The fact missing from the remarkably shallow reporting on the deadly riots which killed 8 UN workers after a preacher's burning of a Quran in Florida is that the riots which ensued are the explosion of long-pent up frustrations and economic misery. The crowds of men who marched and were then infiltrated with insurgents who incited killing UN staff may be made up of the same desperate men, with too much time and too little work, who gather by the thousands in the city's squares hoping to land a day of work at $5 a day.
Afghans are remarkably practical people, not ordinarily given to ideological extremism which has been forced on them in the past. But with the dignity of work denied, unemployment at 50% and as high as 80% in some provinces, with their children literally starving and picking through trash for food after nine years of occupation, and now an upsurge in reported atrocities and deliberate murder of civilians, no one should be surprised that when the last shred of identity is desecrated, the the tinder sparks.
In a fact-finding trip to Kabul in 2009, my colleague and I filmed and interviewed men at the squares where they gathered hoping for day labor. At times the atmosphere got tense. "You guys always come and take our pictures and promise jobs but nothing ever happens!" was one rare moment when we thought we were in for a beating. When you haven't had a day's work in two weeks, haven't eaten in two days, and your kids are hungry, you too might be on a short fuse, maybe a little crazy.
Since then, the occupation has gone on two more years, and many more instances of brutish behavior against civilians, which every Afghan knows about, have taken place. These include the recently released "trophy" photos, the killing of nine boys gathering firewood by an American attack helicopter whose crew could not have mistaken their identity given the range and the gunship's superior optics, and the finger-cutting psycho soldiers who killed civilians for sport.
After the US has spent 40 times Afghanistan's yearly GNP on military operations, with a relative trickle of mostly misdirected civilian assistance, the UN estimates nearly 40% of Afghan children are clinically malnourished, along with 35% of the general population, and malnutrition wards hold children with their ribcages showing across the country.
To make matters worse, Afghans see the shiny SUVs favored by the foreign NGOs and know that the cost of one would feed an entire village for a year. They see the gaudily-colored "narco-mansions" which result from the US choice to work through drug lords and warlords to insure "security." The problem is not that help cannot be delivered to rebuild the country's still non-existent water, sewer and powerline infrastructure, in the form of tools, technical assistance, and wages. The problem is a deliberate choice has been made to spend reconstruction dollars on showcase projects which make foreign contractors rich.
Nothing forgives the killing of the UN workers, and it should not be forgotten that many Afghan also died in the violence. But no one should be surprised. Take away everything from a man, let him watch his children pick through trash or beg for food he cannot buy, add in that the insurgency can afford to pay fighters $10 a day, a dream wage here, and you have created the elements of the "perfect storm." The utter futility of military operations is now borne out by the revelation that much of the Taliban's financing comes from protection payments being made to insurgents by Pentagon contractors, with the Pentagon's full knowledge, to allow military supply convoys to cross the countryside.
It need not have been the Quran burning which touched it off. It could have been anything. The deadly riots are the symptom, not the disease.
How to fulfill the promise of a leg-up in building their country, which so many Afghans looked forward to after the widely-approved overthrow of the Taliban? First, start getting troops out. Afghanistan is a country not kind to visitors who have crossed the line into being viewed as exploitative invaders. What is remarkable is that, up until 2006, the country was relatively peaceful and even hospitable to those who had freed them from the Pakistan-based cadres trained and financed by the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, which is to say, partly financed by the CIA. It was part of the "Great Game," in which both Washington and Islamabad moved pieces on the board, including the financing of the mujihadeen who fought with Al Qaeda.
The presence of US forces and the never-ending stream of atrocities and civilian casualties has turned into a recruiting tool for the insurgency for young men who, have no job, no prospects, and no hope for the future. The tragedy is most Afghans still despise the Taliban, and see themselves as caught between two evils.
Next, focus on indigenous, Afghan-led non-governmental organizations, not associated with the Karzai government, which have the support of communities and hire Afghans to do the work of clearing bombed-out canals, irrigation systems, improve the dirt roads, and build sanitation in a country where 2/3 of people still do not have access to clean water, a major cause of one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and the highest maternal mortality rate. Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have a baby. This could be paid for by diverting just 10% of what the US spends on military operations, an astounding $100 billion per year, in to targeted assistance. The money saved from this counterproductive war is money for our own economy.
Malalai Joya, the former member of the Afghan Parliament who was ejected when she called many of her colleagues "criminals" estimates: "20 million people out of the roughly 30 million population of Afghanistan are living below the poverty line, and the rate of unemployment is over 50%." Joya calls unequivocally for US troops to leave Afghanistan, saying its policies have not helped women and that a relatively small percentage of girls going to school is undone by the war's strengthening of the Taliban and the most mysogynistic of warlord elements.
It's not that Congress doesn't know about what works in Afghanistan or how to do it cheaply. It has been reviewed and talked about over and over, yet simple, effective programs that are corruption-free continue to lack funding which is pennies compared to the $10 billion a month being dumped into the war machine. An aide to Congressman Mike Honda, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce, is Michael Shanks, one of the most knowledgeable voices on Capitol Hill on this issue, whose voice is never heeded by the 400 or so "colleagues." Shanks tells The Nation:
"The only things working in Afghanistan right now in terms of development are organizations like Aga Kahn Foundation, ICRC, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, etc. Aga Kahn travels with no security whatsoever. Their development work has no security detail and the only way they go to the site is if the community supports them. This is how I travel too; I only travel if the community supports me. That’s my security."
The shortsightedness in aid policy is fully visible in some more remote provinces where, if there is stability, they are forgotten. The Afghan news agency TOLO reports:
While on my way to Department of Women's Affairs, saw small children around age of 4 or 5 stuck in the snow and mud while another child of 7 or 8 was pulling him/her out of the mud. This is the main road of the Nilli city, which is the centre. But it shouldn't be called a road, it's only a direction...
"While millions of dollars are poured into provinces plagued with violence and conflict, why don't provinces like Daikundi get attention to prove itself a real model for development and reducing poverty? And the Afghanistan Peace and Re-integration Programme with millions of dollars from foreign aid provides incentives of war to insurgents, is another certification of a policy that would eventually drive the young men from Daikundi to join insurgents and militants fighting in its surrounding provinces of Uruzgan, Ghazni, Zabul and Helmand.
"If the international aid is another parallel to counter-insurgency, then why to even name it international development aid", said a couple of young graduates who returned to Daikundi after completing their graduation at Kabul University. They said, "When we returned back, we used to encourage young boys and girls to study and get educated. But having been lost in poverty, we forget about education. It's only about a struggle to be able to remain alive each day, what happens tomorrow, we don't know.""
The article quotes a nine year old:
"It would be the luckiest days of the week, if we have our boiled potatoes, and each of us getting one of them"
The politicians who give the Pentagon free reign to deal with the insurgency have come perilously close to botching it to the point of no return, to the true peril of American security interests. The problem is, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
A discontented and angry populace is where extremism thrives. I would venture to say, had those thousands upon thousands of hungry unemployed men had dignified work, building sewer lines etc. so one would not have to smell the stench of open waste, their children eating well, the idiotic burning of the Quran might have sparked outrage, but it would not have come to this. People with work have better things to do. The tinder was dry as bone. The burning of the holy was only the spark.
My heart goes out to those aid workers who were killed undoubtedly doing what they loved, and to all the Afghans killed in this increasingly dirty conflict. What congressional negligence is now bringing to mind is the early stage of a humiliating and hasty withdrawal from a certain Southeast Asian country. When the mind of the crowd turns against you, even those who would like to help you can do nothing.
The diarist is co-founder of Jobs for Afghans.
Men hoping for work, any kind of work, who gather by the tens of thousands in Kabul's city squares. This is one's best bet.
Picking through trash for anything, including something to eat
Malnutrition ward, Kandahar
What was left of the guesthouse where I stayed after it got bombed the next year
at Kabul International