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The Hindu, July 20, 2008

Inside a living hell - Afghanistan

Each day is a harrowing experience for Afghan civilians, caught as they are between the State, insurgent forces, hired goons and private militia. The biggest tragedy of this war on terror is the spiralling toll of civilian casualties.

By Aunohita Mojumdar

It’s been a week since the blast and yet I have been unable to delete the names of Brig. Mehta and Venkat from my phone. A strange and illogical reluctance as if removing the names would cut the last chord of the relationship. For the third per son I knew, much longer than the two diplomats, their driver Niamat, I had no contact number. But even knowing he was dead, I looked for his ready smile and Salaam when I walked into the embassy. In five years of living in Afghanistan I have witnessed much violence and seen its sure and steady escalation, but never has it invaded my personal space with the immediacy that it did on July 7.

The result was a mixture of horror, followed by relief and immense guilt. Horror at the death of three persons I knew, followed by relief for the persons who were still alive and then a crushing sense of guilt. Guilt both because of the relief and guilt at the fact that this was the first time in witnessing all this violence that I had been so shaken, imagining this is what it must be like for Afghans every day — only so much worse. The virulent attack reinforced both how close the violence was and yet, how insulated I, as a foreigner, was from it.

An Afghan child wounded in a suicide attack
July 7, 2008: A 2-year-old Afghan child wounded in a suicide attack near Indian Embassy in Kabul. She lost her mother and 4 other family members.

Increasing violence

Each year since the parliamentary elections of 2005, Afghanistan has seen a spiralling toll of human lives. Initially, the resurgent Taliban burst out once again in the southern provinces, where they had their stronghold, engaging the international forces in conventional warfare. The escalated fighting was explained away by the military forces who said they were going into “new” areas, an admission that the initial operations against the Taliban in 2001 had a very limited mandate. Operation Enduring Freedom under U.S. command and control was narrowly restricted to the task of dealing with the “enemies” of the U.S., the Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. Not only did this rule out the deployment of troops for area stabilisation, or putting in place peace keeping soldiers, it also meant rearming and empowering the former war lords and commanders, some of them with records of public depredations much worse than the Taliban. The price for both tactics was the security of the Afghan citizen, which worsened as a result.

Since then, much of the focus of the conflict — whether the war on terror or the war against insurgency — has been on the security of the Afghan State but not the citizen. This has allowed the international military forces to portray the Taliban’s use of terror tactics — explosions, bombing and suicide attacks — as a positive curve in the war, since it apparently shows the desperation of the insurgents.

Soon after the Kandahar jail was attacked by the Taliban last month, and its inmates, including hundreds of Taliban fighters released, the top Canadian general Richard Hillier described it as a “small splash in the pond”, since he assessed that the incident had not made the Canadian soldiers insecure.

Ignoring civilian safety

The IMF says opium production has risen by 4,000 percent since 2001 and earns Afghan farmers about $1 billion a year. An estimated 93 percent of the world's heroin, made from opium, comes from Afghanistan. Analysts say the Taliban insurgency derives much of its revenue from the illegal opium trade.
VOA, Feb.20, 2008

The focus on the safety of the State and the international military forces protecting it has not just neglected citizens but also had high costs for civilian safety. It has allowed for prioritising force protection to the extent that civilian casualties that result from this are viewed with greater tolerance. “Escalation of force” just translates to allowing international military forces to fire on unarmed civilians approaching them, should they fear a threat. Until now the “escalation of force” has not killed any insurgent or suicide bombers. It has, however, killed many Afghans who did not perhaps understand the commands of the international forces, delivered in a foreign language, to keep a safe distance. It has also allowed the extensive use of air strikes in support of ground troops. A day before the attack on the Indian embassy, civilians were killed in an air strike by U.S.-led Coalition Forces on a wedding party in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar. An investigation by the Afghan p