Afghanistan. A moment of reflection. [opinion]

As the United States deposits tens of thousands more boots on Afghan soil, in addition to the roughly 65.000 soldiers already there, launching an Iraq-like ‘surge’ in a bid to recapture what’s been euphemistically dubbed ‘momentum’,
a brief instant of reflection might be in order.
On reflection, offers, among other things, the following definition: Something, such as light, radiant heat, sound, or an image, that is reflected. Reflection thusly interpreted purports to mean the image, light, or lack thereof returned to the brain of he or she whose ray-like mental beams have chosen to dwell on any given topic of interest. Applied to Afghanistan, and the conflict currently raging there between Western troops and the local peasantry, a keen observer’s laser-guided focus mostly yields but a dim glow in return, scarcely enough on a nightly errand of sanitary import to avoid tripping over one’s nonchalantly disposed off slippers. If applying copious lengths of unsightly fluorescent tape is the way forward, so be it. Safety first!

Safety first

Which is, coincidentally, exactly why we, the amalgamated, amorphous and often nebulously circumscribed West, providing the bulk of NATO’s personnel soldiering under the banner of ideals featured prominently in Western constitutions, bankrolled by Western tax payers, are in Afghanistan to begin with. Safety. Our safety.
Jokes aside, obviously it isn’t good to leave any turf, in this case about 650.000 square kilometers of the stuff, devoid of law, order, and full of bearded extremists. That’s like leaving Ferris Bueller in charge of Jay Leno’s rare car collection. No good can come of it. Afghans need, and deserve stability, good government, like those of the 42 nations currently embroiled in providing them with just that such as Luxembourg, Denmark, and Azerbaijan.
History amply demonstrates the heterogeneous, mercurial, and often fierce mountain folk’s inability to abide the kind of rule-based society Westerners enjoy, or even show a modicum of effort or talent in maintaining its territorial integrity against foreign armies, like that of Alexander the Great (330 BC), the
Arab conquest (642–1187), Genghis Khan (1220), Timur Lank (1383), the British (First Anglo-Afghan War, 1838–1842), the British (Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878–1880), the Soviets (1979-1989), and finally, the American-led international coalition forces (2001-?), the first wholly altruistic invasion in the fractious nation’s history.

The glass is a quarter-full, but used to be empty

Human rights defenders are rightly aglow listing the many achievements wrought since 2001. Especially in the sphere of education and healthcare, statistics such as a 350% increase in school enrollment rates, a 21% drop in infant mortality, or 700 new health clinics built by USAID alone since the Taliban ouster, are staggering. And yet, after almost a decade of enlightened rule, seven million children still do not attend school and, according to UNICEF, 30% of primary school age kids are working, often as the sole source of income for their family. According to the CIA fact book, in 2009 Afghanistan still had the third-highest infant mortality in the world, with 151.59 deaths of infants under one year old per 1,000 live births in the same year actually worse than in 2003 (142.48). For comparison, in Sweden that number is 2.75.
The figures are nonetheless a spectacular success story for the West’s now 9-year commitment in the desolate Silk Road nation. If you think any less so, allied sources are quick to point out baddies causing insecurity, a resurging Taliban rendering the kind of state-building and nation-building Afghans need,
nigh impossible. Safety first. School-burning, women-hating zealots are to blame for setbacks, not chronic under-funding of civilian reconstruction, health care, and education. After all, spending roughly 2000 USD per day per NATO soldier on the ground, not a whole lot remains for social engineering.

Bringing Afghanistan into the modern world

The West reaches a helping hand. Obscurantist, medieval Taliban warriors are holding back the sands of time. They must be helped to respect life, and embrace the future. Depending on the source, insurgent terrorists have been responsible in the past 9 years for 3419 to 4969 civilian deaths. Coalition forces meanwhile have over the same period been able to avert between 5317 and 8109 civilians from dying atrociously at the hands of terrorists. Their demise was merely tragic, accidental, very unfortunate, or more often merely Taliban propaganda badmouthing NATO’s forces of peace and love, who will always launch a full-scale investigation into reports that have yet to be independently verified. Welcome to the information-driven 21st century.

But seriously

The Taliban regime that held sway between 1997 and 2001 ushered in a backward brand of Islam, oppression for women, blowing up ancient Buddha statues and, after decades of civil war and Mad Max-style apocalyptic breakdown, about enough stability for Unocal, of El Segundo, California, to negotiate building a gas pipe-line from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. In 1998, Dick Cheney, then chief executive of Halliburton, then the world’s biggest oil services company, remarked: “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”
On 12 February of the same year John Maresca, vice president for international relations of the Unocal Corporation, in front of the U.S. Interests In The Central Asian Republics hearing before the Sub Committee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on International Relations House of Representatives stated:
“The Caspian region contains tremendous untapped hydrocarbon reserves. Just to give an idea of the scale, proven natural gas reserves equal more than 236 trillion cubic feet. The region’s total oil reserves may well reach more than 60 billion barrels of oil. Some estimates are as high as 200 billion barrels. In 1995, the region was producing only 870,000 barrels per day. By 2010, western companies could increase production to about 4.5 million barrels a day, an increase of more than 500 percent in only 15 years. If this occurs, the region would represent about 5 percent of the world’s total oil production.”

Make my day

While in Hamburg a tight-knit group of Saudis whiled away the days downloading porn from the internet and learning to fly commercial airliners, Taliban negotiators held competing negotiations with Bridas, an Argentinian company and subsequently failed to strike a deal with Unocal. With the luxury of hindsight, the Afghans might have reflected differently. Soon, no amount of fluorescent tape could keep them from grasping the modern way of going about things. But you know, I really shouldn’t have written all that. We really are spending all those precious billions for all the right reasons. Afghans really love their schools and hospitals, even if the latter are built to make us feel better, and the former to keep us dumb.

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Over de auteur

  • Schrijver, publicist & vertaler

    Tom Kenis heeft een achtergrond in Islamstudies en Internationale Betrekkingen. Hij woonde en werkte vier jaar in het Midden-Oosten en in Berlijn.

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