In a village outside Kabul, I visited a women’s literacy class. With notebooks and textbooks in their laps, about 20 women of all ages sat on cushions around the wall, while a couple of toddlers rolled around in the middle of the room. The babies had no toys and so they played with each other’s toes: one baby would lie on the floor and stick her feet out. The other baby would grab the little girl’s toes and pull. Then the children would fall over, laugh, and start again. They played this game for at least fifteen minutes, a long time for toddlers.
I asked the women to tell me how the war has affected them, and they all started talking at once:
“My two sons were killed. They were both engineers.”
“My husband was killed.”
“I lost my son.”
“My home was destroyed.”
“Both my children were killed.”
One woman summed it up: “The war has destroyed our lives.”
My friend Fahima, who is taking me to visit development projects, told me that she no longer asks that question because the outpouring of tragedy and grief is more than she can bear.
Despite suffering on a scale that is unimaginable to me, these women are determined to overcome the problems that the war has foisted upon them, and their participation in this class is testimony to their determination and commitment. They want to learn to read and then develop some skills that will enable them to overcome grinding poverty and bring a better life to their children—their surviving children, that is.
They begged us to stay for lunch, but Fahima said we didn’t have time. As we were walking out the door, one woman brought out a big loaf of warm, flat, country-style bread and invited us to tear some off and eat. I tried it and it was delicious. They encouraged us to take the entire loaf, but we said, no, no. Finally, one woman unzipped my rather large purse and crammed the loaf into it. I was secretly glad and didn’t protest, as warm, freshly cooked bread is one of my favorite foods. That loaf of bread became lunch for Fahima, our driver, and me.
Rumors and More Rumors
I have been struck by the many stories of U.S. and NATO malfeasance. Some of these stories seem clearly false to me, others highly unlikely, while a few may have some truth to them. Some examples:
- German troops, while stationed for two years in the mountains of Badakhshan, frequently closed the roads and tunnels at night so that they could secretly mine precious gems, which they took out of the country and sold abroad.
- In Helmand Province, the British essentially destroyed an entire mountain in uranium mining operations. They took the uranium and did not compensate Afghanistan for it.
- Americans have brought massive amounts of nuclear waste from the U.S. to southern Afghanistan, where they have created a huge dump. The radioactivity from this dump threatens the health and lives of Afghans throughout the country.
- The police chief in Kandahar was recently assassinated in his office on a Friday, a day that he normally does not go to work. It is proven that an American phoned him in the morning and told him to go to work that day. He was surely killed by the Americans. While it isn’t clear how the Americans would benefit specifically from this assassination, on the other hand, Americans frequently commit crimes of violence in order to show that they are needed in Afghanistan.
- A group of Taliban fighters was intentionally allowed to escape by American forces–released in fact, after having been captured by some Afghan army soldiers. These Taliban had the latest U.S. weapons, far better than the ones the Afghan army has, and they also had American food provisions with them. Undoubtedly, these Taliban are being supplied by the Americans and supported by them.
Underlying such stories is the belief that the occupation forces are here for their own purposes, such as stealing the resources of the country, not to help the people of Afghanistan. The Americans, in particular, according to this narrative, intentionally foment discord and violence to justify their presence; some violence they commit themselves, but they also encourage violent acts by others, using divide and conquer tactics to create or exacerbate ethnic tensions.
The construction of huge, permanent-looking military bases, along with reports of new negotiations to maintain a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for at least ten to twenty more years, lends credence to rumors like these, and such stories are widely believed. The most common reason cited by Afghans for the presence of American forces is to give the U.S. a geo-strategic location from which to control the region, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Whether or not one believes in the absolute truth of any particular rumor, the construction of these huge bases, combined with the clear intention of the U.S. to keep troops in them for many years to come, suggests that the Afghan analysis may well be accurate.