Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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JANUARY 8, 2010 8:34AM

The "collateral" tragedy of Afghanistan

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 Afghan refugee family
Peshawar: Afghan refugee family in UNHCR camp
(source: afghan-web.com)

Ever since they planted their first "boots on the ground" in the fall of 2001, the US and NATO have been selling their occupation of Afghanistan on a foundation of hope ("Operation Enduring Freedom"). But the farther you get away from the conference rooms and briefing tents, the less hopeful this operation is starting to look, particularly for the civilian population. The latest UN report on security in Afghanistan, issued on December 28, 2010, states that "[t]he security situation in Afghanistan has worsened over the reporting period, with an average of 1,244 incidents per month in the third quarter of 2009. This represents a sixty-five percent increase over the incidents in 2008." The human impact of this "collateral damage" is striking and would be regarded as a catastrophe if it were to occur in any Western country. A report presented by the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a Kabul-based human rights group, on January 6 confirms the country's spiral into even greater misery. According to ARM, 2009 represents the worst year for civilians and particularly for children since the start of the occupation.

Enduring misery

Since its inception, the latest Afghan war has killed a rock-bottom minimum of 8,000 civilians and may even top 27,000. Overall, Afghan civilian deaths rose by ten percent in the first ten months of 2009, from 1,838 during the same period one year earlier to 2,038. Between August and October 2009 alone, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 784 conflict-related civilian casualties  - a twelve percent increase compared to the same period in 2008. In 2009, the war directly took the lives of at least 1,050 Afghan children, who were killed in roadside blasts, suicide attacks, bombing raids, missile strikes, and in the crossfire between Taliban, rebel, government, and foreign forces. This averages out to almost three children a day.  But these mortality figures tell only part of the story.  In 2009 ARM also recorded 2,080 cases of grave child rights violations, including the recruitment of children as suicide bombers and foot soldiers, outright murder, child rape, and forced labor.

Brother and sister
Brother and sister
(source: afghan-web.com)

The war itself impacts civilians in ways that are impossible to quantify and that rarely find their way into the Western media. This includes the denial of essential services by warring parties and criminal groups and also armed attacks on schools, hospitals, and other facilities, which affect women and children more - and longer - than any other segment of society. According to the UN report, "The limited ability of the Government to deliver basic services to the people was further affected by the upsurge in violence and the expansion of the insurgency, widening the gap between the Government and its people." But with or without violence, the Afghan government has shown little interest in responding to basic human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, "[o]ne woman who was gang raped by a well connected local commander found that after a long fight to bring her rapists to justice, they were freed by a presidential decree."

Social chaos is exacerbated by domestic instability. Around two and a half million Afghan refugees are still living in camps located in Pakistan in Iran. Last year, just over 50,000 of them returned home, the lowest number in several years. Moreover, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR) announced at the start of this week that the number of internally displaced persons in Afghanistan is significantly higher than previously estimated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) :  413,890 persons instead of 275,000. While the higher figure is certainly down from the one million who were displaced by war and ethnic conflicts in 2002, sustainable progress in glueing the country back together again remains elusive.

Laughing girls
Laughing girls
(source: afghan-web.com)

A war for women?

Supporters of the Afghan occupation consistently refer to the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban and the vast improvements they have enjoyed under the Western-sponsored Karzai government as a justification for continuing and deepening the occupation. It's the occupation's number one selling point in America and Europe. After all, what's not to love about a war focused on freeing Muslim women from full-body burkas, ignorance, patriarchy, and passivity? The Taliban are rightly blamed for oppressing women during their reign of terror between 1996 and 2001. However, despite the introduction of progressive legislation and a number of success stories widely reported in the Western media, the overall situation of Afghan women has changed little under the Karzai government and may even be deteriorating as fundamentalism spreads and the Karzai seeks accommodation with Taliban leaders.

In December Human Rights Watch stated that "women's rights have not been a consistent priority of the government or its international backers." The report goes on to say that "[e]ight years after the Taliban were ousted from power, rapists are often protected from prosecution, women can still be arrested for running away from home, and girls have far less access to schools than boys." According to one heartbreaking statistic, half of all marriages are concluded with girls younger than sixteen years of age.

United Nations reports show that one Afghan woman dies during childbirth every thirty minutes,  eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate, only thirty percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan and only four percent make it to grades ten through twelve, one in every three Afghan women experiences physical, psychological or sexual violence, the average life expectancy of Afghan women is a mere forty-four years , and seventy to eighty percent of Afghan women are forced into marriages. In the words of Human Rights Watch, "studies suggest that more than half the women and girls in detention are being held for 'moral crimes,' such as adultery or running away from home, despite the fact that running away from home is not a crime in Afghan law or Sharia. But whether it is a high-profile woman under threat, a young woman who wants to escape a child marriage, or a victim of rape who wants to see the perpetrator punished, the response from the police or courts is often hostile." Without a downright heroic political will to transform gender relations across Afghanistan in the face of centuries of tradition, a chaotic present, and an uncertain future, "enduring freedom" for Afghan women is unlikely in this  generation - or even in this century.

Veiled woman
Veiled woman
(source: afghan-web.com)

Bombing Afghanistan out of the stone age

The intransigence of Afghan society is problematic enough, but repeated NATO bombings and missile strikes on civilian targets have outraged Afghans of all political persuasions and are systematically undermining the US and NATO mission. The infamous Kunar incident of December 26, 2009, which media outlets are increasingly calling "the Afghan My Lai Massacre," has increased tensions even further and may even mark a turning point in US-Afghan relations.  According to President Hamid Karzai's official website, "a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan village in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar and took ten people from three homes, eight of them school students in grades six, nine and ten, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead." Coming one day after the Detroit "Chrismas bombing," which killed no one, the Kunar incident has attracted little media attention in the US.

The United States military has yet to investigate the case, but ordinary Afghans are displaying a remarkable lack of interest in the operational details, focusing instead on the cruel results. On December 30 several hundred students demonstrated in Kabul, burning Barack Obama in effigy along with the US flag and shouting "Unity, unity, death to the enemy of Islam!," which for them include Presidents Obama and Karzai. The youth chapter of Jamiat Eslah (Afghan Society for Social Reform and Development)  issued a statement saying: "On behalf of the young generation of our country, we strongly condemn the recent killing of our innocent compatriots by US and NATO troops in the provinces of Kunar, Laghman, Baghlan and everywhere else. We condemn such operations by whatever name carried out, either it is called peacekeeping or enduring freedom, and want an end to cruelly massacring of our people." (For more on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, see Juan Cole's recent Salon.com article.)

 Amputee in Kabul 
Amputee in Kabul
(source: afghan-web.com)

To be fair to US and NATO forces, the egregious suffering of the Afghan population is not due solely to Western actions. According to the UN, sixty-eight percent of civilian casualties are due to Taliban attacks. Nor is a peaceful resolution to the decades-old conflict in sight. Even so, considering that the foreign occupation is evidently feeding the insurgency and spawning new enemies every day, it is hard to see how a "surge" of 37,000 additional American and European troops at the cost of around $1 million per soldier per year is going to do a whole lot of good for the lives of ordinary people - assuming anyone ever cared about them to begin with.

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