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Men with Guns, in Kabul and Washington

Norman Solomon

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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