Return to Afghanistan

Afghanistan is back in the US headlines, but it’s not the kind of news many were expecting five years after the US began a bombing campaign that toppled the Taliban regime. Instead of schools and jobs and security there was the assassination of an Afghan woman government official as she left her house for work in Kandahar, the tense White House dinner visit by Presidents Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf in which the two men essential to any successes in Afghanistan failed to even exchange a public handshake, Bill Frist suggesting a solution in Afghanistan would be to invite the Taliban back into the government, a nearly continuous series of suicide bombings in the last few weeks, bringing the total number this year to the low 90s according to the UN, and the high 70s according to NATO, either figure tragically surpassing the 11 suicide bombings reported in all of 2005. And seemingly oblivious to it all, President Bush continues to assert that we are making progress.

It’s been five years as well since my first trip to Pakistan to interview Afghan refugees in the summer of 2001, and four years since my first visit to Afghanistan, just 6 months post-Taliban. In the late summer of 2001, I was wondering how Afghan refugees and those in Afghanistan could survive the stunning violence, poverty, trauma, oppression they lived under, and what it would take for the U.S and the world to see how their plight was connected to our actions, past and present, and to care. When I mentioned my travels in those last pre-September 11 days, many people screwed up their faces as they tried to place Afghanistan and Pakistan on a world map in their mind’s eye.

The next summer, when I returned and spoke of the utter destruction and poverty, but also the hope I had seen in Afghanistan, there were smiles all around, for the revenge taken against Al Qaeda, and for the liberation and freedom Americans were told we had brought to Afghanistan. This summer, returning from my 5th trip to Afghanistan however, I had little positive news to report, and reaction to my visit was often one of resigned disappointment that life for the average Afghan did not match the ubiquitous rhetoric about the great successes secured there before we turned our attention to Iraq.

So much could have been different, but the truth of the matter is that five years later the everything is different and too much remains unchanged. I have returned from an Afghanistan where people still live in heartbreaking violence, poverty, trauma, oppression. An Afghanistan where the “liberation, freedom, and democracy” orchestrated by the U.S. is experienced by Afghans as the return to power of warlords who destroyed the country from 1992-1996, making the Taliban seem like liberating heroes then and giving them the another excuse now to justify their violent insurgency; where joblessness and internationally inflated prices are juxtaposed with a 60% rise in poppy cultivation; where rule of law is represented by police who took off their uniforms to join rioters in burning Kabul neighborhoods in May; where unreported, daily violence against ordinary women, according to a recent UNIFEM report, continues “with impunity” at “endemic” levels.

While Iraq continues to dominate the news, Afghanistan has mostly become a footnote on page A12. But Afghanistan is the first and prime example of how winning the war is not the same as winning the peace. The 5000 peacekeepers placed solely in and around Kabul after the Taliban fled could not possibly have secured a country of 33 provinces and 25 million. At a rate of just 1 peacekeeper per 5000 Afghans, this paled in comparison to the 1 per 50 and 1 per 60 placed in Bosnia and Kosovo, respectively, after that war. The 7.2 billion in development and reconstruction aid earmarked for Afghanistan sounds enormous, but it lags by 900% the amount spent by the US on military operations there. With Osama and Mullah Omar unaccounted for, the Taliban again on the rise, and the quality of life declining rather than improving, we should all be joining the people of Afghanistan, who rightly question how this money has actually been spent, to whose benefit, and for what end goal.

When Afghans ask me, “is this what the US means by peace, liberation and freedom?” all I can say is I certainly hope not. But this is sadly just one case of many where we must ask, “is this what has become of ‘American values’?” Everything is different and nothing has changed and in Afghanistan, the rhetoric can’t hide the reality and the juxtaposition of the two makes the horror and the hubris crystal clear. Whether we read about Afghanistan in the headlines, or on A12, we need to remember that both the rhetoric and the reality are created in our name, and we need to ask ourselves, to paraphrase Gandhi, ‘is this the change we wish to be in the world?’

ANNE E. BRODSKY, director of the Gender and Women’s Studies program and an associate professor of Psychology at UMBC, has worked with and written about women’s struggles and resilience in Afghanistan for over six years. She is the author of With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and numerous other articles and chapters on the risk to and resilience of Afghan women. She can be reached at: