Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The deafening silence

Yesterday evening I was a guest at KGNU, a community radio station in Boulder, CO. The talk show topic was Afghanistan, where the U.S. has fought its longest war.

With me on the show by phone was Noor, an Afghan law student who worked with me as a fixer and translator for my book, Above the Din of War, a collection of wide-ranging interviews with Afghans about how they see their lives, their country, and their future.

Their view is bleak, and rightly so.

I wrote the book because the Afghan people are the most important, yet most ignored piece of the Afghan puzzle. Yet their views, their wants, and their needs are ignored as the debate over Afghanistan flares and fades from day to day.

It is as if 30 million or so Afghans don't exist. Yet, they have suffered the brunt of nearly 13 years of war that the U.S. and the international community have waged in a futile effort to defeat the Taliban.

Afghanistan is slowly but surely disintegrating. As the U.S. and international community prepare to decamp, President Hamid Karzai flails and wails and his corrupted and disconnected government crumbles.

The U.S. is on a trajectory to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. It is not only a strategic and diplomatic mistake on a monumental scale, it also will open the door to a humanitarian disaster that will make Afghanistan's horrific civil war of the early 1990s look tame.

This became clear as Noor told the tragic tale of one of his best friends who died at the hands of the Taliban. The radio host had asked why, if most Afghans hate the Taliban, don't they rise up against them?

Noor explained that his friend had worked for one of the many private security firms operating in Afghanistan that collect exorbitant fees to protect people and materiel vital to the war.

When a relative died in Kabul, his friend's family took the body to be buried in their home village in Paktia province, one of the most deadly and dangerous for U.S. and Afghan forces. Paktia is on the border with Pakistan and in the rugged mountains where the Taliban holds sway.

When the Taliban learned that Noor's friend was in the village for the burial, they beheaded him. He was accused of being traitor and spy because he had worked for an international security company that supported the war against the Taliban.

The village was horrified, but crippled with fear and helpless to fight back, Noor explained. The villagers lacked the weapons, supplies, and men to resist the Taliban. The Afghan army unit in the area only sporadically fought the Taliban there and spent most of its time in a secured compound. The village was at the mercy of the Taliban.

No one in the village knew who the Taliban were, Noor said, since they were not locals and spoke a foreign dialect of the Pashtun language. The Taliban traveled freely across the border into Pakistan where they were supplied and armed. The local villagers were defenseless.

His friend's family was left destitute. His friend's widow and children now beg on the street and rely on handouts from friends and relatives.

This story illustrates what can and will happen many thousands of times over as U.S. and international forces complete the Afghan draw-down.

Noor is one of the lucky ones. He recently obtained a visa that will allow him to live in the U.S. and he stays in daily contact with his family and friends in Kabul. Everyone there is preparing for the worst, he said. Many are making arrangements to flee the country.

Meanwhile, the White House and the Pentagon tell the American public that the Afghan army can handle things, that a new president will be elected in April, and that all is well. Mission accomplished.

Sadly, the only accomplishment will be leaving Afghanistan in worse shape then when we arrived, a country edging toward civil war with tens of thousands of lives at risk.

When it came time for the call-in portion of the show, the station phones were silent. It was not surprising.  America grew tired of the war in Afghanistan long ago.

Yet, the silence was deafening.