In the Midst of $2 Billion Per Week Spending on War, Babies Freezing in Kabul for Lack of Food, Fuel, Blankets
It goes on and on and on, a black Theater of the Absurd. NATO truck convoys laden with every comfort imaginable which US war contractor dollars can buy - bottled water, frozen steaks, space heaters, air conditioners, new SUVs, anything really - roll into Kabul destined for military bases, embassies, and the universe of end-delivery points which comprise a major military occupation. The "burn rate" for the occupation, the military's term for the rate of spending, is over $8 billion a month or $10 million every hour, making it the most expensive war in US history. Along the way, the convoys pass in plain view of the refugee camps where 35,000 people fight day-to-day for barest survival, internally displaced persons or IDPs who have fled the fighting around their homes in other parts of Afghanistan.
There is no way not to see the camps as you enter or leave Kabul. They announce the city limits in every direction. In Kabul there is no Taliban, unless gathering for an occasional strike just to show that it can. But in general security is good. Men gather by the tens of thousands in the city squares each morning hoping to be picked up for a day of work, for $5 a day, much like illegal workers in this country can be seen at 5am in the parking lot of a Home Depot.
And in unheated tents and mud huts, while adults shiver away another night of bad or non-existent sleep merely gathering strength for next days' scavenging and search for work, seeing their condensed breath from beneath inadequate blankets, children freeze or die from immune systems weakened by poor nutrition. In the frigid temperatures, in the teens, the children may roll out from under the blankets, and, in contact with bare dirt or mud floors, quickly have the heat drawn out of them and enter the stages of hypothermia. Since January 15, at least 23 children under 5 have died frozen to death in the camps.
The New York Times reports that:
The deaths occurred at two of the largest camps, Charahi Qambar (8 cold-related deaths), and Nasaji Bagrami (14 such deaths). Both camps are populated largely with refugees who fled the fighting in areas like Helmand Province in the south.
An alarming number of Afghans are now saying, as much as they disliked them, and thought them cruel and crazy, they were better off under the Taliban. When the Taliban was overthrown, the vast majority of Afghans rejoiced. The Taliban were few in numbers but had a simple formula or enforcing its rule: fear. If a ten dollar bill was laying on the sidewalk, you could walk past the next day and it would still be there. Because there was only one penalty if you were accused of theft: getting your hand chopped off.
The severity of this Kabul winter is unusual, the coldest in 20 years. But the utter state of unpreparedness and lack of institutional response after ten years of occupation has appalled aid workers. One German aid worker told the New York Times: “The fact that every year there’s winter shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
Of course any emergency response now will be a short-term solution. What may be even more unforgivable is that a long-term solution to the chronic misery of Afghans, who still suffer horrendous rates of malnutrition among both children and adults, is tested, available, and waiting. The World Bank reports 60% stunting among children for lack of food and one-third of all Afghan children underweight. The clear solution is continually ignored by the Obama administration, congressional committees charged with overseeing development assistance, and the American media.
It is a myth that all parts of the Afghan government are corrupt and incompetent, or that the task of helping Afghans get on their feet in a non-imperialist manner which allows ordinary Afghans to determine their own destiny is too daunting. But beyond this, it is a fact that the reason Afghans are in this predicament goes back long before the US invasion of 2001, to the days when Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski sought to give the Russians "their own Vietnam" through CIA meddling in Afghan affairs. In a nutshell, Brzezinski armed religiously conservative, rural, Islamist warlords who were long-time enemies of the modernizing Kabul government, because they represented the anti-Russian faction in a civil war.
The Russians intervened, brutally devastated the country, and got bogged down, just as Brzezinski had hoped. In a sense, rather than leave the Afghans to fight out their civil war, the US drew it out, tempted a third power into the middle of it, and now continues to inject both arms and money into an inherently unstable situation. The Pakistan-based Taliban now looks more like an interlude in the ongoing efforts of Afghans of all ethnicities and tribes to come together to settle their own affairs.
Critical to this process will be the removal of the dry tinder of civil war. This is nothing more than what has always been well-understood as a preventative for civil war: reparations or other forms of dignified assistance which put tools, materials, and technical assistance where necessary into the hands of men and women eager to rebuild their own country. Instead, the US is now in essence paying fighting-age men to do the opposite. By keeping unemployment at 40% and as high as 80% in war-ravaged regions., and at the same time continuing the flow of Department of Defense funding for the Taliban through transportation contracts, as documented by the House subcommittee report "Warlord Inc.," the Taliban is placed in the enviable position of the employer of last resort, paying the excellent wage for Afghanistan of $10 per day.
General Karl Eikenberry, former Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged in congressional testimony in 2007:
"Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families"
The best way to keep an insurgency going is to pay both sides to fight. Even more remarkably, and completely ignored by the American press, before being appointed to head the CIA by Obama, General David Petraeus quietly fired the 2-star Admiral who was appointed to head the response to the revelation of Taliban funding by the US, Admiral Kathleen Dussault, an expert auditor, and replaced her with a one-star with no experience in accounting.
In contrast, were reparations, distributed through an efficient and honest mechanism, to keep discontented men busy with the proud work of re-building the basic infrastructure of their own villages and communities, the Taliban, lacking broad appeal or ideological loyalty as the result of its past depredations, would gradually recede into irrelevance. Young Afghans want to learn computers and become famous athletes. Already Afghanistan is doing remarkable things in world cricket, basketball, wrestling, and other sports. The achievements are even more remarkable considering they arise from a largely malnourished and utterly poverty-stricken population.
After 30 years of constant fighting, there is no stock lower anywhere than war is in Afghanistan. But fight they will, if forced into it, fueled by hopelessness, idleness, and simmering anger at past injustices.
The best news of all is that such a vehicle for distributing reparations already exists as a major program within one government ministry. The World Bank calls the National Solidarity Program (NSP) "a government within a government." The NSP is a unique hybrid of a national government department with voluntary financial oversight from an external agency, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF.) The ARTF collects funds from international country donors, such as the US, and passes them down to the NSP on a project by project, milestone by milestone basis. The projects are decided on by elected village councils, which include women.
Projects are small and simple but many: clearing canals or irrigation, basic road improvement, livestock walls, schools, all employing almost all Afghans, and improving infrastructure to enable revitalization of the traditional agrarian economy. Dirt roads improved with gravel and re-grading allow farmers to get to market during rainy season. A shorter walk for clean water (3/4 of the country still lacks it) means children can attend school rather than spend days hauling it.
Alone among major development programs in Afghanistan, the NSP received a glowing report from the US Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Unfortunately, and unforgivably in a country where children are freezing to death, the NSP is chronically short of funds, by an amount which would equal about what the US spends on war costs in one week, about $2 billion. Were this amount to be diverted to the NSP (through the ARTF) for each of three years, Afghan society would soon be on a stable footing, interested in anything but more war.
The negligence of basic needs is not only immoral; it is against international law as it regards "occupying powers," which the US qualifies as after the invasion and overthrow of the Taliban. Article 55 of the 1949 Geneva Convention states:
Art. 55. To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.
The NY Times Rod Nordland reports on the dead:
¶ Abdul Hadi, son of Abdul Ghani. He was not even a year old and was already trying to stand, although his father said that during those last few days he seemed more shaky than normal.
¶ Naghma and Nazia, the twin daughters of Musa Jan. They were only 3 months old and just starting to roll over.
¶ Ismail, the son of Juma Gul. “He was never warm in his entire life,” Mr. Gul said. “Not once.” It was a short life, 30 days long.
Donations: The Lamia Afghan Foundation, an American charity started by Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, is collecting donations for baby formula, blankets, fuel and other emergency items. After a Paypal donation please type "baby formula" into the notes. The George Washington University Afghan Students Association has started a Facebook to support the drive HERE.
The Afghan National Solidarity Program
The author is co-founder of Jobs for Afghans.