Afghanistan: Collateral Damage From Paris to Punjab

I confess that I have never been to Afghanistan. Like most of my friends, I don't know anyone who has served there or who hails from the war zone. I would expect, therefore, not to come face-to-face with the human cost of this long drawn-out war. But I have. I have seen what is antiseptically known as collateral damage from this war in two unlikely places: the city of Paris and the countryside of rural Punjab.

I'm not talking about the collateral damage we imagine: bodies of women and children blown to pieces by an aerial bomb that missed its presumed Taliban or Al Qaeda target. But I am talking about real human suffering. I am dumbfounded by the reach of this war, by how its ripples fan out across the globe to the most unlikely corners.

And, I am ashamed that the debate over what decision President Obama and his administration should make is entirely framed in terms of U.S. casualties. Will more troops achieve what eight long years of war have failed to achieve -- a definitive end to any terrorist threat to the United States emanating from Afghanistan? And if this outcome could be guaranteed, which it cannot, do the American people have the stomach for increased casualties? It's all about American blood.

In Paris, where I am lucky enough to live part of the time, I was returning home on a late August afternoon from a long walk along the Canal Saint Martin when I suddenly saw them: the Afghan boys I'd read about in the newspaper. There were scores of them, lanky young men too young to shave. They were lolling about on the undulating lawn of the Square Villemin in groups of three or five or eight, on the other side of the pretty community garden, down from the bandstand. I'd read about the harrowing journeys these boys had made out of their war-torn country, sent abroad by families who'd begged or borrowed thousands of dollars to pay traffickers to take one boy on whom the rest of the family pinned all their hopes, to Europe, ultimately to England. A friend of mine, a demographer who specializes in South Asia, told me that these boys were the survivors. That they had all witnessed other boys not as lucky as they perish along the way.

I have a 17-year-old son. I saw my own son in these boys' smooth faces, the way their too long limbs seemed to have a life of their own, the way they held themselves awkwardly as they joked around. Just as my heart has broken seeing the photos of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, some not much older than my son, my heart broke watching two Afghan boys, 15 or 16 years old, sitting on the sidewalk propped against the wall of a café not ten feet away from young Parisian couples having a beer and chatting at those cute little tables that really do line the sidewalks there. The couples laughed, smoked their cigarettes sexily. The boys stared straight ahead. The couples at the tables also ignored the boys. They had been living in and around the park all summer. The boys had become part of the landscape.

Last year, I traveled through the Indian state of Punjab researching a series of articles on the agricultural crisis there. I discovered the heroin epidemic that has caught up thousands of Punjabi youth in its pitiless grasp. Punjab has become an important transit point for Afghan heroin on its way to Europe and North America. The state government had issued some alarming reports of the addiction rates, and a leader of the youth wing of the state's most powerful political party was arrested on his way to the airport with kilos of heroin in the trunk of his car. I reported all of this.

There's another kind of collateral damage. Basharat Peer, in his memoir about growing up in Kashmir, Curfewed Night, which will be published in the U.S. by Scribner early next year, talks about the boys who are sent into India on suicide bombing missions by Pakistani-based terrorist groups. He writes that some of these boys are orphans from the long war in Afghanistan, as expendable to their handlers as the Afghan boys who didn't make it all the way to Europe for one reason or another. In this light, it strikes me as the height of cruel irony to suggest, as some have in the current debate, that one of the key reasons the United States needs to stay the course in Afghanistan is to protect India.

If there is one lesson we should have learned about Afghanistan after all these years, it is that the cost of what we coldly call collateral damage is not merely the morally intolerable fact of thousands of ruined lives. What we call collateral damage contributes to what we call by another euphemism, blowback, the kind of blowback we saw on September 11, 2001, the kind of blowback I for one never want to see again.