March 2011 issue
In December, as the United States entered the 10th year of what President Obama called the “good war” in Afghanistan, I traveled to Kabul to take stock of the human toll of the increasingly bloody occupation.
From the moment I landed in Kabul’s airport, I noticed its distinctive smell — a unique mix of dust, smog, and burning wood. The poor air quality, I learned, is a direct result of the wars. In an attempt to quantify the damage done by air pollution, Afghan authorities recently announced that 3,000 people die every year in Kabul due to the poor air quality, making it a more effective killer of Afghans than the Taliban. War not only destroys people, but it poisons the earth itself, which leads to more deaths.
In Kabul, it’s clear that money was secured from somewhere to surround buildings on nearly every street with enormous concrete blast walls, sandbags, razor wire, and men with AK-47s — turning the city into a massive open-air prison. Someone decided that razor wire was a greater priority than paving roads, providing clean drinking water, or building a much-needed sewage system for the city. Ten years into the so-called “reconstruction” and even at a hotel that caters to internationals, electricity was spotty — going out multiple times a day, sometimes for hours at a time.
These minimal services provided by the Afghan government in the capital, in reality the only part of the country it controls, are nonexistent once you get beyond Kabul. On the U.N. Human Development Index, Afghanistan is ranked as one of the least developed countries in the world. Poverty and unemployment are endemic. One 2010 study released by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that up to 40 percent of the country’s 15 million children are involved in some paid work, many because war has left them without fathers. While most of these reluctant breadwinners are trying to sell packs of gum or Kleenex, one young boy took a clever approach, given most foreigners’ concerns about security. “I’ll be your bodyguard,” he told me jokingly, for a price, of course.
As difficult as these children’s lives are, they might still be considered the lucky ones. Afghanistan has the worst infant mortality rate in the world, and one out of every four Afghan children doesn’t live to see his or her fifth birthday.
More than 30 years of war, since the 1979 Soviet invasion, have left the country in a perpetual state of crisis. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, life expectancy in Afghanistan is only 44.6 years, the lowest in the world.
With U.S. public opposition to the war at an all-time high of 63 percent, the Obama administration is desperately trying to put forward what it claims are hopeful signs in the ongoing carnage that has been perpetuated there. After releasing a short summary of a classified review of the war in December, President Obama told the public that the U.S. is “on track to meet our goals” in Afghanistan, and that “significant progress” has been made in stopping al Qaeda.
This rosy outlook may have put some Americans at ease, but it contradicted reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross and by the United Nations — both of which concluded that the security situation had significantly worsened over the past year. Neither did Obama’s claims reflect the U.S. government’s own National Intelligence Estimates, which said that “large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Nearly every statistical “quality of life” indicator available for Afghanistan reveals that the surge in 2010 of U.S. and NATO troops into the proverbial “graveyard of empires” led to a concomitant surge of violence and death wherever their boots or bombs hit the ground.
Last year was by far the bloodiest year of the war to date. According to one tally, based primarily on official figures, in 2010 more than 10,000 people died as a result of violence in Afghanistan, including 1,292 Afghan policemen, 810 Afghan soldiers, and 711 foreign troops — nearly a third of all deaths among coalition forces since the start of the war in 2001. Moreover, for the first time in history, during the first six months of the year, more private contractors than U.S. troops lost their lives in Afghanistan.
The deaths of the Taliban or militants, most of whom are never identified by name, also are part of the human toll of the war. The majority of those identified as “militants,” one Afghan explained to me, are fighting because it is their only means of sustenance or in response to the loss of loved ones at the hands of the U.S. military, not because they subscribe to any extreme religious ideology. While the Pentagon never releases an official body count of enemy dead, Afghanistan’s interior ministry spokesperson Zemarai Bashary recently announced that 5,225 “militants” were killed by coalition or Afghan forces last year.
The U.S. has also dramatically escalated the use of pilotless drones across Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan, where the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban are believed to be based. In 2010 alone, according to the New America Foundation, there were 118 drone strikes in Pakistan, which killed up to 993 people — more than double the number of attacks in 2009. While estimates of civilian casualties vary widely, a 2009 Brookings Institution study estimated that for every militant killed, there were 10 civilian casualties as well. “I hope the drone attacks are stopped immediately,” said a woman, whose husband and 7-year-old son were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, in an interview with a human rights organization. “They are not effective against the Taliban hideouts … and innocent people are also hurt.”
As is the case in every war, innocent civilians continue to bear the brunt of violence from all sides of the conflict. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, there were 2,412 Afghan civilians killed over the first 10 months of 2010 — a 20 percent increase over the same period from the year before — and more than 3,800 others were injured.
The ongoing U.S. military offensive in the south and east of Afghanistan has also led to a surge in the number of internally displaced people. According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are now at least 319,000 internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, 120,000 of whom fled their homes between June 2009 and September 2010. Around Kabul alone there are some 30 informal settlements that an estimated 70,000 people now call home, as Dr. Rohullah Amin of Cordaid, a Catholic Dutch aid group that provides services to several of these camps, told me in his office in Kabul.
I visited Charahi Qambar, the largest of these camps for the internally displaced, on the outskirts of Kabul, and was horrified by the conditions in which the people there are forced to live. They occupy simple mud huts with only tarps for roofs. Apart from blankets and burning wood or trash in the evenings, there is nothing to keep their hovels free of the bitter cold of winter, which regularly kills the most vulnerable throughout the camp. There is inadequate access to food, clean water, education, or work. “Do you think this is a human way to live?” one Afghan man asked us in utter desperation. His anger was palpable.
Most people at this camp fled their homes in Sangin and other parts of Helmand province after the latest U.S. military offensive began. One man showed us faded black-and-white photos of his children who were killed during a U.S. bombardment. They were laid out, with their wounds exposed, before their burial. He said he had documents from doctors and foreign forces promising their help, but no assistance ever materialized. “We have no remedy,” he said. To add insult to injury, residents must look every day at the enormous U.S. military base that is being constructed on a hill overlooking the squalid camp.
He then took us deep into the camp to meet two other relatives who were injured in the same attack. After entering a mud hut, we were introduced to a beautiful 9-year-old girl, who was his niece. She was covered in dirt, as were all the children in the camp, and had scraggly hair. Pulling down her jacket, he showed us that she had lost her left arm at the shoulder the previous year because of a bombing. Everyone, by virtue of living in the camp, had similar stories of suffering and loss.
Other effects of the war are perhaps less obvious, but no less painful or destructive. Both soldiers and civilians who are fortunate enough to survive war with their lives and limbs intact often cannot avoid the psychological scars of violence. More than 2 million Americans have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan; it has been estimated that some 400,000 veterans of these wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide rates in the U.S. military have at least doubled over the last decade. After enduring decades of war and extreme poverty without respite, the situation is much worse for Afghan civilians. Last October, Dr. Suraya Dalil, Afghanistan’s acting Public Health Minister, warned that more than 60 percent of the country’s 28 million citizens are currently suffering from stress disorders or other mental health problems.
There is also a significant opportunity cost to the war that is rarely discussed. The National Priorities Project calculates that for the amount of money spent on the war to date, the U.S. could have paid for 56.5 million scholarships for American university students or provided renewable solar electricity to 100 million U.S. homes for one year, to name only a couple of the many tradeoffs. In Afghanistan, needless to say, the same money would go much further and is far more desperately needed. To give just one example, Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson has pointed out that for the cost of just 246 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan for a year, the U.S. could fully pay for higher education for the entire country.
As the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan has increased, so too has the size of the Taliban — ballooning from only 7,000 in 2006 to perhaps 40,000 today, according to a recent NATO estimate. Therefore, if Washington truly wants to undercut the appeal of the Taliban, and religious fundamentalism more generally, the quicker the troops can be withdrawn from Afghanistan the better. Afghans also need to have hope in a better future, which the U.S. can help create by redirecting some of the roughly $2 billion per week currently being squandered on prosecuting the war to providing basic necessities for the population — food, water, shelter, health, education, and jobs. As one young Afghan told me: “There is no peace without bread.”