Sunday, October 16, 2011

Whatever Happened to Women & Children First?

 “All wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child.” Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, 1919.

In Kabul, the children are everywhere. You see them scrounging through trash. You see them doing manual labor in the auto body shops, the butchers, and the construction sites. They carry teapots and glasses from shop to shop. You see them moving through the snarled traffic swirling small pots of pungent incense, warding off evil spirits and trying to collect small change. They can be found sleeping in doorways or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 children live on the streets of Kabul.

The big news story on CNN this morning is the excitement generated as hundreds of people line up to buy the newest iphone. I can’t stop thinking of the children sitting in the dirt of the refugee camp, or running down the path pushing old bicycle tires, or the young boy sitting next to his overflowing sacks of collected detritus. He has a deep infection on the corner of his mouth that looks terribly infected. These images contrast with an image of an old grandfather, dressed in a spotless all white shalwar kameez squatting on the sidewalk outside a huge iron gate, embracing his beautiful young grand daughter in a huge hug, each smiling broadly, one of the few moments of joy I have witnessed on the streets of Kabul.

In Afghanistan, one in five children die before their 5th birthday, (41% of the deaths occur in the first month of life). For the children who make it past the first month, many perish due to preventable and highly treatable conditions including diarrhea and pneumonia. Malnourishment affects 39% of the children, compared to 25% at the start of the U.S. invasion. 52% don’t have access to clean water. 94% of births are not registered. The children are afforded very little legal protection, especially girls, who are stilled banned from schools in many regions, used as collateral to settle debts, and married through arranged marriages as young as 10 years old. Though not currently an issue, HIV/AIDS looms as a catastrophic possibility as drug addiction increases significantly, even among women and children. Only 16% of women use modern contraception, and children on the streets are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. This is why the “State of the World’s Mothers” report issued in May 2011 by Save the Children ranked Afghanistan last, with only Somalia providing worse outcomes for their children.

Retired Army Col. John Agoglia said, “A key to America’s long-term national security and one of the best ways for our nation to make friends around the world is by promoting the health of women and children in fragile and emerging nations”–in Afghanistan, this strategy is failing. Not a single public hospital has been built since the invasion. It is not an impossibility; it is a matter of will. Emergency, an Italian NGO, runs 3 hospitals and 30 clinics throughout Afghanistan on a budget of 7 million dollars per year. This is ISAF’s (NATO’s International Security Assistance Force) monthly budget for air-conditioning.

Polls have consistently shown that over 90 percent of Americans believe saving children should be a national priority. Children comprise 65% of the Afghan population. Afghanistan was named the worst place on earth to be a child. In Afghanistan children have been sacrificed by the United States, collateral damage in our “war on terror”.

The mothers of these at risk children are not faring any better. Most are illiterate. Most are chronically malnourished. 1 woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth, this compares to 1 in 2,100 in the US (the highest of any industrialized nation). In Italy and Ireland, the risk of maternal death is less than 1 in 15,000 and in Greece it’s 1 in 31,800. Skilled health professionals attend only 14% of childbirths. A woman’s life expectancy is barely 45 years of age.

Women are still viewed as property. A law has been passed by the Karzai regime that legalizes marital rape, and requires a woman to get the permission of her husband to leave the house. Domestic violence is a chronic problem. A women who runs away from home (even if escaping violence) is imprisoned. Upon completion of her sentence she is returned to the husband. Self-immolation is still common as desperate women try to get out of impossible situations.

Shortly after the U.S. invasion, Laura Bush said, “The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.” President Bush said, “Our coalition has liberated Afghanistan and restored fundamental human rights and freedoms to Afghan women, and all the people of Afghanistan.” Actually, the former warlords responsible for the destruction, pillage, and rape of Afghanistan were ushered back into power  by the United States. In 2007, these very same warlords, now Parliamentarians, passed a bill that granted amnesty for any killings during the civil war. A local journalist said, “The killers are the ones holding the pens, writing the law and continuing their crimes.”

When Malalai Joya addressed the Peace Loya Jirga convened in December, 2003, she boldly asked, “Why are we allowing criminals to be present here?” She was thrown out of the assembly. Undeterred, she ran for Parliament, winning in a landslide. She began her maiden speech in Parliament by saying, "My condolences to the people of Afghanistan..." As she continued speaking, the warlord sitting behind her threatened to rape and kill her. The MP’s voted her out of Parliament and Karzai upheld her ouster. In hiding, she continues to champion women’s rights. She has stated that the only people who can liberate Afghan women are the women themselves. When we spoke briefly to her by phone, she stated that she was surprised to still be alive, and needed to cancel our meeting, as it was too dangerous in the current security situation. The Red Cross states that the security situation is the worst it has been in 30 years.

In America, as our total defense budget balloons to 667 billion dollars per year, women and children are faring worse as well. In the “State of the World’s Mothers” report, America has dropped from 11th in 2003 to 31st of the developed countries today. We currently rank behind such luminaries as Estonia, Croatia, and Slovakia. We fall even farther in regards to our children, going from the 4th ranked country to the 34th. Poverty is on the increase with an estimated 1 child in 5 living in poverty. More than 20 million children rely on school lunch programs to keep from going hungry. The number of people living in poverty in America has grown by 2.6 million in just the last 12 months.

Dear reader, I hesitate to bother you with so many statistics, I eliminated the pie charts and graphs, and this report is still dull. After all, the new iphone has Siri, a personal assistant that understands you when you speak. You can verbally instruct it to send a text message, and it does! Now that’s excitement! CNN states there is no need to panic; the Atlanta store has plenty of phones to fill the demand.

Looking only at numbers it is easy to avoid the truth of the enormous amount of human suffering they envelop. Drive through the streets of any American city and these statistics come alive in the swollen ranks of the homeless. Drive through the streets of Kabul and these statistics come alive in the forms of hungry children begging for change.

It is difficult to ascertain what benefit America is deriving from our continued military presence in Afghanistan, though exploitation of natural resources certainly plays a role. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent in a military strategy that is failing by all indicators. Yet the politicians in this country continue to back this strategy. Arms dealers and contractors, like G.E. and Boeing, all with lobbyists on Capitol Hill, continue to reap big financial rewards and in turn reward politicians with financial support. Our politicians claim to be “tough on terror” and profess we are “winning”. But by what measure do they ascertain this? The only Afghan people benefiting from our presence are the people supporting the occupation forces, the warlords, and the drug lords. As the poppy fields produce record yields “poppy palaces” are springing up all over Kabul, ostentatious signs that someone is benefiting from our interference.

One measure to judge the success of a nation is its ability to protect its most vulnerable populations. America is not succeeding. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is still a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control. When will our politicians hear the desperate cry of the street children of Afghanistan, who, with all the incense in the world, simply can’t ward off the evil of our occupation?

To support the vital work of Voices for Creative Non-Violence please see

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Message to Freedom Square on the Anniversary of the Invasion of Afghanistan

Good evening from Afghanistan.

We are sorry we cannot be with you in body, know we are with you in spirit.

What you are doing in Freedom Square is critically important, not only for Afghanistan, and America but for the entire world.

After 5 days in Afghanistan, one thing is painfully clear. The impetus for change needs to come from Washington DC. Our job is clear, we must continue to demand an end to occupation and war from our government. The status quo is unacceptable.

10 years of occupation and things are getting worse. The Red Cross has said that the security situation in Afghanistan is the worst it has been in 30 years.

In 10 years of occupation, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, not a single public hospital has been built for the people of Afghanistan. The only things that have been built in Afghanistan are security barriers and prisons.

UNICEF has claimed that Afghanistan is the worst place in the world for children. 65% of the population is children.

The question must be this: If after 10 years, countless lives lost, hundreds of billions spent, nothing is going right in Afghanistan, when is it time to change direction? This is the question the people of Freedom Square must help our government answer.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Darkness Approaches, A Light Shines Bright

Today in Afghanistan people feel an unnamable horror lurking just below the surface of their everyday lives. It has been described as a tension, a feeling of pressing apprehension, as if a breaking point is about to be breached. People wake each day with this feeling; it accompanies them through their dreams each night.

Driving through the streets of Kabul I watch people set about their business deliberately. There is little laughter, the absence of joy as palpable as the heavy brown dust swirling through the streets choking off the sun.

We turn down a pock marked dirt road. Reminded of a video game my son used to love, we swerve from side to side to miss as many obstacles as possible, including oncoming traffic of all varieties, crashing through spine-jarring potholes with regularity. We spot the large pink building behind a huge steel gate. The guard points to a door and tells us to call inside.

We have arrived at the New Learning Center, a school serving the children of Afghanistan. Founded and directed by Andeisha Farid, is a young Afghan woman, who was herself a displaced person during the Soviet war and grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Andeisha had one simple idea. If she could help one child, that child would return to her family and influence the family. In turn, the family would influence the village, the village would influence the province, the province would influence the country. This simple idea has turned into 11 orphanages, serving 700 children, and the New Learning Center, newly opened in May 2011.

The school curriculum teaches boys and girls grades 6 through 12. The school is a model of diversity, accepting children from every province in Afghanistan. About 50% of the children are truly orphans, the rest are from families struggling with dire poverty, conflict, displacement, or drug addiction (a new and significant problem for Afghans). Their parent’s let the children travel to Kabul so they have an opportunity to learn and an opportunity for a better life.

Ian, an American working at the school (and in fact the only westerner working there), gives us an introduction to the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO) in the rose garden. We ask about the threat of terrorism. He says the most pressing problem is the current Afghan government, which has elements that oppose teaching girls that match the Taliban’s position. Recently the school had experienced a raid, prompted by rumors and innuendo in the community, by Parliamentarians and armed security men. When they were unable to substantiate the rumors they apologetically left the grounds and the school returned to teaching the children.
 In a land where ethnic diversity forms barriers and racism is rampant, where girls are 2nd class citizens at best, religion often teaches intolerance, and war has torn at the very fabric of life, the learning center is an oasis of peace, respect, understanding, and love. Walking through the center I am astounded by the polite, smiling children moving from class to class with enthusiasm and a sense of empowerment and pride I have not seen on the streets of Kabul.

Visiting with Ian’s 8th grade girl’s humanities class, the thirst for knowledge is striking. Reading about Amelia Earhart in English, the girls help each other with difficult passages. There is a twinkle in the girl’s eyes as they read with confidence and steal glances at the strangers watching them. Amelia is quoted as saying, “I did it because I wanted to do it.” Ian emphasizes this passage for the young girls, saying this is the one passage from the reading to never forget.

We meet with Nasrin, the director of the Learning Center. An intelligent, poised young woman, Nasrin gives us a tour of the center and explains the education in Fine Arts, Music, Computers, Humanities, Math and Sciences serves as an adjunct to the public school system and guides the children to a path of higher education.

We interrupt a class in portraiture to look over the shoulders of young artists as they sketch a fellow classmate. As we sit in the lobby and pepper Nasrin with questions, a classical sonata for piano wafts through the hallways from the music room below.

Nasrin reminds us why she loves her work at the center, “The children of Afghanistan are our future. We provide them with opportunities so the future will be better.”

To learn more about AFCECO and help them accomplish their mission, see

Thursday, October 06, 2011

10 Years After. Welcome to the Failed State Americastan

As we step off the Turkish Air flight and walk across the dusty tarmac to the terminal, we are greeted by a large billboard. In big bold English it proclaims, “Welcome to the Home of the Brave.” It stops me in my tracks. I shake my head, thinking, “damn weird” and continue in to passport control. After waiting in a short line, I present my American passport to the guard in the booth. He doesn’t acknowledge me. He flips through the shiny new pages until he gets to the visa. He stamps it. He turns to the picture. He gives me a precursory glance and hands the passport back to me. I turn and enter Afghanistan.

I have come here with two friends from Voices for Creative Non-Violence, forming a small delegation interested in developing relationships with ordinary Afghans and gathering stories of everyday life since the American invasion in 2001. After collecting our luggage and taking a short bus ride to the parking area, Hakim, Mohammed Jan, and his brother Noor greet us warmly. Hakim and Mohammed Jan are our hosts and the organizing force of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

On our trip from the airport to Kabul, Hakim offers an update since the last delegation has left. Things have deteriorated considerably. People are feeling more hopeless, even amongst the youth group. There have been no opportunities for optimism. As we drive the clogged streets through clouds of brown dust, I watch as small children with huge sacks slung across their backs pick at scraps along the streets. Men pull huge carts filled with scrap metal. Beggars on crutches stand in the streets or lie by the street side, hoping for any generosity from the passing cars.

Not a single sector of public or private life is running properly. Tension is high. The people may appear unwelcoming and angry, because they are. Hakim tells us you may see people in a heated argument end it by laughing. In order to defuse the tension of the moment, they shift to a joke.

Attacks in Kabul are on the rise. In just the last month there has been the brazen attack at the US embassy as well as the suicide bombing that killed Rabbani, an advisor for the Karzai government as well as a warlord, (responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, engaged in ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban), in his own home.

We are told that it might be best to avoid following a routine. Do not to travel alone. Do not go out at night. Do not linger outside of our car, or our apartment. It’s best not draw attention to ourselves. We are reminded that not only do Afghans distrust foreigners, but also, many have come to hate us over these ten long years.
Ten years. Untold numbers of deaths, 200 billion dollars (or is it 300 billion?) spent on eradicating the Taliban, eliminating a safe haven for Al Qaeda, and stabilizing Afghanistan, to date, all lost causes.  The Karzai government is either despised or mocked. The people recognize it for what it is, a puppet regime that is not responsible to the Afghan people but to outside forces. Corruption is rampant, crushing poverty everywhere. Allegiances shift easily as desperation and greed drive people to make decisions based on possible cash rewards.
Nothing works. The education system, the health care system, and the public works systems are in tatters. The various police forces, even in the safest sections of Kabul, can’t (or won’t) stop the violence. The Red Cross states that Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at anytime in the last 30 years. You can’t drink the water from the tap, electricity goes off and on in rolling blackouts, the sewer system is archaic, with open trenches of raw sewerage running through the streets. There is no garbage collection. 200 billion dollars spent and there is little to nothing to show for it.

Family systems are in tatters as well. Everywhere you turn, family members have been lost to war. Hundreds of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands maimed. War has divided families and dispersed the fragments throughout the country. Civil society is falling apart because people have lost a sense of community, things have deteriorated to ‘everyone for themselves’. Distrust is a cancer spread throughout society. Ethnic groups distrust each other even more than usual. Business associates distrust each other, neighbors distrust each other, and even family members distrust each other.

To most of the population, peace is an impossibility. Most feel a turn toward more violence is inevitable. Possibilities of peace are not part of the dialogue, few are even willing to voice the words ‘peace’ or ‘non-violence’. Most people only talk about selecting the best of several very poor possibilities and all of these options are militaristic ones. People are being squeezed between the insurgency and occupying powers. For some, especially in Kabul, the best of the poor choices is continuing on the path of US occupation. The sense of hopelessness is palpable, people feel there is no way out. Harun, a young Pastun tells us, “Perhaps Afghans just need to suffer more.”

I ask myself, “What am i doing here?” This entails the broader question, “Why are we, America, here?” Former President Bush famously said, “We will fight them over there so we do not to fight them over here.” I don’t think it ever dawned on him that if we don’t fight them over there, we might not need to fight them at all.

America’s continuing involvement is a difficult issue. If you believe a common thread of American exceptionalism, that America is good and only wants what is best, bringing “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights” to the people of the world, when do we relent? If nothing is going right in Afghanistan and our presence only brings more militarization and more misery, when is it time to leave? Under the exceptionalism model, America can’t lose, or surrender, it is simply too shameful to admit mistakes, too embarrassing to admit that the world’s most advanced military can not achieve it’s objectives in a country already devastated by years of war. Few choices remain except to stay the course.

If you believe another common thread of American discourse, Afghanistan is only getting what it deserves. Harboring the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 bears a heavy price tag. But ten long years have past. The Taliban are not defeated, and it is getting harder to define who, exactly, the Taliban are. If a farmer picks up a weapon to defend his land and his family, he is defined as Taliban. If a local worker in the CIA office in Kabul begins shooting employees, he is Taliban. This is not necessarily true. Some tribes have resorted to violence against all outsiders. They do not differentiate between NATO forces, American forces and Taliban forces, they defend themselves against them all. As the situation deteriorates and the international community continues to defend it’s presence here with lies, distortions, and intransigence, hatred grows. Hopelessness grows. People with no ties to religious fundamentalism resort to violence and are then added to the list of Taliban. Hakim says with a smile, “Soon, everyone in Afghanistan will be labeled Taliban.”

People in the U.S. are misled, fed a rote formula of religious fundamentalism fueling insurgency because they hate what we represent. The Afghan people do not hate what we represent, they hate what we do to their families, their community, their tribes, and their country. I do not blame them. Retaliation and retribution only assure us that future acts of violence are inevitable. When President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, he schooled us on why Martin Luther King was naive, why violence was a necessary component of fighting terrorism. He did not school us on how state violence creates terrorists and ensures continuing cycles of mayhem.

Now seems a good time for a joke. Ryan Crocker, the new ambassador to Afghanistan recommends more of the same. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he states, “The Taliban needs to feel more pain before you get to a real readiness to reconcile.” The interviewer did not question this subtle ridiculousness; perhaps he was too busy laughing out loud.

So the current dynamic is a lose/lose situation for America as well as Afghanistan. American children continue to be deprived of basic health care, education, and food safety as money flows endlessly into the open pit of American militarism. American defense contractors continue to benefit. Our elected officials, proving they are “tough on terrorism” get re-elected. The Afghan people continue to suffer. Afghan children will be deprived of the same things as America’s children, but to a degree 100 times worse. Hatred will continue to fester. Out of necessity, Afghans will become masters of comic timing.

America is not, and will not be safer for the misery imposed on Afghanistan.

In closing, here is a final joke to diffuse the tension. It is still funny, though it has been repeated ad-infinitum by America’s politicians and pundits: America is winning in Afghanistan.