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Perspective: Was The War In Afghanistan Worth It?

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 750 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... Thanks to Garth Godsman. ... WAS IT WORTH IT? By
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 20, 2002
      NHNE News List
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      Thanks to Garth Godsman.

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      WAS IT WORTH IT?
      By Polly Toynbee
      The Guardian
      Wednesday, November 13, 2002

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan/story/0,1284,838892,00.html

      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
      pleated gowns.

      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
      Taliban came.

      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
      in sympathy.

      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
      self-immolating damage.

      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
      liberation.

      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
      about us."

      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
      nothing.

      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
      no parents.

      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
      investment.

      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
      self-serving hypocrisy.

      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
      the rubble.

      ------------

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