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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Afghanistan--But Forgot to Ask

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Message Dana Visalli

I received a number of warnings today that traveling alone around Kabul is not safe. I needed to take a taxi back from Kabul Educational University to the guesthouse, and Professor Zaher Wahab warned me not to eat anything that the driver might offer -- it could well have a heavy sedative in it that would knock me out. I was instructed to sit only in the back seat so that I could exit swiftly if necessary. And, Dr. Wahab warned, "There could even be a woman in the cab, who will let you touch her breast, but her skin will have something on it that will knock you out."

This particular hazard I have experienced elsewhere. People are so desperately poor, he said, that they will kill you for ten dollars. Thus forewarned, I tentatively took a seat in the back of a yellow cab, ready to jump at the slightest provocation. But the driver took me home without incident, the greatest danger being the small TV screen on the dashboard which was playing Bollywood classics (consisting mostly of dancing women wildly gyrating in front of outrageously disinterested males) as we wove our way through the heavy traffic.

Later, as I was leaving the Afghan Leadership School, where I volunteer as a teacher, the young female students were shocked to learn that I intended to walk the mile back to the guesthouse (along a wide boulevard with various guards stationed along the way). One 15-year old advised that I needed a set of brass knuckles with blades set in them for proper protection. The director of the school counseled that the thing to watch out for is a pickup truck filled with men; "They will put a gun to your head and it will be over in half a second (the kidnapping). Remember, you are worth more here than you are at home." I couldn't quite grasp the economics of that calculation, but the warning definitely heightened awareness of my surroundings on the way home.

Poverty in Afghanistan is pervasive. Dr. Wahab pointed out that many students in the Master's program at the university do not have heat or running water at home, they can't afford to buy books, and they eat only one meal a day. He characterized Afghan society as "impoverished, factionalized, sectarianized, brutalized, criminalized, gangsterized, traumatized, and militarized; it ranks at or near the bottom of every human development index. The country has been transformed into a hell hole with unimaginable poverty, disease, pain, and suffering."

In one of the essays at his blog, he explains:

"60% of the country's 24-million population are under 18. You see them everywhere: in educational institutions with little education taking place; standing or walking aimlessly in the streets; begging; selling little worthless trinkets; selling water, boiled eggs or homemade bread; polishing shoes; cleaning cars; carrying water, bread or other stuff; going through heaps of garbage looking for reusable items; tending animals; children taking care of children and adults; doing back-breaking adult work in shops, mines, construction or road work; repairing bikes; working in tea houses and restaurants; stealing; selling and buying drugs or cigarettes; fighting for or against the government-killing or dying; in juvenile or adult prisons; playing in the unpaved streets and dirty dusty fields; or risking their lives with unscrupulous human traffickers to reach Western countries. They are small, underweight, sickly, slow, lethargic and resigned. This is the future nation of the ravaged country. According to Daniel Toole, the South Asia regional director for UNICEF, Afghanistan is the worst place on the planet for a child to be born in."

Unfortunately this statement was made after nearly 10 years of U.S. military occupation of the country, and 400 billion dollars expended. The U.S. has spent about 750 million dollars on the Afghan education system since 2001, but that amount equals what is spent on the military approximately every two days in Afghanistan.

The 140,000 U.S. and other international soldiers and an equal number of high-paid military contractors are fighting a largely-invisible force of about 5,000 Taliban regulars shod in plastic flip-flops and traveling on Honda 90 motorcycles. The absurdity of this reality sinks in even further when one remembers that, in the 1970s, Afghanistan was a fabled garden land of pomegranates and pistachios. It is war that has left it a shattered image of its former self. War is the reason the Afghan people are impoverished. More war will not alter this fact.

Similarly, after two wars with the United States and 13 years of U.S.-imposed economic sanctions, the nearby country of Iraq is a smoking ruin where water, electricity, jobs, security, dignity and any hope for the 15-million children under the age of 16 are all in short supply. The U.S. price tag for the destruction of Iraq was approximately 1 trillion dollars.

A similar fate befell Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Serbia, Nicaragua and Guatemala when the U.S. unleashed a total of 10-million tons of bombs (20 billion pounds) and 1.5 million gallons of napalm on the hapless peasants of these lands. It was in the midst of the intense bombing of the peasants in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1967 that Martin Luther King observed that "The United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Today, in addition to the wars and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. also has side-show bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Libya.

There is a brutal but inevitable and poetic symmetry to the fact that the people of the United States, who show little or no empathy for or even awareness of the intense suffering, mass murder and ecocide that their government visits upon other members of the human family, are now faced with the economic collapse of their own country due to 100 years of military imperialism, and the impoverishment of their own children as one of the fruits of their incessant violence against other human beings and the earth.

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Dana Visalli is a professional botanist and organic market gardener living in Washington State.
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