God Bless Afghanistan, Too
30 September 2001
The days since the gruesome attacks of 11 September have brought most Americans together. Millions of Americans now fly the American flag at home out of solidarity with those who died in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The American military has prepared for retaliation against Al-Qaeda, the organization of Osama bin Laden, and against the Taliban government that has supported him. Not surprisingly, American support of both the military and President Bush is very high. Patriotic songs play on the radio and on the streets of most American cities.
One of the songs with renewed popularity is "God Bless America," a justly popular tune by the great Irving Berlin. I submit, however, that Afghanistan is the country that really needs divine blessing. According to the CIA Factbook, the life expectancy in Afghanistan is just over 46 years. Only 32% of the adult population can read or write. The country is landlocked. It has less than 15 miles of railroads, less than 1500 miles of paved highways, and no army. In a country that relies on agriculture for over half of its gross domestic product, only 12 percent of the land is arable. Afghanistan has almost no exports besides opium.
Afghanistan was the pawn in a long-running and rather inexpert game of geopolitical chess between the Soviet Union and the United States. Starting in the late 1970s, the United States and several Muslim countries backed Islamic guerrillas against the Communist Afghan government and the Soviet Red Army, providing them with arms, money, and logistical help. After 10 fruitless years of war, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1988, and in 1992 the guerrillas finally deposed the Communists.
The United States saw Afghanistan as a useful proxy to fight a war against the Soviet Union. But the forces that the United States had armed and helped to train were not spearheads of democracy, opposed to Communism, but spearheads of theocracy, opposed to secular government in general. By 1996, some of the more radical Islamic militias had effectively seized control of the country from the loose coalition that had defeated the Communist only four years previously.
The past twenty-five years in Afghanistan have been years of poverty and devastation. The legacy of the civil wars includes millions of landmines, a horribly stunted infrastructure, and an anarchic polity in which religious law is the only law of the land. And now the United States threatens to bring the ravages of war back yet again.
While the American military prepares, disaster looms for the Afghan people. It may occur even if the retaliation directly kills or injures no civilians at all. United Nations officials believe as many as 1,500,000 Afghans will flee the country and that up to twice that number will face starvation within Afghanistan. A three-year drought has lowered food supplies within Afghanistan to perilously low levels.
Afghans are not just fleeing the Taliban. They are fleeing an impending war. The belligerent talk from the Bush administration in the first few days of the crisis did nothing to allay the worst fears of the refugees. Bush himself talked first of a "crusade" and of a "broad and sustained campaign" against the perpetrators and the countries that housed them. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview with Sam Donaldson, refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan.
The American talk of war will be responsible for vast numbers of Afghans fleeing their homes for the Pakistani and Iranian borders. A few months ago, the Bush administration sent $43 million of food to Afghanistan once it had evidence that the Taliban had reduced opium production. The events of the past few weeks have exacerbated the need for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and in the refugee camps that are sure to appear along its borders. America and its allies need to redouble their humanitarian efforts, not for political gain, but for the sake of the Afghan people.
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