"Collateral Damage"
and the Uncertainty of Afghanistan

Linda Panetta, founder and director of SOA Watch/NE, is a photojournalist who uses her work to address US foreign policy and the plight of the poor. She traveled to Afghanistan on a Global Exchange delegation in June 2002. To view her photos and to read comprehensive articles on Afghanistan, Colombia, and the School of the Americas, visit: www.soawne.org.

Linda Panetta

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan. It is a country of ancient beauty, yet one which has been laid to ruin by recent wars, famine, drought, and right-wing extremism. From the Soviet occupation, to the Taliban, to the recent US bombardments, millions of people have died, and its culture and religion have been systematically thwarted. For the Afghan people instability, uncertainty and fear engulf almost every aspect of life.

Our group met with many survivors of the US bombings raids, some of whom had lost as many as 16 family members. "Collateral damage, the follies of war … the War on Terrorism." Neither apologies, regrets, nor excuses can console 8-year old Amina. She was pulled from the rubble of her home following a US attack in which her sisters, brothers, aunt, uncle, cousins and her mother all died. Amina eventually identified the torn and twisted remains of her mother by the tattered dress that covered the remaining fragments of her body. Many of those wounded and killed in the assault died because they responded to the cries of others following the initial US bombardment. As the villagers attempted to pull the bodies from the rubble, the US warplane doubled back to capitalize on the opportunity to create even greater carnage. Were the misguided bombings a result of a US strike that went terribly awry, or was it misleading information provided by a regional warlord out for revenge? Regardless, the nearest Taliban forces were 10 kilometers away.

Security and stability is quite fleeting in Afghanistan, and is especially complicated by US relations with many despotic warlords, some of whom the US swindled into the Loya Jirga (meaning: Grand Council). They were provided seats in the council, despite the fact that there had been consensus by the Afghan leadership against their involvement. Many of those brought in were the militants who wreaked havoc on civilians prior to and during Taliban control. The imposition of the US on crucial decisions served to divert discussion on many critical issues, and nearly resulted in the collapse of the Loya Jirga. Originally created to bring tribal leaders together to draft a constitution that would provide a more representational government, the end result of this year's assembly was primarily limited to affirming the acting leader of Afghanistan and American ally, Hamid Karzai, as the interim president.

We had the opportunity to meet with President Karzai's Chief of Staff, Said Tayeb Jawad. At the meeting, Jawad asked that we give a brief introduction of ourselves. I jokingly stated that I was with the State Department and followed with a question concerning the warlords. Jawad responded that he knew that I wasn't with the State Department because rather than using the term "warlord" I would have said "regional commander." As with the renaming of the School of the Americas, and so many other examples, the US is attempting to assuage the fears of those who have been tortured, abused and exploited by violent and despotic men simply by changing their title. The whitewashing will not wipe away the pain, bring back the dead, nor garner the support that the US is desperately seeking. Our efforts must be a continual reminder to the government that their attempts to sweep injustice and impunity under the rug will not be tolerated.

Kabul is currently the only city in Afghanistan which has maintained peacekeeping forces. Yet United Nations officials, the Karzai administration, aid groups and a growing number of bipartisan lawmakers in Congress have urged the US to expand international peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. The Bush administration says that an expansion of "peacekeeping" would be unlikely. This, despite the fact that large-scale reconstruction programs needing the support of peacekeeping forces would give jobs to those who might otherwise become allied with the Taliban for support. The Bush administration needs to develop a new agenda for Afghanistan. Pumping billions of dollars into arms-producing US corporations will prove to be a failed attempt at eradicating a ubiquitous "enemy." "Bombs away!" … all in the name of "democracy!" After all, isn't this the American way?

The attacks of September 11 will be etched in our hearts and minds forever. For many, the emotional pain endures, but the actual attacks ended on 9/11. In retaliation, we _ the US _ have continually, for nearly one year, battered Afghanistan with missiles and bombs. Each of the thousands of assaults raining down on unsuspecting Afghan civilians are a "9/11" in their eyes. For as we know, not only have Al Qaeda militants been targeted, but wedding parties, clans of tribal leaders, de-mining camps, relief agencies, schools, and families have also been targets. Ironically though, without access to radio or TV, most are unaware that the assaults are US-led. And still the suffering, maiming and killing ensues. But there remains hope. And that hope begins in part with the politicians, in part with the drastically modified role that the US government (hopefully) adopts, and most of all it resides within us all.

We visited one of only two mental health hospitals in Afghanistan. We met hundreds who were victims of US assaults. Their grief was overwhelming, as were their stories. It had been months since Orpha had seen her husband. He had been working in Pakistan raising money for his family. He arrived home just four days before the US planes attacked his village, leveling their home. He along with five of their children were killed. Despite six months which have passed since her husband and children were killed, Orpha still collapses in overwhelming anguish as she mourns for them. "It is God's will," she declares. "I do not want revenge, I do not hate Americans…"

Her humble request is for a financial recompense to help sustain the basic needs of her family. The alternative for her, like so many other widows, is begging on the streets. The Washington Post (July 6, 2002) stated that "If American forces prove to be responsible for the deaths of innocent people, compensation should be paid and US commanders should give a public accounting of how and why such a tragedy occurred." Aid agencies have estimated that an average of $10,000 per family would be sufficient compensation. Given the number of civilian deaths that have been reported, the Boston Globe cites that a fund of roughly $20 million for this year _ approximately the incremental US cost of a day's fighting _ would cover the expenditures.

By the end of my visit to Afghanistan, I realized that the silted rooftops that I thought I was seeing from the airplane as we approached Kabul, were not rooftops at all. What I had seen were merely the foundations of former dwellings which had been laid to ruin. Still, time and time again I was inspired by the hope and resilience of this ancient society. Just as the US government has a responsibility to the victims of 9/11, it too must take responsibility for the Afghan victims of 10/17, 11/9, 3/16, 4/8, 6/25... The US may choose to silt over the destruction, in hope that the desert will creep up and blanket the devastation. However, what has been born from wars past and present is a breeding ground from which terror and poverty, revenge and hate emerge to cultivate new terrorists (which in turn serves to cultivate our fears, perpetuate our hatred and thus acts as a convenient diversion for the US government).

Who are the targets / the enemy? The impetus of this war was apparently to avenge the 9/11 attacks, but what are the current motives and gains? The Bush administration, along with weapons manufacturers, have greatly capitalized on this new bogeyman. From out of the closet where "communism" was laid to rest is the "war on terrorism." But more than simply getting spooked, thousands upon thousands are being displaced, maimed, raped, exploited and killed. Will the US wage another hit and run as it has done in the past, or will it take responsibility for its actions and lay the foundation for the seeds of peace to be planted and nurtured? Ultimately, it seems, the answer lies with the motives.