Perspective: Was The War In Afghanistan Worth It?
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WAS IT WORTH IT?
By Polly Toynbee
Wednesday, November 13, 2002
Polly Toynbee was one of the most robust liberal supporters of the war on
Afghanistan. Does she still think we did the right thing? One year after the
fall of Kabul, we sent her there to find out.
So was it worth it after all? The daisy-cutters and the cluster bombs, the
misguided missiles butchering wedding parties while al-Qaida slipped away?
Now, a year after Kabul fell as the Taliban left their hot dinners on the
front line and ran, was it worth the killing of anything from 800 to 3,000
men, women and children?
Of course it was, said everyone I asked. They all had their grotesque
Taliban tales. "Right there, bodies hanging, rotting, stinking!" said a
trader in Chicken Street, the tourist trinket centre. Taliban horror stories
poured out of everyone, unstoppable like water from a broken tap: "I was
walking with my cousin and her husband outside here," said another man. "The
vice and virtue police beat them both with big sticks, beat them to pieces,
blood everywhere, because her ankles showed too much under her burka. I
stood there, ashamed, but there was nothing I could do. I didn't go out
after that." He was a young Pashtun and no friend of this new mainly Tajik
government, but he had no doubt that the Americans did the right thing.
An old carpet-maker in a village out west was standing in his backyard
beside the loom where his daughter was click-clacking at the warp and woof.
Was it worth it, I asked? He pointed up at the sky: "We shouted with joy
when the American planes came over this way. They hit a Taliban police
barracks down the road. Boom! It was a big ammunition dump, we knew that.
But we were amazed at how precise it was. Yes, we cheered!"
Not surprising, perhaps, as this is Hazara territory, the downtrodden,
spat-upon tribe that makes up 20% of the population. But what of the bombs
that missed, the innocent dead, among them Hazaras too? Hussain Dad spread
his arms wide: "How many more do you think the Taliban would have killed in
this last year? Thousands! And they would still be killing now. I hardly
went out then. If you saw a Talib coming down the street, you hid your face,
you looked away. If you looked at them, they said, 'Who are you looking at?'
and they beat you for nothing."
His daughter Hakima is 21 and was locked indoors for many of the Taliban
years, but now she is back at a newly opened school down the road. Her
classroom is a tent in a dusty yard where she sits in her white headscarf,
towering above the young children: "I don't mind sitting with the little
ones. I need to learn," she said.
Everywhere the avid appetite for education is so intense that schools with
classes of 48 teach reading and writing in a year. In the school for street
children that I visited, where each child did a three-hour shift each day
between street work picking up paper or selling water, they sat on benches,
repeating by rote off the blackboard. All ages are eager to make up for lost
time; most boys' schools also had to close under the Taliban because their
women teachers were forbidden.
There must be people who think the American-led conquest was wrong, but no
one will say so. Even Pashtuns you meet from the Taliban's own tribe - the
big losers under the new regime - say the outside world had a duty to rescue
them from the Taliban horror. But perhaps some lie. Perhaps you are looking
right into the eye of a shaved Talib, one of the multitude who just melted
away into the shadows, waiting and watching for their time to come again.
Which it might, if the world again loses interest here.
As for the outside world, the first question westerners ask is: have the
women taken off their burkas? The burka was the battle flag of last year's
brief war. For the Taliban, a wisp of woman's hair or an uncovered female
foot represented an obscenity leading not just to adultery, pornography and
the destruction of family, but to the fall of Islam itself. For the west,
the burka was the easy symbol of Taliban oppression, a shorthand moral
justification for liberating Afghanistan, with girls' schools shut, women
forbidden to work, sent home and locked indoors: there was even a Taliban
edict forbidding women's shoes from making a noise on the ground. Shrouded
in pale blue prisons with tiny grilles restricting their vision, even women
who in communist times wore mini skirts were buried alive in these stifling
So did things get better for them in this last year? Nine out of 10 women
still wear burkas: those who ripped them off to swap them for headscarves
are few. The burka's ghostly outline still turns women into subhuman
objects, non-persons. Now they walk alone in the streets without the need
for a male relative, but often they stay together in small flotillas, and
it's easy to see why. Drivers seem to charge at them as they cross the
streets. They are jostled aside on pavements as men seem irritated by these
faceless, depersonalised obstacles in their path. Travelling in cars full of
men, women in burkas often peer out of the back window from the cramped
space of hatchback car boots. Poor women begging are chased out of the way
by angry shopkeepers.
The pathological loathing of women by the Taliban didn't spring from
nowhere, nor has it evaporated overnight. This is an apartheid society, a
bifurcated human race where one half has been systematically excised:
mothers, wives, daughters are only empty vessels, the regrettable and
disgusting physical function through which men must deign to be born. Men
are everything to one another here and their warm and public emotion can be
a touching sight. They hug, kiss, embrace, weep together, delighting in each
other's company, laughing and probably making love quite a lot too. (Battles
between warlords have been fought recently over beautiful boys, often
involving kidnap and male rape.) British public-school bonding with the
Afghan men of the mountains continues to this day. On my way out I picked up
the latest award-winning Afghan travel book, and it was full of the same
weird British romance for rugged men in rugged mountains. The only mention
of women was a passing reference to the doe-eyed houris promised in heaven
by the Prophet to every jihad martyr.
At the Woman to Woman centre, 20 women of all ages were sitting on the
floor, all them with burkas left hanging on pegs by the door. Despite the
absence of outward change, were things getting better for them now that the
Taliban had gone? There was a spontanteous chorus of cries, hands raised in
the air, laughter, sighing, exclamations - my translator could not keep up
with their energetic assertions that life had changed beyond recognition.
This relative liberation - freedom to walk outside for many who had never
left their one room in years - was hard to imagine. "I never saw the light
of day in five years!" one widow said.
So why did they still wear burkas? A gnarled and toothless old woman from
the countryside (who might be no more than 50 - already beyond the average
life expectancy here) said she had worn hers since she was seven and she
could not imagine the nakedness of going without it. But she thought the
younger women soon would and should shed it. These women were the poorest,
many of them homeless, uprooted by war, or among the country's two million
war widows. "We wear the burka because we are still afraid," several said.
It is too dangerous; and besides, the psychological effect of five years of
terror is not easily erased at a stroke. How many thought they would take
them off some time soon? Eight of the 20 raised their hands, mostly the
younger ones, though only five said they had ever worn a burka before the
However symbolic they seem, the truth is that the burka is the very least of
their problems, mere outward garments, easily discarded. The inner scars of
the way women are treated here in this darkly savage place will be harder to
erase. As the women talked of their lives, terrible stories tumbled out.
Though none of them knew each other already, they wept when they listened to
one another. Fahina, a woman in her 30s, wearing a thin black veil and
swaying back and forth a little as she spoke, began to tell how she was
beaten daily by her husband, a drug addict who had sold everything in the
house. So why did this woman not leave a dangerous drug-addict husband who
drained her money away? Because, she explained, she would have to leave her
12-year-old daughter behind with him. By now several other women were crying
At the start of this session, many had proclaimed that women should have
absolutely equal rights with men, so I asked the translator if they thought
it right and fair that this abusive father should keep the child. The
translator looked at me nervously and whispered, "I don't think I can ask
that." "Why not?" "Because it is our Islamic law, in the Koran, that after
the age of nine a daughter belongs to the father." "But ask them if it is
fair in this extreme case?" Quietly the translator asked them, and they fell
silent and gazed down at the carpet. No one spoke until Fahina, the battered
wife, said softly, "It is the law", with tears falling down her face.
Once the shutter of religion falls, the rest is silence. The women are
indoctrinated so deep with it that their own inferiority is branded on their
brains. Every time sophisticated Muslims in the west use sophistry to
explain that the prophet was actually a great liberator of women, every time
they fail to condemn outright some of the Koranic laws themselves and demand
reformation, they help condemn women across the Islamic world to this
It was time to go, and the women pulled on their burkas and walked out into
the street. Under the flapping blue pleats many younger women now wear high
heels: as one clacked away down the street, I considered this strange
cultural juxtaposition. The west hobbles its women with toe-crushing shoes,
Islam with burkas and chadors. But right now in this benighted place, those
high heels under the burka look like the first defiant glimmer of
Hamid Karzai's minister of women's affairs is Mahuba Hoququmal, professor of
law at Kabul University, which was closed down in Taliban times when she too
was sent home in a burka before fleeing abroad like virtually all other
educated people. A distinguished woman in her 60s, she was dressed in a
gossamer beige scarf and seated in her large but empty office, offering
rose-flavoured tea. She was surprisingly blunt: "We are in a very dangerous
position at this moment. After the loya jirga insisted on changing the name
of the country to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the fundamentalists
are fighting to have Sharia law here. We need progressive civil law."
That very day, the new Constitutional Commission had just been formally
opened by the Aga Khan, and a mighty battle is now beginning over the heart
and soul of the country: a bill of human rights or an Islamic Sharia
constitution? Yet again, the future of the country is to be fought out
symbolically over women's bodies. "The test of the new constituion will be
whether women have absolute equality enshrined in it."
Did Hoququmal think that she and her fellow campaigners would win? She
shrugged and spread out her hands: "Only if the west stays here and keeps
the fundamentalists down. If you leave us, they will rise up again and take
control. Already the security situation is very dangerous, Kabul does not
yet rule the country and there are not enough international troops, none
outside Kabul. If the Americans attack Iraq, then I fear you will all forget
Only weeks ago Afghanistan was a whisker away from plunging back into chaos
after a bullet whistled past President Karzai. Violence breaks out often -
last week two newly opened girls' schools were bombed and two musicians at a
wedding party were beaten by anti-music Islamic fundamentalists. If they get
Karzai, there is no plan B, no understudy learning his lines. One senior
British official told me: "If they get him, pack fast."
Two government ministers have been shot dead in the last few months, one
probably at the instigation of defence minister Field Marshal Fahim, a
thuggish warlord with 10,000 men of his own. But he wears a suit now and
sits behind his desk talking the talk of the new multi-ethnic Afghan
national army that will soon be in place to keep the peace across the land.
The Brits will tell you with a straight face what a good chap he has become
and how fast he is learning the new skills of politics under western
tutelage. In theory he will soon be running an indigenous, multi-ethnic
army, yet the new recruits trained by various western nations have no
uniforms, guns or pay.
Everything here is rumour, assertion, malicious factoid or wishful romance.
On the one hand, British and American officials will tell fables of such
staggeringly unreal optimism that you wonder their eyes don't pop out and
roll away. On the other, there are doom merchants of every variety and
faction who will tell you that the place is cursed to perpetual anarchy and
mayhem - nothing can save it now or ever. Some have a deep, dark interest in
undermining all efforts at reconstruction, spreading the Nothing Works
anti-western message for their own nefarious political ends. Others are
trying hard to make it work, but are exhausted and close to despair, with
shamefully little money.
The truth is that every day that civil war does not resume is a minor
miracle. Every day of peace builds more trust in the future. There are
plenty of green shoots of hope, just as there are plenty of intimations of
doom. With each passing week, new stalls and bazaars spring up along the
roadsides up and down the country. In the rubble that is 70% of Kabul,
people are starting to rebuild, making mud bricks with their bare hands,
having given up on early hopes that reconstruction would be done for them.
Even in the most desolate, bombed-out places, life is returning to normal as
refugees flood back.
High up in Estalif, a village to the north of Kabul that looked utterly
destroyed, a family were growing tomatoes in the ruins of their home, while
camping outside for the winter with a family next door who had only two
rooms. They would rebuild in the spring, but were desperate for help: "Do
not abandon us now!" the father begged - a refrain that you hear everywhere.
Some distance north, on the Shamali plain at the crossroads of Qarabak, some
hundred stalls have sprung up in the last month. This tragic place was once
the golden bread basket of the country, rich with vines, tomatoes, almond
trees and orchards. In one battle, the retreating Taliban razed and scorched
the land for a hundred miles in every direction, chopping down fruit trees,
burning vines, poisoning thousands of wells and smashing the ancient
underground irrigation system. Here ACTED, a French charity financed by
Clare Short, is giving returning refugees basic shelter kits to build new
houses - beams, windows, doors. An agricutural cooperative lets people
borrow seed, fertilizers and tractors. Women are being given chickens,
vegetable seeds and implements.
But here, as everywhere else, the scheme is swamped by the sheer scale of
need. Last week the weather turned suddenly cooler, the first sign of a
winter fast approaching. There are only a couple of weeks left in which
shelters can be built and the money for more has run out. Twenty thousand
shelter kits have been provided, but 40,000 families here have nothing but
tents to survive the bitter winter snow.
The same story is reported everywhere, as 1.5 million refugees have poured
back to ruin and desolation. Standing outside a tent in the pouring rain, I
talked to two women cowering inside. They were unable to step out while
strange men were near, so they called out answers to my questions to their
brother who stood outside, a scarf hiding the half of his face that had been
blasted away in the fighting. It was a laborious process: he called out
their responses to my (male) translator, who stood far away, relaying the
translation back to me. Since their responses were short and his were long,
I doubted that I was hearing much from the women themselves. Men here have a
habit of simply not listening to women, as if their voices were in some
inaudible dog-whistle register. But what the young man with the blown-away
face said was this: "This is what we have returned to! We were promised by
the world that if we fought the Russians for you, you would look after us,
but you didn't. Then we fought the Taliban and al-Qaida, and now look at us,
here on this hillside in the mud, the winter coming and our children will
die of cold. Where is your help now?"
Wherever you go, they say the same. Thanks for coming, the war was worth it,
but now it is payback time. Lifting the iron heel of the Taliban was not
enough. In Tokyo, the rich world agreed to stump up only a paltry $4.5bn for
Afghanistan over five years. It is a mere $75 a head per year, while world
aid to Rwanda, East Timor and Bosnia was $250 a head. Why so little? And why
has even this been paid out painfully slowly when the need is urgent?
The Karzai government last week fixed its budget for next year: it is just
$460m, less than that of most English local authorities. $1.2bn has been
spent already, most of it on emergency food, not reconstruction. "One of the
most miserable states in the world," the World Bank rightly called
Afghanistan. It is the fourth poorest place on earth: 95% are illiterate,
and 95% have never seen a doctor or nurse in their lives.
It was never much better: under the old king before 1978, Afghanistan was
still the fifth poorest country in the world. In the 23 years since then,
this blighted nation has passed through all the circles of hell known to
political organisation. Starting with a brutal feudalism under an absolute
and arbitrary monarch, it subsequently saw savage communism, followed by
total anarchy among massacring warlords and finally the Taliban's grotesque
religious fascism. Anything that passes for the beginnings of democracy here
will be a remarkable achievement.
Imagine Afghanistan today as something like England under a weak King John,
with the recent loya jirga much like the warlords at Runnymede writing the
Magna Carta: a start, but hardly Athens in the golden age. Afghan barons
rule their feudal fiefdoms and fighting still breaks out between them in
small turf dust-ups, such as that between Dostum and Atta in the North.
Ismail Khan, lord of the west, controls the country's only rich pickings on
the Iranian border, ruling with absolute disregard of Kabul, remitting none
of his fat border extortions to the central gov ernment. In the south, the
angry, excluded Pashtun majority festers and fumes dangerously, lobbing the
occasional bomb at the US army, which pokes and prods the populace
insensitively, still failing to find al-Qaida.
Nothing can save this place but long-standing military presence by ISAF, the
international force currently headed by the Turks. If the west looks away,
the surrounding tyrannous countries will be back to their old tricks, arming
warlords to fight their own rivalries by proxy. The US, seemingly having
learned nothing from past experience, has this year again armed some of the
worst warlords, who pretended to search for al-Qaida operatives yet yielded
And yet in a country holding its breath, with every day of peace, Kabul's
influence grows a little stronger. War zones attract an astounding whirl of
people. Kabul is awash with seasoned professionals, hopeful carpet-baggers,
long-exiled, educated Afghans wanting to help or to cash in, or a bit of
both. Old NGO hands greet each other, recalling great times in East Timor,
Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo. "Last met in Mogadishu! How's Mad Jack, ha ha?" An
Australian doctor with a magic box of dressing-up clothes and masks takes it
out to traumatised children in war zones to help them act out their
feelings: he hasn't missed a war in years.
Things here are often not what they seem. At a party of Afghan returners in
an old Soviet-era concrete flat one night, a man in full Afghan rig was
playing the rebob - a kind of Afghan sitar. Was he a musician returning
after the Taliban music ban? No, he was Dr John Baily, reader in
ethnomusicology from Goldsmiths College. One woman was keen to set up a new
charity for sufferers of type 2 diabetes: I suggested she look at the
children's hospital first. There had been no electricity there for two days
when I visited: the two generators sent from Japan were unusable without
money for the oil to run them. The only rusty oxygen flask had run out and
minute babies newborn to malnourished mothers were turning grey and dying
before my eyes. A boy with both hands and one foot blasted away by a
landmine was lying groaning on a sheetless mattress with no pain relief and
The western presence brings its own trials and tribulations. Kabul property
prices have shot through the roof. The 30% of the town left standing is
jammed with UN agencies and non-governmental organisations - scores from
each western nation, 1,025 in all. Between them they have seized every
habitable house, sending rents that were $150 a month not long ago up to
$2,000 a month now. This has brought many middle-class Afghans pouring home
to repossess their now extortionately valuable properties, but poorer ones
have no hope of finding affordable homes here. There is, anyway, precious
little electricity, clean water, sewerage, telephones or anything else.
Seething resentment of the UN and the NGOs bursts out everywhere, with the
usual unavoidable ugly spectacle of highly paid western aid experts rubbing
up against Karzai cabinet ministers who earn only $35 a month. "They expect
Pringles wherever they go," said one Afghan aid worker acidly of the
itinerant aid community.
When I spoke to the Afghan minister for public works, he flailed his long
arms in the air, expostulating with frustration, claiming that the UN and
NGOs spend all the country's donated money, and spend it badly. "Stand
outside my window and you'll see 200 white Land Cruisers pass by in an hour,
I swear it! Our money, they spend! How can I build my roads?"
Another minister - for housing and planning - lists outrageous extravagances
by foreign agencies, but in the same breath despairs of his own barely
literate civil servants' ability to deliver anything. He says he sent them
on a four-month "capacity building" course, but they came back no better.
The civil service is choked with over 300,000 cronies of all the past
regimes, all unsackable. The Karzai government needs to earn credibility
fast with some reconstruction that everyone can see. The UN says it has
vaccinated 6 million Afghan children against polio, but that is an invisible
Fewer by the day now are the buccaneering freelance journalists and
photographers. They are grumbling that the story has gone cold here: work is
drying up. Fox News has already pulled out and the other US networks are off
soon, itching to move on to Iraq. "Next year in Baghdad!" the journos and
the old NGO hands call out cheerily when anyone leaves.
Has the Afghan story gone cold? I am not sure whether to hope or fear it.
One one hand, the story going cold would mean an absence of war: no more
footage of fighting men in pancake hats perched up in the mountains firing
off Stingers into what's left of Kabul. No more bleeding Afghan children and
women screaming into their burkas.
But the story growing cold may also mean that the world forgets and walks
away bored, looking for the next hot new war. If the west turns its back now
and lets the country slide back into tribal warfare and despair, there will
be no moral justification for any future great interventions in the name of
human rights. History will write this episode down as no more than a brief,
self-interested expedition to eliminate al-Qaida training camps, another
bunch of outsiders fighting their own battles on Afghan soil. Forget Tony
Blair's impassioned vision of a western world committed to spreading freedom
across the globe. There may be no more stony and infertile ground than this
for planting democratic ideals, but if Afghanistan remains a miserably poor
and oppressed place, then all that high-minded talk will be exposed as
Much moral rhetoric accompanied this expedition: I was among those who
welcomed the cluster bombs in the name of peace and freedom. And so far,
removing the Taliban has been a great good. Who would not be moved by the
sheer enthusiasm of those girls returning to school, determined to catch up
on their studies? I saw the utter terror of the women who stayed indoors for
years rather than risk random beatings, and their joy at escape.
Chasing away the Taliban has shown that ordinary people, given half a
chance, choose music, dancing and kites over the extremes of life-denying
fundamentalism. Just as the rich world has a duty to feed the starving, open
up trade and help development, so we also have a duty to free people from
monstrous oppression wherever there is a chance of doing them more good than
harm by intervention. So far, here, there is no doubt that good has been
done. But the prospect of lasting peace and respect for human rights in this
desperate place hangs by a hair. All the old dark fundamentalist forces are
waiting for Karzai to fail: only more money and deep commitment over many
years offer any hope of keeping them at bay.
Afghanistan needs far more money than the Karzai's disgraceful $460m for
next year (roughly the same sum as the British treasury has wasted on
drawing up contracts for the London tube public/private partnership.) It is
incumbent on all those of us who supported the war to keep the world's brief
and fickle attention focused on the task of trying to build a nation from
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