Building the Peace

The Nation, February 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Building the Peace


"I stand before you today as a citizen of a country that has had nothing but disaster, war, brutality and deprivation against its people for many years," Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan, told the conference of international donors in Tokyo. The representatives responded with pledges totaling more than $4.7 billion, over time spans ranging from a year to the next three to five years. That's a start, but much more will be needed--the United Nations estimates $15 billion over the next ten years--and we can only wait and see whether these promissory notes to a battered but resilient people will be redeemed in full.

The war, now winding down, that resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime and the smashing of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan can be called a success in terms of the US-led coalition's initial goals, although Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have eluded capture. But the war's effects on the Afghan people have not begun to be dealt with, and US strategies and objectives in the fight against terrorism it claims to lead remain ambiguous.

The US bombing campaign was ferociously effective against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the field, but was the civilian toll excessive? Official information is scanty, and independent investigations by human rights groups have not yet been made, but the question has to be asked: Was the utmost effort made to avoid civilian suffering, and was the cost in lives excessive in proportion to the goals of the war (see Howard Zinn on page 16)?

The tempest of high-tech ordnance loosed on the land drove thousands of Afghans from their homes, and many of them languish in refugee camps on the brink of starvation. The bombs halted humanitarian food deliveries, and only now are stockpiles being restored to normal levels. In the countryside and in cities like Kandahar and Jalalabad, deliveries of food, shelter and medicine are being stolen by resurgent warlords or armed gangs.

And then there is the deadly legacy of mines and unexploded bombs from years of warfare. According to a UN report, "Afghanistan is the most mine- and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected country in the world." A massive cleanup effort is under way, but it will be months or years before roads and fields will be cleared for normal agriculture and commerce.

Much of Afghanistan's plight is the culmination of twenty years of war, three years of drought and the destructive policies of the Taliban's repressive theocracy. The cold statistics give a bare sketch of a nation in ruins: Life expectancy, forty-four years; one in four children dies before age 5; one in twelve women dies in childbirth; only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are in school; scarcely a quarter of the population has access to potable water and one in eight to sanitation; electricity consumption is about the lowest in the world; there are two telephones per 1,000 people (compared with twenty-four per 1,000 in Pakistan and sixty-eight per 1,000 in Uzbekistan).

The interim government desperately needs immediate infusions of cash to pay civil servants, who have gone unpaid for months, and to recruit more teachers and police. Kabul has only 100 trained policemen, and the rate of murder and theft is on the rise. Daily life in the capital has returned to a semblance of normality, but armed Northern Alliance fighters commit theft and extortion, while other cities and large stretches of the countryside are ruled by bandits and warlords. Some 700,000 fighters are at large.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's spokesman said in response to Powell's speech in Kabul, "Reassurance is good. Cash is better." Aid funds pledged must be delivered quickly; beyond that, a rich country like America should be providing leadership in the financial arena. A dependable flow of money and technical assistance must last for the next decade. …

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