RAWA News, May 29, 2008

Afghanistan: A Socio-Economically Irrelevant Space to be kept “Empty” through Least-Cost Military Means

The least-cost US/NATO intervention has been accompanied by very high levels of civilian casualties when measured appropriately

By Marc W. Herold

The facts regarding Afghanistan’s revealed irrelevance to the United States (and a reluctant NATO) are visible to all who wish to look: on average for every $100 spent on military efforts in Afghanistan, a trifling $4.50 is budgeted (and an even smaller amount is disbursed) for so-called reconstruction efforts (Table 1). At the same time, poppy cultivation and corruption have soared, poverty and inequality spiraled, and everyday life for average Afghans becomes both more difficult and insecure – though of course not for the small, urban, westernized Afghan elite. All this is to be expected if Afghanistan is seen as an “empty space” as I have argued many times, most recently in my book. (1) ( #notes ) The United States seeks to re-establish Afghanistan as an empty buffer state at least cost (by which I mean few soldiers’ bodies and few dollars). Interestingly, a central component of Al Qaeda’s strategy is to bleed America to bankruptcy and to spread out U.S forces to the greatest degree possible (2) ( #notes ) (both captured in the phrase “imperial overstretch”). All the talk about democracy and girls’ schools is for public consumption in Euro-America. Indeed, the new so-called humanitarian interventions are merely a smokescreen to hide and sell larger geo-political agendas. (3) ( #notes )

What reconstruction aid which has been disbursed is heavily biased towards high visibility, glamour projects (with military uses) and the much ballyhooed girls’ schools. If the do-gooder interventionists really cared about Afghan girls’ education, they would have channeled monies towards RAWA which has independently supported girls’ education in Afghanistan for over two decades, that is long before the likes of Sarah Chayes and Laura Bush discovered the girls of Afghanistan in October 2001. The new-found concern for Afghan women formed an integral part of selling the war to Euro-American publics. (4) ( #notes ) But the completion of highways serves another very important function: it helps “sell brand Karzai” to the Western voting public as western “hotel journalists” (5) ( #notes ) safely congregate for ribbon-cutting photo-ops of Karzai guarded by legions of foreign occupation troops. (6) ( #notes ) If donors really cared about the well-being of average Afghans, dollars would flow into building toilets rather than highways and shopping malls in Kabul. (7) ( #notes ) Naturally, some aid projects undertaken by NGO’s have had important wider beneficial effects, e.g., de-mining efforts.

The least-cost US/NATO intervention has been accompanied by very high levels of civilian casualties when measured appropriately, that is, not in absolute numbers but in for example civilian deaths per 10,000 tons of bombs dropped where the bombing of Afghanistan has been as deadly for civilians as that of Laos and Cambodia. (8) ( #notes ) Again, such callous disregard of Afghan civilians flows directly from the lack of any interest in the empty space of Afghanistan. The nation has nothing economically to offer: no exports of any significance, certainly no consumer market in which to make and sell brand products, and no attractiveness as an export platform for manufactures. In effect, the US/NATO intervention and occupation is simply to ensure that nothing “negative” (like the Soviet Army during the 1980’s or Al Qaeda camps in the early 2000’s) in a purely geo-political sense exists there.

The data presented in Table 2 complied from three publicly available data bases (9) ( #notes ) reveals that at the very least some 6,500 – 7,200 Afghans have died at the hands of the United States and NATO during the last seven years. We see that even during the years 2003-6 when the Afghan resistance was not yet fully re-organized, the share of reconstruction in total U.S. budgeted outlays hovered between, 10-15%. Another report mentioned that in seven years since U.S. occupation forces have been on the ground in Afghanistan, reconstruction aid amounted to a mere $11.5 billion whereas military outlays were $115.3 billion. (10) ( #notes ) Another recent statement said that western countries had delivered only $15 billion out of the promised $25 billion and that over 40 percent of aid returns to donor countries as corporate profits and high consultant fees. Pierre Lafrance of the MADERA non-governmental European organization which works in agricultural development stated, “For every $100 spent on the military operations in Afghanistan, $7 goes to civilian reconstruction.” (11) ( #notes ) Why should it be otherwise if Afghanistan is only an empty space?

Table 1. United States’ Budgeted Outlays by Fiscal Year (in $ billions)

YearTotalDODForeign aidAid/Total
FY 2001-2$ 20.820.00.83.8%
FY 200314.714.00.74.8%
FY 200414.512.42.215.1%
FY 200520.818.02.813.5%
FY 200618.917.91.910.0%
FY 200736.734.62.15.7%
FY 200827.

Sources: Wheeler (2007), op. cit. and Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, updated April 11, 2008)

Table 2. Summary of Civilian Impact Deaths Resulting from U.S./NATO Military Actions in Afghanistan,

October 7, 2001 – May 28, 2008
Time periodLow estimateHigh estimate
Oct 7, 2001 – May 31, 20033,0823,606
(Oct 7, 2001 – Dec 10, 2001)(2,569) (2,949)
June 1, 2003 – July 31, 2004412437
Aug 1, 2004 – December 31, 2006 727855
(during 2006)(303)(360)
Injured from US bombing who later died*640796
Sub total …….
Jan 1 – May 28, 2008

*estimates only for period Oct 7, 2001 – Dec 10, 2001 based upon ratio of 1.8 civilians injured for each civilian killed during U.S. bombing attack and a mortality rate of 15% of the injured (figure is based upon Afghan hospital data).

Sources: the data above is compiled from my three separate data files covering the period of October 7, 2001 – May 28, 2008. The raw data files may be accessed at http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold. The period from September 2004 – present is covered in The Afghan Victim Memorial Project which can be viewed at http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold/memorial.htm


1) See my Afganistan Como un Espacio Vacio. El Perfecto Estado Colonial del Siglo XXI (Madrid: Foca ediciones y distribuciones generales S.L., 2007), 312 pp. Earlier drafts of the chapters were published in a series of essays at www.cursor.org beginning with “Afghanistan as an Empty Space. The Perfect Neo-Colonial State of the 21st Century. Part One,” www.cursor.org (February 26, 2006) at http://www.cursor.org/stories/emptyspace.html

2) These points are made in Michael Scheuer, “Why Doesn’t al-Qaeda Attack the US?” Antinwar.com (May 29, 2008) at http://www.antiwar.com/index2345.html

3) As argued brilliantly in Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism. Using Human Rights to Sell War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 176 pp.

4) A point elaborated upon in Carol A. Stabile and Deepa Kumar, “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan,” Media, Culture & Society 27, 5 (2005): 765-782 at http://mcs.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/27/5/765.pdf?ck=nck

5) A phrase coined by Robert Fisk who explained, “I do object to reporters who do not leave their hotels, but do not tell their readers that they do not leave their hotels. That’s what I call “hotel journalism.” I’m not talking about any reporter on the beat anywhere as being a hotel journalist” (from Wajahat Ali, “Fisk Fighting,” Counter Punch (April 26/27, 2008) at http://www.counterpunch.org/waj04262008.html).

6) See my “Hat Trick: Selling Brand Karzai. Afghanistan as an Empty Space, Part Three,” www.cursor.org (March 10, 2006) at http://www.cursor.org/stories/emptyspace3.html

7) As I have argued in an unpublished manuscript, “An Excess of Corruption and a Deficit of Toilets: American and Karzai’s ‘Successes’ in Afghanistan” (Durham: manuscript, Department of Economics, University of New Hampshire, April 2008)

8) see my " 'Urban Dimensions' of the Punishment of Afghanistan by U.S. Bombs," in S. Graham and S. Marvin (eds), Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004): Table 17.2 A History of U.S. Bombing Campaigns and Resulting Civilian Deaths, page 316

9) At http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold I present disaggregated data which allows reproducing the aggregate results, that is, verification and sources, which is unlike the overall figures provided by the Associated Press which never provides disaggregated raw data.

10) Winslow T. Wheeler, “The Costs of the Afghanistan War,” Counter Punch (August 29, 2007) at http://www.counterpunch.org/wheeler08292007.html

11) “Paris Meet Sets Sight on Afghan Reconstruction,” Gulf Times (May 24, 2008)

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