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      Afghanistan: A Victim of Imperialist's New Era of War and Occupation

      By Nita Palmer

      It has now become an irrefutable fact that the events of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have changed the course of global politics. In the 13 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center, the world has been defined more than anything else by ongoing wars and occupations in the elusive battle against terrorism – a fight which began, and continues today, in the mountains of Afghanistan.

      The protracted war in Afghanistan has been defining point not only for world politics, but also of Canadian foreign policy. The war has marked a step away from the official doctrine of Canada as a “peacekeeping” nation towards a doctrine of unapologetic warmongering – albeit in the name of “fighting terrorism” and developing “human rights and democracy”.

      It is therefore imperative that we as Canadians and as citizens of the world reflect on and learn from the longest war in modern history.

      On December 28, 2014, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan officially ended. However, this hardly marked the end of the thirteen-year war. In place of the ISAF flag, a flag for NATO's new mission, Operation Resolute Support, was raised. The new mission will employ 12,000 soldiers in a “supporting role” for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Afghan police. In addition to these soldiers, 5,500 American soldiers will remain in Afghanistan, primarily elite troops involved in counterterrorism operations. However, the bulk of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan will not be soldiers, but 20,000 heavily-armed foreign 'contractors' – employed by companies notorious for their shady human rights records in combat zones.

      Marking the end of the mission, US President Barack Obama stated, “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion”.

      However, anyone watching events in Afghanistan can see that combat is far from concluded.

      The United Nations estimates that over 10,000 Afghans were killed or injured in 2014. Attacks by the Taliban on foreign outposts in Kabul have become commonplace – and the Taliban have gained back a substantial amount of territory in rural Afghanistan. Indeed, the security situation for foreign forces and the Afghan army, which is supposed to be taking over security of the country is looking rather grim. In 2014 alone, over 5,000 Afghan soldiers were killed – nearly double the number of foreign troops killed in the last decade-plus. For all the talk of 'mission accomplished' in Afghanistan, it is clear that today the country is in perhaps the worst situation since the 2001 invasion.

      Over the last fourteen years, the mission has cost over a trillion dollars. At least 21,000 Afghans have lost their lives in the war (although the true number is likely much higher). As well, 3387 foreign soldiers have lost their lives – 158 of them Canadian.

      So what has been achieved for this massive human and financial cost? Those hailing the mission as a success point to a number of achievements: schools, hospitals and roads built across the country; increasing school enrollment; the Taliban ousted from power and a democratically elected government installed in its place.

      However, the reality on the ground – as told by Afghans and front-line aid workers – is a far cry from the official line of NATO countries.

      In February 2014, the medical aid organization Medcins Sans Frontieres published a damning report on the state of health care in Afghanistan, titled “Between Rhetoric and Reality: The Ongoing Struggle to Access Healthcare in Afghanistan”.

      Introducing the report, its authors note, “the results are grim. Statistics and personal accounts highlight the devastating impact of the ongoing war on Afghan communities. In a country with some of the highest mortality rates in the world, the conflict is causing widespread disruption to health services, particularly in remote areas.”

      The report, based on data collected from interviewing patients and those accompanying them at MSF and Afghan hospitals, found that one in eight of those October 2014 Protest in Kabul, Afghanistan interviewed had been prevented from getting to a hospital previously. Eighty- seven percent of those interviewed said the conflict had prevented them from getting there. Some had been prevented from leaving their homes due to fighting or lack of security; others faced harassment at checkpoints while en route to the hospital.

      Cost, distance, and poor quality of health care at some facilities were found to be major barriers as well. In fact, 13% of respondents from Kabul province and 26% of those from Khost reported that they had family or close friends die due to lack of access to health care within the previous year.

      Another major concern cited was the use of medical facilities as a base for combat operations. In eighty percent of cases reported, it was Afghan government forces which took over hospitals for military use. This dangerous and irresponsible practice puts patients and staff at risk of attack and serves to further prevent those in need from seeking help at those facilities.

      In summary, the report notes that “it is striking how far the accounts of ordinary Afghans differ from prevailing narratives of progress. Packaging the intervention into a simple success story risks obscuring the reality of the ongoing war and people’s increasing humanitarian needs.”

      The Afghan education system is in a bad spot as well. Although enrollment numbers have increased, this number does not necessarily reflect the number of children actually attending school. Many schools report that only half of students enrolled attend classes. The necessity to earn a living for their family prevents many children from attending school, while others are barred by security concerns and ongoing fighting.

      For those who are able to attend classes, the quality of education is often sorely lacking. According to a report by the Afghan Ministry of Education, only 40% of Afghan schools have permanent buildings. The majority are held in tents or simply in the open air. The lack qualified teachers is another major concern. The Ministry of Education reports that 80% of Afghanistan's teachers either have not completed post-secondary studies or do not even hold a high school diploma themselves. There are financial barriers to achieving an education as well – most families cannot afford to buy the books or even pencils and paper required for their children to complete their school work. As a result of all these factors, high school graduation rates remain low.

      In the field of womens' rights, another cause championed by foreign forces, the situation also remains dire. Yes, there are women serving in the Afghan parliament now, and even a few in the Afghan police force. However, the campaign for liberalization on the surface has done little to improve the lives of most Afghan women. They face not only systemic and societal discrimination, but the harsh reality of poverty and war as well. Thousands of women have found themselves in desperate poverty after their husbands have been killed or injured in the war; these women are often reduced to begging, prostitution, or even selling some of their children in order to feed their families. The ongoing violence, instability, and high unemployment rates have taken a psychological toll on men as well – and their pain and anger is often taken out on their wives and daughters. The UN recorded that in 2013, violence against women in Afghanistan increased by 28% compared with the previous year – a number which has been steadily rising. Rather than improving, conditions have in fact worsened over the last decade for the majority of Afghan women. This is perhaps most evident in the epidemic of suicide among Afghan women. The number of women taking their own lives is increasing all the time, with 2500 deaths in 2013.

      After 14 years of war, the human rights situation remains dire. However, there are two important objectives that remain for the US and their NATO allies: ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and establishing the country as a functioning democracy.

      The Taliban were ousted from official power rather quickly after the 2001 bombing campaign. However, after 14 years of war, they are now gaining strength and influence across much of the country. Far from eliminating them, the Taliban have become the de facto government in many areas of the country where the Kabul government simply has no power. In a number of districts, the Taliban collect taxes, run schools, and mediate disputes through a court system which many Afghans note is more efficient and less corrupt than official government channels.

      While the Taliban are having some success at expanding their influence throughout the country, the Afghan government, for all its Western funding and support, seems to be floundering in that regard. The “transition to democracy” has become a little more than a running joke in the country. Elections have been marred by low voter turnout, massive fraud, vote- buying, and corruption. The ineffectiveness of government combined with extortion by local officials and blatant vote-buying by various warlords has left Afghans with little faith in their new “democratic” system. As a result, The government has little real power beyond Kabul, while much of the country remains governed by the Taliban or various warlords. In much of Afghanistan, the reality is that the Taliban is often the lesser of two evils.

      With Western aid starting to dwindle, it is looking doubtful whether the country will even be able to support itself. Economic growth, which had been fueled in large part by foreign contracts, is slowing drastically. In fact, without the $8 billion in foreign assistance the Afghan government currently receives, it will be unable to even pay the wages of its own soldiers, which foreign forces have worked so hard to build up. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s underground economy is booming. Opium production increased 36% in 2013, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The crop is now worth 4% of the country’s GDP.

      After fourteen years of war, the US/NATO mission in Afghanistan is certainly not being brought to a ‘responsible conclusion’. In fact, rather than preventing it, fourteen years of war has now turned Afghanistan into a failed state: the government has little control over much of the country, is unable to provide the most basic services to the majority of its citizens, and corruption runs rampant.

      Fourteen years of war have not brought human rights or democracy, nor have they even rid the country of the Taliban. Terrorist attacks on Western targets, both within Afghanistan’s borders and in Western countries themselves, have increased.

      Even by their own measure, US and NATO countries have failed Afghanistan. This failure has come at an unacceptable price: tens of thousands of Afghan lives, and many thousands more maimed. Hundreds of thousands have displaced by the fighting, many more forced into poverty. US and NATO forces have not simply failed Afghanistan; they have destroyed it.

      That being said, the most important question that remains for Afghanistan is: which way forward?

      On one hand, foreign forces have proven that they are a force only of destruction in Afghanistan. On the other, if foreign troops leave it will be both difficult and dangerous for Afghans to rebuild the country on their own.

      Which path is the right one? Having spent over a decade researching not only the war in Afghanistan, but also the beautiful, rugged country itself, I must conclude that Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans.

      Throughout the long and rich history of their nation, Afghans have driven out every foreign occupier – and proved time and again that they are more than capable of building a thriving nation on their own. Let us not forget that is was only a few decades ago – before foreign intervention tore the country apart - that Kabul was a bustling modern metropolis, known as “the Paris of Central Asia”.

      The articles in this book form a sort of chronicle of the Afghan war. My hope is that they can present to the reader a perspective of the war in Afghanistan which is too often silenced: the voice of the Afghan people calling for an end to this injustice.

      Finally, I hope you will join me – along with millions in Afghanistan and around the world – in demanding an end to this brutal war.

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