America's great game: John Pilger on how Washington has orchestrated war in Afghanistan

The US and Britain claim defeating the Taliban is part of a "good war" against al-Qaeda. 

"To me, I confess, [countries] are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for dominion of the world."

Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, speaking about Afghanistan, 1898

I had suggested to Marina that we meet in the safety of the Intercontinental Hotel, where foreigners stay in Kabul, but she said no. She had been there once and government agents, suspecting she was Rawa, had arrested her. We met instead at a safe house, reached through contours of bombed rubble that was once streets, where people live like earthquake victims awaiting rescue.

Rawa is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which since 1977 has alerted the world to the suffering of women and girls in that country. There is no organisation on earth like it. It is the high bar of feminism, home of the bravest of the brave. Year after year, Rawa agents have travelled secretly through Afghanistan, teaching at clandestine girls' schools, ministering to isolated and brutalised women, recording outrages on cameras concealed beneath their burqas. They were the Taliban regime's implacable foes when the word Taliban was barely heard in the west: when the Clinton administration was secretly courting the mullahs so that the oil company Unocal could build a pipeline across Afghanistan from the Caspian.

Indeed, Rawa's understanding of the designs and hypocrisy of western governments informs a truth about Afghanistan excluded from news, now reduced to a drama of British squaddies besieged by a demonic enemy in a "good war".

When we met, Marina was veiled to conceal her identity. Marina is her nom de guerre. She said: "We, the women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following 11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not unique, and we have resented the silence in the west over the atrocious nature of the western-backed warlords, who are no different. They rape and kidnap and terrorise, yet they hold seats in [Hamid] Karzai's government. In some ways, we were more secure under the Taliban. You could cross Afghan istan by road and feel secure. Now, you take your life into your hands."

The reason the United States gave for invading Afghanistan in October 2001 was "to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11". The women of Rawa say this is false. In a rare statement on 4 December that went unreported in Britain, they said: "By experience, [we have found] that the US does not want to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because then they will have no excuse to stay in Afghanistan and work towards the realisation of their econo mic, political and strategic interests in the region."

The truth about the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban's links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghan istan to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed by the CIA to fight America's proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahe din had been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the "jihadi card" could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were admired for their "discipline". Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "[the Taliban] are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history".

The "moment in history" was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal. However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the "stability" required of such an important client. It was the consistency of this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support, regardless of the Taliban's aversion to human rights. (Asked about this, a state department briefer had predicted that "the Taliban will develop like the Saudis did", with a pro-American economy, no democracy and "lots of sharia law", which meant the legalised persecution of women. "We can live with that," he said.)

By early 2001, convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan's two Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans. Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister, Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it had been decided to dispense with the Taliban "under a carpet of bombs".

Acclaimed as the first "victory" in the "war on terror", the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 and its ripple effect caused the deaths of thousands of civilians who, even more than Iraqis, remain invisible to western eyes. The family of Gulam Rasul is typical. It was 7.45am on 21 October. The headmaster of a school in the town of Khair Khana, Rasul had just finished eating breakfast with his family and had walked outside to chat to a neighbour. Inside the house were his wife, Shiekra, his four sons, aged three to ten, his brother and his wife, his sister and her husband. He looked up to see an aircraft weaving in the sky, then his house exploded in a fireball behind him. Nine people died in this attack by a US F-16 dropping a 500lb bomb. The only survivor was his nine-year-old son, Ahmad Bilal.

"Most of the people killed in this war are not Taliban; they are innocents," Gulam Rasul told me. "Was the killing of my family a mistake? No, it was not. They fly their planes and look down on us, the mere Afghan people, who have no planes, and they bomb us for our birthright, and with all contempt."

There was the wedding party in the village of Niazi Qala, 100km south of Kabul, to celebrate the marriage of the son of a respected farmer. By all accounts it was a wonderfully boisterous affair, with music and singing. The roar of aircraft started when everyone was asleep, at about three in the morning. According to a United Nations report, the bombing lasted two hours and killed 52 people: 17 men, ten women and 25 children, many of whom were found blown to bits where they had desperately sought refuge, in a dried-up pond. Such slaughter is not uncommon, and these days the dead are described as "Taliban"; or, if they are children, they are said to be "partly to blame for being at a site used by militants" - according to the BBC, speaking to a US military spokesman.

 

Return of opium

 

The British military have played an important part in this violence, having stepped up high- altitude bombing by up to 30 per cent since they took over command of Nato forces in Afghan istan in May 2006. This translated to more than 6,200 Afghan deaths last year. In December, a contrived news event was the "fall" of a "Taliban stronghold", Musa Qala, in southern Afghan istan. Puppet government forces were allowed to "liberate" rubble left by American B-52s.

What justifies this? Various fables have been spun - "building democracy" is one. "The war on drugs" is the most perverse. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they had one striking success. They brought to an abrupt end a historic ban on opium production that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described the ban to me as "a modern miracle". The miracle was quickly rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai "democracy", the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the country's entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32 provinces instantly went under cultivation. Today, 90 per cent of world trade in opium originates in Afghan istan. In 2005, a British government report estima ted that 35,000 children in this country were using heroin. While the British taxpayer pays for a £1bn military super-base in Helmand Province and the second-biggest British embassy in the world, in Kabul, peanuts are spent on drug rehabilitation at home.

Tony Blair once said memorably: "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment. We will not walk away . . . [We will offer] some way out of the poverty that is your miserable existence." I thought about this as I watched children play in a destroyed cinema. They were illiterate and so could not read the poster warning that unexploded cluster bombs lay in the debris.

"After five years of engagement," reported James Fergusson in the Independent on 16 December, "the [UK] Department for International Development had spent just £390m on Afghan projects." Unusually, Fergusson has had meetings with Taliban who are fighting the British. "They remained charming and courteous throughout," he wrote of one visit in February. "This is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy can rely on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that malmastia affords is unique."

This "opportunity for dialogue" is a far cry from the surrender-or-else offers made by the government of Gordon Brown. What Brown and his Foreign Office advisers wilfully fail to understand is that the tactical victory in Afghan istan in 2001, achieved with bombs, has become a strategic disaster in south Asia.

Exacerbated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the current turmoil in Pakistan has its contemporary roots in a Washington-contrived war in neighbouring Afghanistan that has alienated the Pashtuns who inhabit much of the long border area between the two countries. This is also true of most Pakistanis, who, according to opinion polls, want their government to negotiate a regional peace, rather than play a prescribed part in a rerun of Lord Curzon's Great Game.

www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.