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General News    H3'ed 9/19/19

Tomgram: Stephanie Savell, The Saddest Story of All

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just in case you hadn't heard the good news, the last man from the president's foreign policy "team" still standing, Trump whisperer Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, recently left National Security Advisor John Bolton in the dust. Bolton, who was axed or resigned, depending on who's telling the tale, can now write his memoirs (Wars I Meant to, But Never Got to, Fight), while raising money for Republican congressional candidates who are eager to start yet more conflicts across the planet.

Even before the abrupt cancellation of, and imbroglio about, Trump's invitation to Taliban leaders to visit Camp David, which evidently precipitated Bolton's hasty departure, Pompeo had some genuinely good news to offer Americans about their 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. Not that it's over, of course, not yet, but that we've essentially won anyway! (Feel free to start chanting "USA! USA!" now.) Or rather, to quote the secretary of state, we "delivered" big time in that country and so have been highly "successful" in our mission there! As he put it in early September, "If you go back and look at the days following 9/11, the objectives set out were pretty clear: to go defeat al-Qaeda, the group that had launched the attack on the United States of America from Afghanistan. And today, al-Qaeda... doesn't even amount to a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan."

So victory at last, not just over John Bolton but over al-Qaeda, too! Forget that al-Qaeda offshoots have sprouted and thrived from Africa to Syria, Yemen to Afghanistan in the course of the never-ending wars that began with the Afghan invasion. Forget as well that the American war there, particularly in the air, intensified in recent months amid peace talks -- above all, the war of bombast in which Pompeo (like the president) recently bragged that we were hitting the Taliban big time, even as Trump declared peace talks with that movement's leaders "dead."

"In just the last 10 days alone," Pompeo said proudly, with an evident urge to revive the Vietnam-era body count, "we've killed over 1,000 Taliban." Such bragging aside, the Afghan War is not only the longest in our history and getting longer by the day, but obviously a lost war as well. And while the president is still pondering the withdrawal of about 5,000 American troops from Afghanistan (putting U.S. forces more or less back where they were when his generals convinced him to send in 4,000 troops in mid-2017), military figures, active and retired, continue to promote an American presence there into eternity and the media continues to raise fears of a "premature" withdrawal from that country. All of this may seem perfectly normal in the age of Trump, but looked at another way, as TomDispatch regular Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project, does today, it also couldn't be sadder. In part, this is because, given the ordnance the U.S. has already expended in that country, the war there may never end for many Afghans. But let Savell explain. Tom

The Imperial Debris of War
Why Ending the Afghan War Won't End the Killing
By Stephanie Savell

I've never been to Afghanistan, but I am the mother of two young children. So when I imagine what life must be like there after 18 years of war, my mind conjures up the children most vividly -- the ones who have been affected by the conflict -- and their parents. I think of the 12-year-old boy who was carrying water to a military checkpoint in a remote part of that country, earning pennies to help sustain his family, whose legs were blown off by a landmine. Or the group of children at a wedding party, playing behind the house where the ceremony was taking place. One of them picked up an unexploded shell, fired from a helicopter, that hadn't detonated in battle. It blew up, killing two children, Basit and Haroon, and wounding 12 others. What must it be like to care for a five year old -- the age of my oldest child -- who is maimed and who needs to learn how to walk, play, and live again with ill-fitting prosthetics?

A major legacy of the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001 and shows little sign of actually ending anytime soon, will be the "explosive remnants of war" -- a term for all the landmines and unexploded bombs and other weaponry that have been left behind in the earth. This debris of America's endless war, still piling up, is devastating in many ways. It makes it so much harder for an agricultural population to sustain itself on the land. It wreaks havoc on Afghans' emotional wellbeing and sense of security. And it poses special hazards for children, who are regularly injured and killed by the left-behind explosives of an already devastating war as they play, herd livestock, or collect water and firewood.

Given the expected drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan -- despite the recent breakdown in peace negotiations with the Taliban, President Trump continues to indicate that he may pursue such a path -- and the possibility of an official end to the U.S. war there, this topic is both pressing and relevant to public debate in America. Offering aid and reparations for the horrific ongoing costs of explosive military waste should be a priority on Washington's future agenda.

"The Human and Financial Costs of the Explosive Remnants of War in Afghanistan," a new report issued today by the Costs of War project, which I co-direct, at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, offers a sense of the scale of the damage in Afghanistan. According to the report's authors, Suzanne Fiederlein and SaraJane Rzegocki of James Madison University, at least 5,442 people have been killed and 14,693 people have been injured by devices embedded in or left on the ground since the start of the US-led war in 2001.

Of those victims, the great majority are boys and men. A casualty analysis by the Danish Demining Group in 2017 suggested that boys are particularly vulnerable because of their day-to-day activities and chores, but women and girls, too, are increasingly becoming casualties of unexploded ordnance, particularly when traveling. In 2017, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan expressed concern about a "65% jump in the number of children killed or wounded by explosive remnants as fighting has spread to heavily populated civilian areas."

The U.S. has provided significant financial support for humanitarian mine-clearing programs in Afghanistan. In recent years, however, that funding has been dropping. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service, Afghanistan has made some genuine progress toward its goal of freeing itself of landmines and other unexploded debris by 2023. Yet international financial support for such activities has dropped to 41% of what it was in 2011. Even if the Afghan War truly ended tomorrow, a sustained commitment of financial aid over many years would be necessary to clear that country of all the ordnance sewn into its soil as a result of the last 18 years of America's war.

A Legacy of War

The new Costs of War report reveals that the leading weapons causing such damage have changed over time. Even before 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, that country stood near the top of the list of those afflicted by abandoned landmines. The devices remained from the 1980s conflict between the Soviet Union and extremist Islamist rebels, the mujahedeen, backed by Washington and funded and supported by the CIA.

In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, international and Afghan clearance groups worked hard to clean up those minefields. Their efforts were, however, often thwarted by brutal new conflicts, including an Afghan civil war from 1992 to 1996 and the period from 1996 to 2001 in which the Taliban largely controlled the country. Still, over the past few decades, such groups managed to remove two million pieces of unexploded ordnance.

As the latest data indicates, landmines from the Soviet conflict have still been causing 7% of remnant-related casualties since 2010. Most of those hurt by explosive ordnance, however, are victims of the ongoing, complex armed conflict that emerged from the U.S.-led invasion -- that is, a range of weapons used and left behind by American forces, Taliban fighters, and Islamic State-affiliated groups. These include grenades, projectile weapons, mortars, cluster munitions, and large bombs that failed to explode as intended, but are still live and prone to going off if touched or moved at a later date. Taliban and ISIS militants are also increasingly relying on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set off by someone stepping on them or otherwise unwittingly activating them. If not triggered at the time of battle, they can kill or injure civilians long after, even in areas in which there is no longer active fighting.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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