Recently I have expressed increased concerns about our continued "involvement" in Afghanistan. Among these, the rampant corruption and backstabbing at the highest levels in the Afghanistan government, incompetence of and disloyalty among its military and police and continuing human rights violations.
I have mourned our casualties and fretted about our huge financial costs.
But -- perhaps insensitively so -- I have not mentioned much about the suffering of the Afghan people.
A piece in the New York Times on Saturday brought such suffering home in the most poignant way by focusing on the suffering -- the dying -- of the most vulnerable human beings: the children.
The article starts with the jarring intro: "KABUL, Afghanistan -- The following children froze to death in Kabul over the past three weeks after their families had fled war zones in Afghanistan for refugee camps here..."
It then goes on to list the names and ages of four of the "at least 22 [children] who have died in the past month, a time of unseasonably fierce cold and snowstorms."
Among those 22 children:
¶ Mirwais, son of Hayatullah Haideri. He was 1 ½ years old and had just started to learn how to walk, holding unsteadily to the poles of the family tent before flopping onto the frozen ridges of the muddy floor.
¶ Abdul Hadi, son of Abdul Ghani. He was not even a year old and was already trying to stand, although his father said that during those last few days he seemed more shaky than normal.
¶ Naghma and Nazia, the twin daughters of Musa Jan. They were only 3 months old and just starting to roll over.
¶ Ismail, the son of Juma Gul. "He was never warm in his entire life," Mr. Gul said. "Not once."
About Ismail the Times says, "It was a short life, 30 days long."
According to the United Nations, there are 35,000 people living -- barely surviving might be a more accurate term -- in Kabul refugee camps, such as Charachi Cambar and Nasaji Bagrami where the children froze to death.
"Both camps are populated largely with refugees who fled the fighting in areas like Helmand Province in the south. Some people have been in the camps for as long as seven years; others arrived in the past year," says the Times.
Those who claim that we are making progress in Afghanistan generally point to the schools and hospitals we have built and other "infrastructure projects" at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. (Let us not forget the magnificent $60 million prison we built at Bagram Air Base),
That is all good and well. However, Americans need to raise the same question the Times poses:
After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable -- and manageable -- as the cold?
If you have the fortitude, you can read the heart-rending stories of how and why these children are dying in these wretched camps here -- camps where Solidarités International, a French group that has had a limited program of emergency food aid and sanitation in the camps, surveyed mortality rates in recent months and came to the harrowing conclusion that, among children under 5, the camps' death rate is 144 per 1,000 children.
According to the Times, this rate is "stunningly high even for Afghanistan, which already has the world's third highest infant mortality rate" and means "one out of every seven children in the Kabul camps will not survive until his or her sixth birthday."
For those of us who believe that we should get out of Afghanistan, there is the sad conundrum:
If we stay longer in Afghanistan, will we be able to save these children?
If we leave Afghanistan now, will more children die?
Of course, this is not the only criterion, but it is a very emotive one and one we should include in any decision making process about "the future of Afghanistan."
The reader can also view a heartbreaking set of photos about this tragedy here.