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Men with Guns, in Kabul and Washington

For those who believe in making war, Kabul is a notable work product. After 30 years, the results are in: a devastated city.

A stale witticism calls Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai “the mayor of Kabul.” Now, not even. On block after block in the Afghan capital, AK-47s are conspicuous in the hands of men on guard against a near future. Widely seen as corrupt, inept and -- with massive election fraud -- now illegitimate, Karzai’s government is losing its grip along with its credibility.

Meanwhile, a war-stoking mindset is replicating itself at the highest reaches of official Washington -- even while polls tell us that the pro-war spin has been losing ground. For the U.S. public, dwindling support for the war in Afghanistan has reached a tipping point. But, as you’ve probably heard, the war must go on.

Kabul’s streets are blowing with harsh dust, a brutal harvest of chronic war that has destroyed trees and irrigation on mountains around the city.

Visiting Kabul in late August, I met a lot of wonderful people, doing their best in the midst of grim and lethal realities. The city seemed thick with pessimism.

In comparison, the mainline political discourse about Afghanistan in the United States is blithe. A familiar duet has the news media and the White House asking the perennial question: “Can the war be won?”

The administration insists that the answer is yes. The press is mixed. But they’re both asking the wrong question.

More relevant, by far, would be to ask: Should the U.S. government keep destroying Afghanistan in order to “save” it?

All over Kabul, men are tensely holding AK-47s; some are pointing machineguns from flatbed trucks. But the really big guns, of course, are being wielded from Washington, where administrative war-making thrives on abstraction. Day to day, it can be easy to order the destruction of what and who remain unseen.

Truly, the worst enemy in Afghanistan is poverty. But the U.S. government keeps waving a white flag.

Does anyone in the upper reaches of the Obama administration actually grasp what it means that Afghanistan’s poverty is very close to the worst in the world?

The current version of the best and the brightest should ponder the kind of data that can be found in the CIA World Factbook, such as Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate -- defined as “the number of deaths of infants under one year old in a given year per 1,000 live births in the same year.” The current number is 154.

Last year, while the U.S. government was spending nearly $100 million a day on military efforts in Afghanistan, an Oxfam report put the total amount of humanitarian aid to the country from all sources at just $7 million per day. Not much has changed since then. The supplemental funding measure that the White House pushed through Congress a few months ago devotes 90 percent of the U.S. spending in Afghanistan to military expenditures.

Dimes to nurture life. Dollars to destroy it.

I hate to think of the kind of future that the U.S. war escalation foreshadows for the very thin children I saw in Kabul, flying ragged little kites or playing with toys like an empty plastic soda bottle with a rope tied around its neck.

Echoing now is a speech from Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1967. If we replace the word “Vietnam” with “Afghanistan,” the gist of his message is with us in the autumn of 2009:

“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Afghanistan. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Afghanistan. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

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