I had never considered that part of my own peace activism would be to visit a war torn country. I knew several people who had travelled to Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also knew people who had worked in refugee camps in Syria. It didn’t occur to me that I could undertake such a journey until about a year ago. I had been taking part in the monthly vigil against drones at RAF Waddington. One day I travelled up to Lincoln with Maya Evans of Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. She had recently returned from three months in Kabul. On the long awkward journey, Maya told me all about the young members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and their life in community. Eventually she said, ‘Have you ever thought of visiting Afghanistan?’
I had spent so much time praying about, discussing, protesting against UK involvement in NATO’s wars, my heart knew the true next step was to visit the site of so much suffering. At the same time I was nervous and found it difficult to work out why I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. Travelling to Afghanistan in a group, we could make the situation for our hosts potentially more dangerous. I recognised my heart was telling me to go, I recognised the Spirit was calling me to go, but my understanding had a difficult time catching up. It castigated me for causing too much bother, for spending too much money, for putting lives in danger, for missing family Christmas. It came up with a thousand excuses.
Afghanistan is a beautiful country like all countries are beautiful; the snowcapped mountain range hovers over the smog; on a clear day the sky is the most intense blue I have ever seen. Sometimes it was so cold the open sewer in the street was frozen over, but during the day kept us warm. I listened to the friendly, young Afghans as they talked about their homes in Bamyam province. I looked at their pictures of child shepherds, rivers, trees, mountains.
Once I said, ‘What a beautiful day!’ and my new friends laughed. ‘This is Afghanistan. There is a war on.’ But it was a beautiful day. The smog had been blown away. The green flag of faith on the top of the building opposite and the washing lines on the balconies were all fluttering. People were standing on street corners, gesticulating, chatting. Students were being students.
I felt excited to be in what felt like the centre of the world; Russia to the north, China and Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west.
This would be my peace message, an obvious message but one I could now hear in reality not just in theory. One I need to repeat. Countries are full of young and old, thoughtful, hopeful people just like us. We have no right to destroy their means to live, to make life so difficult, a whole country dysfunctional, a whole country traumatised, so many families having lost a father, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister. As I was there the US army was leaving, the UK army had already left. One boy said to me, ‘Hey! Our countries are no longer at war. We can be friends!’
Another message I held close to my heart is one inspired by scripture but also a practical one. Our trip wasn’t going to be very long, only three weeks. What could I do in three weeks? What skills could I possibly bring? I’m a literacy teacher, but only in English, not Dari. I’m not a journalist. I know nothing of aid work.
On the Sunday of Christ the Kind I sat in my local church searching and searching for an answer. Why was I going to Kabul? I went through the works of mercy, the gospel reading for that day. Separate the sheep from the goats. Feed the hungry. It’s not helpful the other members of my group said, to take food to the refugee camps. We could cause a riot. Clothe me when I am naked. As westerners, our group had a dim view of that too. Gloves and socks and pants? We hadn’t raised money to buy food or clothes. I’m not a journalist so I can’t add an eye witness account. ‘Absorb!’ the rest of the group told me.
I was thirsty and you gave me drink. There was fantastic hospitality in Kabul. Everywhere we went, a large pot of green tea came out, hot, steaming, weak and left on top of the wood stove to keep warm. It was served with a thermos of hot water, sometimes flavoured with cardamom. You could drink the plain hot water or use it to top up your glass of tea. In the morning our young hostess came rushing in to put glasses of tea by our beds. After the first night I woke up with my throat sore and feeling as if it was full of gravel. Our hosts said, ‘You’re not drinking enough.’ Fumes from the wood, coal and diesel that people burn to keep warm, fills the atmosphere with a strange yellow smell, which burns the throat and nostrils.
Going through the works of mercy, I came to the last one. I was sick and in prison and you visited me. I was all those things. But this was something I could do. I do know how to do this. Hospitals are full of visitors. I have sat beside the beds of elderly relatives often enough, felt embarrassed, been told to go away. When someone is sick, they’re not polite. All I can do is sit there. There is not much I can do except stay a while. And just be.
That was what I could do in Afghanistan. I was visiting; nothing grand. The country is sick, from lack of infrastructure, from the effects of one war piled upon another war, from lack of manufacturing base, from pollution. And the young people are imprisoned by lack of opportunity, unemployment, uncertainty, the unpredictable security situation. So this was the main reason to go, to be a person who visited.
It gave me great courage, while I was in Kabul, to obey these words of encouragement from scripture.
This is an overview of the Afghanistan – The Forgotten War: Britain’s Legacy conference held in London on Saturday 11th October 2014 by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK (VCNVUK) to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the current war in Afghanistan.
British troops will vacate their final base in Helmand, Afghanistan, later this month and 31st December 2014 is the date set for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the NATO/ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) coalition from the country, effectively signalling the end of the current war.
Many Afghans are positive about and look forward to rebuilding their country in the post-conflict period. Having just elected not one but two new leaders, challenges lie ahead for both the leadership and ordinary Afghans.
Almost immediately upon the election of the new government, the US and Afghanistan signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) the previous president had refused to sign, whose terms include the retention of almost 10,000 US soldiers in the country after 2014 to work “on two important security missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and supporting cooperation against terrorism”. A similar agreement was signed with NATO, bringing the total number of foreign troops remaining in the country to around 12,000, 500 of whom will be from the United Kingdom.
The withdrawal of foreign soldiers, however, does not signal an end to fighting in the ongoing civil war between different ethnic and religious factions and war lords. With the focus on the US and NATO’s activities in Afghanistan, this war has been underreported in the international media.
The impact of the war on all parties will continue for many decades and in many ways. David Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan as the first foreign leader to meet new president Ashraf Ghani reflects this. While there, he reiterated the old fallacy that troops on the ground thereprevented terrorist attackshere.
With the conference falling at the end of the annual Drones Week of Action (4-11 October) and the planned final withdrawal this month, the focus was very much on Britain’s military legacy and ongoing covert engagement in Afghanistan. The conference was hosted and introduced by Maya Evans from VCNCUK. Around 50 people attended.
The Toxic Remnants
Andy Garrity from the Toxic Remnants of War (TRW) project, which looks at the detrimental impact of military activities and materials on the environment and human health, spoke about the consequences of the NATO drawdown and the toxic environmental legacy of the war.
In the process of withdrawal, over 1200 bases will either be closed or handed over to the Afghan authorities. The BSA negotiated at the end of September does not provide adequate rules on how bases are to be dismantled or decommissioned in an environmentally and human health-friendly way. Although the 2014 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) complies with Afghan legislation, the level of environmental protection offered is relatively low and there is no guarantee of enforcement by any of the parties.
There are many sources of environmental and health risks and pollution. Practice firing ranges, used to train soldiers, are usually abandoned due to the cost of clean-up and the lack of legislation making it mandatory. Residues and unexploded munitions stay behind. While the US says that it could take up to 5 years and $250 million to clean up such ranges, there has been no discussion on actually doing this.
According to the UN, children are at greatest risk from unexploded ordnances (UXOs): explosive weapons that did not explode at the time they were used and can still be detonated decades later. This is due to children, in particular, scavenging for scrap metal among the discarded materials to sell to earn money for their families. In addition to the risk of explosions, they are also exposed to carcinogens and UXO contamination.
Other risks are posed by MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles designed to withstand IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which are often simply abandoned. The cost of returning MRAPs to the US is estimated at $500 million where they would be of no use. These vehicles contain harmful carcinogenic materials, including cadmium, chromium and lead.
Before abandoning bases, many materials are disabled for “security” purposes, such as computers, fans, turbines, etc. and are of no further practical use. This scrap waste is sometimes abandoned on roadsides and poses risks to children playing and rummaging for metals to sell. Other waste from bases is consigned to burn pits, including aviation fuel, chemicals and clothing. This takes place at most bases and emits low-level pollution. Local residents have complained of increasing rates of asthma and respiratory problems. US army veterans have complained about higher rates and risks of cancer. While some compensation has been paid to veterans, following campaigns, the US maintains there is no risk of harm and admits no liability. No civilian health studies have been carried to assess the risk to Afghans or possible compensation owed to them.
While NATO and ISAF troops already adhere to low levels of environmental protection, drawdown has meant their replacement by private military contractors, who often overlook existing regulations and are not subject to public scrutiny. Currently outnumbering foreign soldiers two to one, their use is likely to increase further and their actions lack transparency, posing a concern for the future.
The total cost of clean-up has been estimated at $5.7 billion by the US. TRW believes that NATO and ISAF must be held accountable for environmental damage and damage to public health. In addition, military and security agreements must include more strongly-worded environmental protection. Seeking accountability, however, is hindered by the fact that this could set a precedent for conflicts elsewhere and claims for compensation and clean-up. Dangerous in the longer term, the focus is only on avoiding the cost of cleaning up right now.
Droning Wars continue…
Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK talked about the UK’s ongoing military involvement in remote control drone warfare in Afghanistan. Due to the secrecy surrounding operations, there is no data available to provide accurate statistics on strikes and casualties in Afghanistan; however, more drone strikes take place in Afghanistan than anywhere else. Cole called drones the “new form of warfare”, with remote control strikes being launched against targets from thousands of miles away.
The UK started using military drones in December 2004 along with the US as part of a joint taskforce in Iraq. Using its own MQ-9 Reaper drones, Britain has since become addicted to drone warfare; in spite of the drawdown of troops over the past few years, the number of drone strikes has multiplied. Britain has spent over two billion pounds on buying and developing drones. In 2014 alone, over £100 million has been committed to drone technology development.
Drones do, however, have certain advantages. With the war in Afghanistan longer than World Wars I and II combined, and increasing public hostility to war, especially the commitment of troops on the ground, drones offer governments a means of continuing their war games in a manner that bypasses public and media scrutiny: secrecy is a large part of the drone package.
In 2009/2010, almost half of all air strikes were by drones; that number is now over 80%. Virtually nothing is known about the impact on the ground. Following an investigation by the LA Times in 2010, only one incident in Uruzgan province, where 23 civilians were killed, including children, prompted a military investigation leading to compensation for the families. There were no prosecutions. Patchy media coverage is available; on the day of the conference, two people were reported to have been killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan border.
An important point raised is that the secrecy surrounding the use of military drones is closely linked to a wide network of intelligences bases around the world, such as those revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks about the activity of the US National Security Agency (NSA). With an increasing number of bases being used all over the world, the surveillance society and intelligence-gathering aspects of drones must not be overlooked. With an ongoing UN inquiry into the impact of drone warfare on civilians, it is clear that it offers no solution to global security problems.
The True Cost of War
Former military officer, barrister and author of Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War,Frank Ledwidge spoke about the cost of the war.
The war has had a human cost for both the UK and Afghanistan; 453 British soldiers have been killed and more than 2500 injured, more than 600 seriously. Once they leave the military, they are only entitled to civilian support on the National Health Service (NHS), and not any special support, as is claimed. Although the remaining British army in Helmand have not been engaged in combat for most of 2014, the impact of their presence on the almost two million residents of the province is almost entirely unknown.
For most people in Helmand, however, the war is far from over with heavy fighting between local groups. While even NATO has recognised that most so-called Taliban are in fact local residents, as compared to the smaller contingent of asli (original) Taliban who ran the country before the war, many engaged in the current fighting are local people in gangs, drug dealers, war lords, etc.
An area now better known for its production of almost half the world’s opium harvest in 2013, at the time, the British army gave this rural area importance on the pretext of preventing domestic terrorism by placing troops on the ground to defeat the Taliban. In fact, there have been far more civilian casualties, even though official statistics are not broken down. Larger than the number of fatalities is the number of people injured or maimed. At the height of fighting between NATO/ISAF and Afghans in the province in 2010, in one month, one hospital admitted more than 4000 people.
Official government statistics have put the military cost of the war in Helmand at £25 billion, but the actual cost is over £35 billion, with fuel as one of the most expensive items. In the longer term, the single greatest cost will be care for veterans and wounded soldiers. Based on estimates for the US by experts there, Ledwidge has estimated a similar veteran care cost for the UK from Afghanistan of around £50 billion.
According to US experts, the cost of veteran care peaks 40 years after the conflict. In a freedom of information request made by Ledwidge to the MoD, he was informed that no budget has been set aside for Afghan veterans. There is only a £70 million fund for combat stress.
In conclusion, Ledwidge stated that there is no causal link between the Afghanistan war and domestic terrorism in the UK, even as this is being used as pretext right now for interference in Iraq and Syria. He stated that “we left Helmand a far worse place than we found it”. Looking at the human and financial cost of war, “going into the next war, we need to ask is this something we need to do?”
Afghan Women’s Voices
Skyping Kabul with Sabir, Maya and Farzana
Before concluding the conference and holding a set of afternoon workshops on issues such as Afghan women, drones and the war on terror, Kabul street children, and opportunities to build peace, a short Skype conversation was held with Afghan women in Kabul from the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), who work closely with VCNVUK. “Saving Afghan women” was one of the main pretexts for the war.
Asked about their views on the new government, some of the women said that it was too early to tell but that people were still optimistic; others said they were not optimistic as the current government included politicians who were involved in various wars over the past three decades. One woman there would be no real change until the style of leadership changes, eradicating nepotism and the culture of self-serving war lords who have no interest in the concerns of ordinary people.
Asked their views about the retention of thousands of foreign soldiers in the country, all of the women were against this as soldiers and military strategies have failed to bring about peace. Asked about the effects of war on women, one said a major impact was the loss of their husbands and children. In 2013, most casualties in Afghanistan were children. They also spoke about being psychologically traumatised, making many afraid to leave their homes. With the focus on staying alive, support for families and building families and communities takes secondary importance.
With thirteen years of war focused on combat and not people, one of the major challenges identified by this second annual conference is how to stop Afghanistan falling off the radar completely at the end of this year. The war is not over and media and public lack of awareness and disinterest must not serve as a pretext for further abuses and atrocities.
The conference was supported by Drone Campaign Network.
Here in Kabul, Sherri Maurin and I are guests of the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ recently formed live-in community for young women. Hollyhocks in the garden reach as high as the second floor of our living space. Rose bushes, morning glories and four-o-clocks have bloomed, and each day we eat tomatoes, mint and green onions plucked from the well-cared for garden. The water source is a hose and tank outside, (there’s no indoor plumbing) so dishes and clothes are cleaned outside. The latrine is also outside, –and unfortunately we’re sharing it with playful kitties, but otherwise Zarghuna, Zahidi and Zahro have managed to efficiently manage almost every detail of housekeeping, each day, by 7:00 a.m.
A group of local seamstresses also have two rooms here, but lately they have been with their families as Ramadan came to a close followed by Eid celebrations.
Going and coming from our communities to “the center” is a 35 minute walk through village-like streets if you take the back ways. The Borderfree Community Center, when it was first rented, needed considerable rehab and repairs. Hakim, Faiz, Zekerullah and Abdulhai worked very hard to shape it up. Now, guests enter an attractive space, neatly painted, with plenty of classroom and meeting space. Plants, curtains, photo exhibits, and choices for rugs and carpets have all been carefully chosen. Sadaf, one of the APV women who has been very active Borderfree scarf production, organized art students from local Universities to paint images on the walls of a children’s classroom as well as the reception area. Painted on a wall inside the center’s gate is a playful graffiti with lots of floating bubbles. Letters floating in some of the bubbles spell out “We love Peace,” although certain bubbles have wafted up and down, making it a challenge for linear thinkers. Another artist, a well-known cartoonist, painted an image on the outside wall of the Borderfree Community Center, (a wall that can be seen by anyone passing by), of a figure shooting a slingshot at a drone, but instead of a rock, a red heart breaks the drone in half.
The graffiti, ‘We Love Peace’, on the wall of Borderfree Community Centre of Nonviolence
Classes and programs keep the center lively. Earlier this week, the center invited a small group of people to the first session of a four week course orienting people to better understand nonviolence and the APV history and goals. We also gathered for the weekly Global Awareness sessions which focus on a wide range of topics related to militarism, environmental concerns, and socioeconomic inequalities. Hamidullah Natiq, a seasoned practitioner of conflict resolution in Afghanistan, meets with the group once a week. Local children who are part of a “street kids” project come once a week for Dari and math classes, guided by Hadisa and Farzana, two capable young volunteer teachers. And, once a month, the “street kids” receive, for their families, large sacks of rice and containers of cooking oil. These donations allow them to attend school rather than work as vendors on the streets of Kabul.
Rent for the center costs $500 per month. The APVs hope that by selling the borderfree sky blue scarves they can help cover this cost. Sherri, I and other internationals will encourage people in our home locales to assist with the center’s expenses.
During a recent visit to the Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, here in Kabul, the staff shared with us news that they get about what’s happening around the country. They rely on reports from staff working at several dozen clinics and the two main hospitals they run in two additional provinces. Much of our conversation pointed to the reality that Kabul is “a bubble.” Full scale wars are being fought by heavily armed sides in eastern and southern Afghanistan, but generally the only news coverage that goes beyond Afghanistan pertains to Kabul. The groups fighting the Afghan government include various warlords, the Taliban, drug kingpins, and foreign fighters, some of whom may be strategizing ways to cut off the roads to Kabul. Clearly, the Kabul “bubble” can be quite vulnerable.
I asked Faiz what he most appreciates about the center. He immediately spoke of the graffiti outside, saying that it gives him hope and suggests a sense of freedom. The heart of love that breaks apart the drone, propelled by a slingshot converted into a peace-making tool, points all of us in a direction, sorely needed, that aims to abolish war. I hope the Bordefree Centre, like the live-in community’s gardens, will flourish.