Derrill Bodley’s Report: Return to Afghanistan
January 22, 2004
I have just returned from spending another ten days in Afghanistan. I went there two years ago with Medea Benjamin, as part of the first delegation to that country sponsored by Global Exchange, to call attention to the fact that while the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan since October 7th, 2001, there was (and still is) no inclination by the U.S. government to assess the damage to innocent civilian lives and property caused by the actions of the U.S. military there, much less to compensate these innocent victims.
Two years later, Afghanistan is still a place suffering from the ravages of violence as the vehicle of foreign policy of both Russia and the United States, as well as the vehicle of domestic political struggle among the mujahadin warlords. The psyche of the nation is marked by the numbness and unrelenting shock to generations of its citizens living under the conditions of seemingly “never-ending” war.
The United Nations is playing several roles in Afghanistan. We saw the efforts they have undertaken to rid the country of mines and unexploded ordinance. They have instituted programs along models they have used in other parts of the world, including mine awareness education, demining teams of various kinds (mechanical, manual, and dog teams). The U.N. is also involved in other programs, such as refugee location, which we saw in Herat. Although they are hampered by security considerations (a single tragic incident is an unacceptable risk for the U.N.), they are doing work that noone else could do. It is a shame that the U.N. is not afforded a bigger role in such situations before they get out of hand, such as in Iraq
We also saw the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, particularly their prosthesis program, which also follows models in place in other areas of the world. Victims of land mines, as well as victims of debilitating disease such as polio, are fitted with artificial legs which enable them to regain some semblance of a normal life and to continue earning a living. The Red Cross enters into their work with a selflessness and somewhat more abandon that is hard for groups such as the U.N. to match.
The reconstruction role of government in Afghanistan is hampered by its own instability and artificiality. We landed in Afghanistan on the last night of the Constitutional Loya Jurga. Opinions all over Afghanistan are very mixed as to the people’s faith in the process of imposing elections, first of a president in six months and then of a parliament in a year. It is a gamble that is being forced upon the Afghan people, creating an artifical “top-down” structure that may or may not be accepted by all levels of society, including the warlords and provincial governors who continue to control local areas and the various peoples of the different regions of the country. It is the same gamble that the American occupiers are facing on an even greater scale in Iraq.
Other players in the reconstruction of Afghanistan include the corporations which have acquired contracts to rebuild large infrastructural systems, such as roads, water systems, and communications systems. Louis Borges, for example, plays the role performed by Halliburton and others in Iraq, building roads and providing equipment for infrastructural systems such as water and electricity. Every corporation involved in reconstruction practices a “cost-benefit analysis”, making judgements as to whether it is worthwhile (with respect to their bottom line) to be there.
Still other players are the returning Afghans themselves. Some have come back to live in their homeland and to help rebuild the country, some with an eye for an opportunity to make some money and some just for the sake of helping. Some Afghan-Americans have come to Afghanistan as employees of American or other foreign corporations, and will not be staying there. Not as many Afghan expatriates have returned as expected, partly out of concern for security and a resulting lack of economic opportunity.
The level of involvement I found for myself in Afghanistan was first at the individual, personal level, and second at the non-governmental-organization (NGO) level. When I came to Afghanistan the first time, I had some personal experiences which I will never forget: meeting families who had lost loved ones when their houses were accidentally bombed by U.S. planes, visiting a school where street children were learning skills which would hopefully raise their lives above the level of begging, etc. On this trip, I visited Gulmaky, the mother whose 20-year-old son was killed by a U.S. bomb that was accidentally dropped on her house. The video we took still shows the same loss in her eyes, the same “disconnect” that losing her husband in the mujahadin wars and losing her son to a U.S. bomb had created. Her other children are growing up, still without the support of proper medical care or education. I left her $200, about enough to survive for a couple months.
I also became involved with the small NGO process. Before leaving on the trip, I was in touch with a colleague of mine in Sacramento, another professor who teaches in the Los Rios Community College district. She runs the SHARE Institute, an organization that identifies individuals in Afghanistan and other countries who are capable of creating and managing small projects for families and widows, projects which produce self-sustaining or educational results. Examples are literacy projects for young girls, and leather-sewing and chicken-raising projects for families. These are grass-roots, people-to-people projects that cannot be accomplished by any other means or by any large organization. As a person who will receive some money from the Victims Compensation Fund process connected with September 11th, I found it very rewarding to fund three small projects for a total of $1000. These projects are proposed and managed by local citizens of Kabul, and I was privileged to meet the two women whom Dr. Stolba, my colleague, had recommended.
Another NGO process operates at a larger level. I saw examples of such NGO work in Kandahar, where we visited Ms. Sarah Chayes, who has worked for NPR as a correspondent and is now working for Afghans for a Civil Society, a group based in Kandahar with U.S. contacts in Massachusetts. Ms. Chayes was personally responsible for obtaining funding from some people in Massachusetts ($25,000) to rebuild a village near Kandahar which had been destroyed by the military activity there since September 11th. Projects such as these require massive fundraising campaigns and more wealthy donors.
What distresses me most about the situation in Afghanistan is that there is so much effort being expended to clean up AFTER the violence, including the ongoing wars, killings, explosions, and attacks involving the U.S. military since October 7th, 2001. Mine clearance, prostheses, and road rebuilding are the operations that must, must be engaged in after a conflict. Truly, organizations such as the U.N. and the International Red Cross understand the need to prevent the institution of violence as a means toward achieving any end, even if that professed end is peace. It is the sad fact that the U.S. does not subscribe to that philosophy, instead relying on policies based on brute force and the supposed advantages of such policies, including control and exploitation of economic and political conditions, to achieve whatever ends it chooses to. There is so little attention paid, particularly by the U.S. government, to addressing the FRONT-END, BEFOREHAND conditions in places such as Afghanistan which would prevent wars and terrorist violence from occurring in the first instance. True humanitarian involvement, on a scale not even considered by the U.S. government — and without the involvement of corporate greed and political exploitation connected with government contracts — would create a world which would soon give up the idea of “war without end” for a world at “peace without end” instead.
This is the role that NGO’s and organizations such as Peaceful Tomorrows are positioned to fill. Those of us who have seen the ravages of war first-hand and who have the moral conscience and obligation to act on our knowledge must continue to engage any and all who will listen to our stories, what we have felt and what we have seen, what we know in our hearts to be true — that better chisels can be used to carve out the peaceful tomorrows we so desparately need. People-to-people efforts — organized and reaching across at the grass-roots level, preventing the causes of violence in the first place — are the most rewarding experiences I can see for my personal future.