an attack on a base in the Pech valley of Kunar province.

General David Rodriguez, who directs day-to-day operations of coalition forces across Afghanistan, later issued a video apology. Rodriguez said troops at a base in the valley were responding to a rocket attack and dispatched helicopters to the location they were told the rockets came from. He said the helicopters thought they were engaging insurgents, but it later turned out they were boys from a nearby village who were cutting firewood (Guardian, 6 March 2011).

Well, in order to make that jarring point about saying sorry I am, of course, being deliberately disingenuous. For I take it the Afghan Students Association does not want me to talk to them. They want me to talk to the rest of you. They want me to make their case to you. They want to hear someone who is not them say what means so much to them, about the crimes visited on their people and their homeland, about what their people have endured. I fear I am not up to the task but I take it on because I cannot say no.

Earlier in the war, on 18 October 2001, the village of Bibi Mahru on the outskirts of Kabul was hit by an American ‘precision’ 500-pound bomb. It killed Gul Ahmad, 40, a Hazara carpet weaver, his second wife Sima, 35, their five daughters and his son by his first wife, as well as two children living next door. ‘We buried them together in the graveyard. We divided it with separate gravestones but their bodies were all in pieces,’ said Mr. Ahmad’s first wife, who was living in another village at the time of the bombing (Mandel, 29).

State-Organized Crime 1: Offences Against the Person

Of course, what is or should be really discomfiting is the subject of my talk. The title was given to me (after some discussion), but its form reflects the language of SY333 Human Rights I: Canadian Responsibility, the topics of which each bear a title beginning with the phrase, “State-Organized Crime.” Ferishta took this course in the fall term, and one of the topics was “State-Organized Crime 6: Canada and Afghanistan.” The phrase “state-organized crime” is borrowed from the great American sociologist of crime William Chambliss (1999: 142-52), where it refers to “criminal acts committed by government officials in the course of their responsibilities as government agents” (142). The expression derives a vibrant cachet from juxtaposing “state” and “organized crime.” In popular discourse and in criminology for most of its history “crime” and the “crime problem” have been understood to refer to the murders, assaults, robberies, drug and juvenile offences that fill the local news broadcasts and newspapers on a daily basis. I take it they go on in Kabul as they do in Toronto or Kitchener-Waterloo. The criminology textbooks would include as well a chapter on “white-collar crime” – the invention of Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s – and perhaps one on “organized crime.” The former referred typically to the acts of white-collar employees ripping off the companies they worked for, while the latter referred to illegitimate business and its associated street crime carried out in sharp suits or bikers’ outfits. “Crime” meant, basically, what is better called “street crime,” and still largely does mean that.

Not until the 1970s and 1980s with the focus put on violence against women by the women’s movement did crime discourse cross the threshold from the street to the parlour, kitchen and bedroom, giving birth there to the concept of women abuse or domestic crime, a much bigger deal. The third step in the evolution of the sociological concept of crime came when it began to be appreciated just how enormous were the crimes committed not by the employees of companies ripping off their employers but by the corporations themselves, and corporate crime replaced white-collar crime. Finally, and only in recent years, the textbooks have started to include chapters on the biggest criminals of all – the real murderers, torturers, rapists, robbers, drug runners, fraud artists and thieves – namely states themselves.

In his treatment of state-organized crime Chambliss discussed the US CIA’s role in assassinating foreign leaders, arms smuggling, and especially supporting and contributing to the international traffic in opium, heroin and cocaine as in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos and Thailand), as in support for the contras in Nicaragua, and as in the war in Afghanistan. His book was published in 1999, before 9/11, so the war in question was that of the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. “U.S. support of the mujahideen in Pakistan and Afghanistan once again contributed to a substantial increase in the production of opium and heroin,” he wrote (Chambliss 1999: 144). That business continues to thrive today.

In borrowing Chambliss’s concept I have used it to refer chiefly to the violations of international law and international human rights carried out chiefly by the armed forces of states, what is otherwise called “state terrorism.” The international crimes, as they are also called, include the crime against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. They include breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The worst of these, the supreme crime, is the Crime Against Peace. It was formulated at the Nuremburg tribunal that tried the Nazi leadership and was incorporated into the United Nations Charter at the end of the second world war. It refers to the “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.” It was described at Nuremburg as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

The Crime Against Peace

According to Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan is such an act of aggression and thereby a crime against peace. In chapter two of his 2004 book How America Gets Away With Murder he provides the legal case for why neither the two UN Security Council resolutions on terrorism – SCR 1368 of 12 September and SCR 1373 of 28 September 2001 – nor the US appeal to self-defence under article 51 of the UN Charter come anywhere near to authorizing the American attack. Nor can it be retrospectively justified by post hoc UN resolutions. I don’t propose to rehearse these arguments here. What I do want to emphasize is that being “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” means that all the deaths accruing from the invasion and occupation accrue to the invaders, and are thereby their responsibility, whether caused by them or their enemies.

The murder, including mass murder, of civilians

Deaths in Afghanistan


Anti-govn't forces

Pro-govn't forces



% change

% killings by Taliban










































TOTAL, 2007-2011






The US attack “took a conservatively estimated 20,000 lives in its first six months, about half of them non-combatant men, women and children” (Mandel, 29). Since 2006 the annual death toll has only increased. The Guardian newspaper currently provides data collected by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which shows nearly 13,000 deaths from 2006 to the end of 2011. These are civilian casualties of the war, not including military casualties nor those who have died from starvation and disease resulting from the war.

As the vignettes Debbie has read out show, the manner of these deaths has been appalling. Three aspects of the killing in particular have driven Afghans mad, or into the arms of the Taliban. These are their frequent occurrence in night-time raids, those done by predator drones and their indiscriminate character.

Other state-organized crimes include the following, though here I want to enter a caveat. Because none of these acts has been subject to indictment or prosecution (that I am aware of) calling them crimes is an opinion I am expressing, though I am hardly alone, and there’s plenty of evidence. Also, what must always be borne in mind, is that it is the putative perpetrators who are also the ones who made or make the laws in question, with the authority to enforce them and bring them to judicial account, and who have every incentive not to do so. What is striking about such matters is the lengths to which the state perps will go to render their crimes legal. Whole squadrons of lawyers are put to the task of rendering aggression, assassination, torture and murder perfectly in accordance with the highest legal principles, and bevies of intellectual commentators are ready at hand, positively chomping at the bit, to endorse and popularize such reasoning in the media opinion slots (e.g. Editorial, “Afghan mission was justified,” Waterloo Region Record, 6 July 2011, A6).

The Dasht-e-Leili bloodbath

In November 2001, after the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance had captured thousands of Taliban fighters, several thousand of the prisoners were taken from jail, stuffed into some twenty-five containers, with about two hundred prisoners in each container, forty-five hundred prisoners in all, and driven to a final destination in the Dasht-e-Leili desert. A majority died en route of suffocation, and many were shot dead on arrival and buried in a huge gravesite bigger than any found in Bosnia. The estimated numbers of dead in this atrocity range from 961 to four thousand … (In his 2002 documentary Massacre at Mazar, Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran provided compelling witness evidence that U.S. Army, Special Forces, and CIA personnel were on the scene, did not interfere with the operation, and at various points seemed in charge.) (Herman and Peterson 2011: 84).

Torture, the rendition to torture and the transfer of ”detainees” to torture

The 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is wonderfully unequivocal:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture (Article 2.2).

No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture (Article 3.1).

I will do no more here than point to the torture system set up by the United States as part of the terrorist War on Terror – the attack on Afghanistan being the first move - with the active complicity of Canada and other countries boasting democratic, advanced civilizations. This system involves at least four crimes – torture itself, the setting up of sites for torture (Guantanamo Bay, Bagram air base), rendition to and for the purpose of torture in other countries (involving so-called black sites or secret prisons and facilitated by countries en route providing the services of their airports for re-fuelling stops), and, in Afghanistan itself, the transfer by Canadian soldiers of captured and detained so-called “enemy combatants” to the loving embrace of the Afghan intelligence service for torture in its prisons. This whole material infrastructure of and for torture has been and continues to be accompanied by a whole discursive infrastructure of legalized terminology for disguising the fetid, stinking, blood-soaked, infernal, state-organized criminal enterprise it is.

Detention and imprisonment without trial

Apart from torture there is just the use of Guantanamo Bay to avoid the jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions as they apply to prisoners of war, including the use of military tribunals or trials, not to mention that form of cruel and not at all unusual punishment known as solitary confinement carried out with a meticulous attention to inflicting mental pain on a par with medieval torturers’ attention to innovative ways of inflicting physical pain.

Assassination by drone

A US study has found that drone strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011 caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft (Guardian, 2 July 2013). Words truly fail to convey the inhumanity of this ruthless, cowardly, video-gamed, brutal killing practice.

State-Organized Crime 2: Offences Against Property

At this point I would like to give you a whole other talk about another form of state-organized crime, what I would call, following the conventional categories of the criminal law, offences against property. Here, following Proudhon, I am talking about the theft of the world from most of its inhabitants by the rapacious hands of what has been variously called the “1%,” the “virtual senate,” the “permanent government” and the “Party of Davos.” It is theft through what David Harvey (2005) calls “accumulation by dispossession.” It is the primary motivation behind the necessary illusion trotted out by the masters for what they regard as the stupid masses, the illusion known as the “war on terror.” I can’t go into it today, but its lineaments are obvious enough. And it applies in the case of Afghanistan where what John Foster (2009) and others call “the New Great Energy Game” is being played out. It has everything to do with the US desire to prevent the emergence of any rival superpower such as China or Russia, with the desire to isolate Iran even further, by controlling as far as possible the energy reserves and transportation routes of the Caspian basin (the “New Silk Road”), and by opening up Afghan resources and the Afghan economy through all the familiar neo-liberal measures of privatization, de-regulation and “free trade” in the interests also of its own multinational corporations and global capitalism generally (see Skinner 2013; Klassen and Albo 2013).


Finally, I come to my own relation to state-organized crime in Afghanistan, which is really, in the end, the only subject I am qualified to talk about. I find it very hard to do – not hard to talk about, but hard to see and even harder to bear. My maternal grandfather was a gunnery sergeant in the British army. My mother was born in the Cape garrison in South Africa in 1914, my uncle Norman in Shanghai, my uncle Victor in Malta, my uncle Gerald in Gibraltar – all British colonies at the time. I am a descendant of empire, raised in a country suffused with the imperial mentality, a country one prime minister (1916-1922) of which, Lloyd George, reserved “the right to bomb niggers,” following Winston Churchill’s precedent established in 1919 when he approved the use of poisoned gas on “uncivilized tribes”  - he was referring to Kurds and Afghans at the time of the Third Afghan War (Chomsky 1994: 6; Baker 2008: 7).[2] In switching continents I merely switched empires. And now, thanks to Yves Engler and my colleague Todd Gordon (2010) at Laurier Brantford, I am learning to think of my home, Canada, as itself imperialist and not just a junior partner to US empire (and before that, British empire). I do recommend to you the 15-page section on Afghanistan in Engler’s Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (2009) for his account of Canada’s actions there and the interests driving them.

I was hired at Laurier in 1976 to teach Criminology (about which I knew nothing), and though I went on to co-write a textbook in the field it was never my subject of research or inquiry. Thanks to Noam Chomsky’s 1988 Massey Lectures I started a (the) human rights course here at Laurier in January 1990. But, and this may come as a surprise to some of you, despite teaching it religiously, writing articles, chapters and now a book about it (Eglin 2013), it has never been for me a subject of academic inquiry. What I am as a sociologist is a student of ethnomethodology, something else entirely. What motivates me to go on about human rights, imperialism and Canada’s responsibility is shame, anger, a screaming refusal to submit to propaganda, and the compelling need to get the monkey off my back, a latter-day incarnation, if you like, of the white man’s burden. It has been put this way, by Jan Myrdal (1968: 200-01, as quoted in Chomsky 1972: 88):

... the unconscious one does not betray. He walks secure through life. But we who are a part of the tradition — the Europeans — and who carry on the tradition we have betrayed with awareness, insight and consciousness, we have carefully analyzed all the wars before they were declared. But we did not stop them. (And many amongst us became the propagandists of the wars as soon as they were declared.) We describe how the poor are plundered by the rich. We live among the rich. Live on the plunder and pander ideas to the rich. We have described the torture and we have put our names under appeals against torture, but we did not stop it. (And we ourselves became torturers when the higher interests demanded torture and we became the ideologists of torture.) Now we once more can analyze the world situation and describe the wars and explain why the many are poor and hungry. But we do no more.

We are not the bearers of consciousness. We are the whores of reason.

“There are, to be sure, exceptions,” continues Chomsky (88).

Thus the character of this talk. I do speak to you as an academic, but not as an academic specialist retailing the products of years of disciplined and disinterested inquiry. Rather I hope to call you to the tasks of intellectual citizenship and all that this entails in refusing and righting the imperialist depredations we resolutely visit on others we barely see as human, but from whose dispossession, impoverishment and suffering we profit so handsomely. How many of us are able to escape the judgment expressed by Jan Myrdal?

Last Words

The facts of this world seen clearly

are seen through tears;

why tell me then

there is something wrong with my eyes?

To see clearly and without flinching,

without turning away,

this is agony, the eyes taped open

two inches from the sun.

What is it you see then?

Is it a bad dream, a hallucination?

Is it a vision?

What is it you hear?

The razor across the eyeball

is a detail from an old film.

It is also a truth.

Witness is what you must bear.

(from Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written, by Margaret Atwood)


[1] All the documented cases of atrocities reported here were read out by Dr. Debra Chapman (Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University). I have also added one or two factual observations since giving the talk.

[2] And this, referring to Kenya: “During the 1950s — a decade that too many still regard as the ‘enlightened’ late period of empire — the British slaughtered, tortured, sexually brutalized, burned alive, starved and jailed some 150,000 Africans, including the grandfather of Barack Obama, for having the temerity to fight for national independence (which, in the end, was granted in 1963).” Doug Saunders, “The Importance of National Shame,” Globe and Mail, April 9, 2011, F9.

Baker, Nicholson. 2009. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Chambliss, William. 1999. Power, Politics, and Crime. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Problems of Knowledge and Freedom: The Russell Lectures. New York: Vintage.

Chomsky, Noam. 1994. World Orders, Old and New. London: Pluto Press.

Eglin, Peter. 2013. Intellectual Citizenship and the Problem of Incarnation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Engler, Yves. 2009. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Vancouver, BC: RED Publishing; Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Foster, John. 2009. “A pipeline through a troubled land: Afghanistan, Canada, and the New Great Energy Game.” In Lucia Kowaluk and Steven Staples, eds. Afghanistan and Canada: Is There an Alternative to War? Montreal: Black Rose.

Gordon, Todd. 2010. Imperialist Canada. Winnipeg, MB: Arbeiter Ring.

Harvey, David. 2005. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Herman, Edward S. and David Peterson. 2011. The Politics of Genocide. 2nd. ed. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Klassen, Jerome and Greg Albo, eds. 2013. Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mandel, Michael. 2004. How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity. London: Pluto Press.

Myrdal, Jan. 1968. Confessions of a Disloyal European. New York: Pantheon.

Skinner, Michael. 2013. “Canada Joining the U.S. in Exploiting Afghanistan’s Resources.” CCPA Monitor, 19(9): 1.

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