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War and Enlightenment in Afghanistan

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I've been a guest in Colorado Springs, Colorado, following a weeklong retreat with Colorado College students who are part of a course focused on nonviolence. In last weekend's Colorado Springs Gazette, there was an article in the Military Life section about an international skype phone call between U.S. soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan and sixth grade girls at a private school in Maryland. ("Carson Soldiers Chat With Friends" November 17, 2013 F4)

Soldiers from Fort Carson's Company C Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 4th Infantry Division had been receiving care packages and hand-written letters from sixth grade girls at a private school in Brooklandville, MD. The project led to a late October video chat session which allowed the soldiers and students to converse.

I read in the article that one of the U.S. soldiers in Kandahar assured the girls in Maryland that girls in Afghanistan now have better access to education than they did before the U.S. troops arrived. He also mentioned that women have more rights than before.

On November 21, I'll participate in a somewhat similar skype call, focused not on soldiers in Afghanistan but on the voices of young Afghans. On the 21st of every month, through Global Days of Listening, several friends in the U.S. arrange a call between youngsters in Afghanistan and concerned people calling or simply listening in from countries around the world. I long to hear the optimism expressed by the Fort Carson soldier reflected in the Afghan Peace Volunteers' words. But our young friends in Afghanistan express regret that their families struggle so hard, facing bleak futures in a country racked and ruined by war.

According to Ann Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, UNICEF's 2012 report states that "almost half the "schools" supposedly built or opened in Afghanistan have no actual buildings, and in those that do, students double up on seats and share antiquated texts. Teachers are scarce and fewer than a quarter of those now teaching are considered "qualified," even by Afghanistan's minimal standards. Impressive school enrollment figures determine how much money a school gets from the government, but don't reveal the much smaller numbers of enrolees who actually attend. No more than 10 percent of students, mostly boys, finish high school. In 2012, according to UNICEF, only half of school-age children went to school at all. In Afghanistan, a typical 14-year-old Afghan girl has already been forced to leave formal education and is at acute risk of mandated marriage and early motherhood. A full 76 percent of her countrywomen have never attended school. Only 12.6 percent can read."

As for conditions among women in the area where the Fort Carson infantry are stationed, it's worth noting that Kandahar is one of several southern provinces in Afghanistan where the UN reported, in September, 2012, that one million children suffer acute malnourishment.

Looking beyond southern Afghanistan, where the Fort Carson soldiers are based, the grim statistics persist. As of March 31, 2013, a total of 534,006 people were recorded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as internally displaced by conflict in Afghanistan. Increasing numbers of IDPs are moving to cities and towns, where they are co-settling with non-displaced urban poor, poor rural-urban internal migrants, and returning refugees. In Kabul there are 55 such informal settlements, housing about 31,000 individuals, and conditions are dire - especially with respect to shelter, access to water, hygiene and sanitation. I've personally visited some of these squalid, desperate camps, in Kabul, - one of the largest is directly across from a U.S. military base.

Outside Kabul and a few other major cities, almost no-one in Afghanistan even has electricity. (The World Bank estimates that 30 percent of the population has access to grid-based electricity.) Only 27% of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 5 percent to adequate sanitation.

Recently, I studied the U.S. SIGAR (Special Inspector General on Afghanistan Reconstruction) report and puzzled over a chart which showed that even though U.S. non-military expenditures there approach 100 billion dollars spent since 2001, only 3 billion has been spent on humanitarian projects. And the military expenditures far outstrip these logistics expenses. The U.S. is now spending 2.1 million dollars per soldier, per year as part of expenses incurred by the drawdown of U.S. troops, while the Department of Defense maintains 107,796 security contractors, with the state department and USAID hiring several thousand more. The Pentagon's request for operations in Afghanistan in 2013 is $85.6 billion, or $1.6 billion per week.

In Afghanistan, prospects may be looking up for U.S. corporate control of crucial oil pipelines in the region; for early military encirclement of anticipated superpower rival China; and for unrivaled access to some 1 trillion dollars' worth of copper, gold and iron ore, and perhaps 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements vital to Western industry, all of it awaiting extraction from the earth beneath Afghans' feet.

While mainstream media in U.S. locales with a strong military presence may suggest that the U.S. has convincingly promised enlightenment for Afghan people, regarding women's rights and girls education, many Afghans wonder how they will fare caught between Western nations ruling the skies above their heads and the mineral resources which those nations are so eager to bring out of darkness and into the light. Do they have a resource curse, they wonder, as other countries will want to avail themselves of these resources and jockey for control. Why is the U.S. so intent on maintaining security in Afghanistan? Whose interests do they want to secure?

I think it's important to establish skype connections between people living in the U.S. and people who are in Afghanistan. Toward that purpose, I want to encourage people in Colorado Springs and beyond to search for hope and security by listening to young people in Afghanistan tell about their experiences longing for a better world, a world wherein women and children can survive hunger, disease, pollution and illiteracy. Please visit the Afghan Peace Volunteers at ourjourneytosmile.com and/or listen to their international call on November 21st.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, www.ourjourneytosmile.com