Rethinking Afghanistan, America, and Americans

Previously by Dana Visalli: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Afghanistan — But Forgot to Ask

I visited a small Afghan village of about 350 people today located at the end of a rutted dirt track about five miles from Bagram Air Force Base, just north of Kabul. As is the case with most rural Afghan communities, there was no electricity, no running water, and the houses were all made of pounded clay soil. Due to the proximity to Bagram, Blackhawk helicopters flitted overhead like dragonflies on their endlessly mysterious missions. Down on the ground, school was in session, outdoors under the mulberry trees. 100 children were crowded onto four large mats in the courtyard of the village mosque, each mat delineating a grade level, one through four. The children sat attentively with flimsy notebooks in hand, while instructors wrote on battered chalkboards at the front of each class. Because there is no lavatory at the mosque, the children have to use the adjacent farm fields for a toilet when nature calls. The lack of a bathroom, not to mention a school building, the lack of teachers, and the fact that the courtyard is already crammed with young children precludes adding further classes for older children.

One might wonder why the villagers don't just build a lavatory, or even a school. The answer lies in the circumstances of the village, shared by many in Afghanistan. The area's homes and fields were badly damaged in the Afghan civil war that raged from 1992-1996; in the following years under the Taliban this area north of Kabul saw continued conflict with the Northern Alliance. Most of the villagers fled to Pakistan, where they lived in refugee camps for many years. Upon their return after the U.S. invasion, they found their homes in ruins and the Afghan economy in shambles. Today, eleven years after the U.S. first occupied the country, the economy remains in ruins, except for the sale of opium and heroin. In spite of the incessant helicopter patrols, opium production has expanded greatly during the American occupation (Afghanistan today supplies about 90% of the world's heroin).Profits go to the warlords and those they are connected to, while the average income for most employed Afghans is $2 a day.

On the way into the village, my guide pointed out two large mansions, surrounded by extensive high walls, in the otherwise war-shattered landscape. He informed me that these belonged to "Taliban warlords," who had come to power back in the time of the war with the Russians. In that war, the U.S.and Saudi Arabia funded the fundamentalist mujehadeen (who fought the Russians) to the tune of 40 billion dollars. In fact u2018Al Qaeda' translates from Arabic as u2018the list;' it was originally the CIA's list of America's paid mujehadeen commanders. With billions of U.S. dollars at their disposal and a steady supply of high-tech American weapons, some of these commanders became feudal warlords, and it is they hold the real power in the Afghan countryside today. Warlords destroyed Kabul in the 1990s during internecine fighting after the Russians withdrew, and they now reign supreme as local land barons. Some are Taliban and some are not. Many of them are members of the U.S.-funded Afghan government. Each warlord has his own militia, controls the local police force, and is greatly feared by the common people.

I was invited into the home of one of the local farmers, Najibullah, for several cups of tea and then a noon meal. Outside the clay-walled enclosure, small fields of wheat were greening, and the grapes were just beginning to bloom. Helicopters continued to pass overhead. Somehow in the course of his difficult life, Najibullah had become a humanist philosopher. "What is important to me," he said through his sixteen year-old son, Abdullah, who is fluent in English (and also speaks Dari, Pashto, Arabic and Urdu), "is humanity. I feel the world is my village, and you are all members of this village. For this I love you. I like it very much that you are in my house."

Abdullah, the son, added, "My father always tells me that the world is divided into two groups, those who build and those who destroy. The world is a village, and if you are destroying the village you are destroying the world. The military forces are always destroying. My father is always telling me to be part of the first group, the one that is building the world." And so Abdullah's goal is to become a doctor and help his people. "I must become a doctor," he said, "or my life is nothing."

Abdullah just took the national college placement exam, which determines what course of studies a student will be permitted to pursue. It is an unfortunate artifact of the moribund Afghan economy that of the 140,000 students who took the exam this year, only 40,000 will find a place in college, because there are so few schools. The rest will be discharged into a society in which there are almost no jobs for young people. Abdullah himself is so bright that he got the highest possible score on the placement exam, but because even the educational system is corrupt in Afghanistan, he was assigned to become a literacy instructor. Prospective doctors must buy their way into medical school.

Abdullah has seen the helicopters flying over his farm for all of the eight years that they have been back home. "What are they for, what are they doing?" he asked me. Given that the U.S. has now spent 500 billion dollars in Afghanistan while the economy continues to deteriorate and violence, both against women and in general is general rises annually, the only honest reply was, "Nothing, they are going nowhere." Each Blackhawk helicopter costs approximately $10 million dollars. The Pentagon has purchased 2600 of them, or $26 billion dollars worth of just this one type of helicopter; there are many others. It costs approximately $4000 an hour to fly each of them. Thus ten minutes worth of flight time would build a lavatory or composting toilet for the village schoolyard; an hour's worth would build an entire school building. But no funds are available for lavatories, schools, villages or people.

What's wrong with this picture? Two things. One, the United States is serving as one of the destroyer of the global village instead of one the builders. And two, you are paying the bill for the destruction wrought by the U.S. government. You were born free — free to lead an ethical life — and you have become slave to your own so-called government. That government allocates almost all of America's discretionary financial resources go to war. The U.S. military budget for 2012, when all hidden costs are included, is $1.2 trillion dollars, as much as the rest of the world's military expenditures combined. Meanwhile, global petroleum production is peaking, per capita grain production is falling, the world's population grows by 80 million a year, and there are no jobs and no future for most of the children of the global family. The real issues of humanity are ignored while the military-industrial complex runs rampant. The destroyers will fall from their pedestal the moment you stop propping them up and paying their bills.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron." ~ Dwight Eisenhower, 1953