Sunday Magazine ~~ 20 July 2008
Inside a living hell
By AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR
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.
Danger as a fact of life: An Afghan woman running to safety along with her grandchildren (AP)
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.
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 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 parliament put the death toll of civilians at 47, including the bride, one more than the death toll of Monday. Two days earlier, 22 civilians including women and children had been killed in a U.S. Coalition air strike on Nuristan.
According to U.N. figures for 2007, out of a total of 1,500 civilians killed, 700 civilians were killed by anti-government forces, 629 by pro-government forces while the deaths of the remaining could not be attributed.
Though the international forces always dispute the numbers of civilian killings as well as dispute that those killed were civilians, the problems related to aerial strikes were further underlined this week when nine British soldiers were wounded in “friendly fire” after they called for air support. The British army termed it a confusing situation and the wounded were rushed to medical aid. Is the admission of confusion leading to wrong targeting made when it is Afghans who are mistakenly hit? Or is there an attempt to insist that those hit were the enemy, given the greater difficulty of distinguishing ordinary Afghans from the Taliban fighters?
Also increasing the number of civilian casualties is the escalating use of suicide bombings in crowded places causing maximum civilian casualties. The day before the country condoled those killed in the embassy bombing in a ceremony in the Indian ambassador’s house on July 13, 24 persons were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Uruzgan province. According to the ICRC statement of July 9, 250 civilians were either killed or injured in incidents since July 4, a period of four days.
Anti-government terrorism or fighting between the militaries are not the only causes of insecurity. The difficulty of establishing the rule of law has meant an increasing lawlessness that jeopardises citizens. Kabul, for example, is awash with guns. So much so that some public places, like restaurants, are forced to put up signs asking for guns to be deposited outside, much the way cloaks, umbrellas and other paraphernalia are, in other countries. The guns are owned not just by the State security apparatus but by private security companies and individuals. All major international institutions and organisations rely on private security companies, many of whom hire demobilised gunmen the soldiers of private militia training and arming them to a high degree. The law on private security companies which came into existence remains nebulous. The extent of the duties of these companies is not clear or their right to the use of lethal force. As it is, they force private citizens and their vehicles off the roads using the threat of guns, block streets and behave brutishly with ordinary Afghans, their untrammelled authority only reigned in by better armed gunmen more loutish than they. The U.N. uses them as do international forces for the protection of their own military camps and for intelligence gathering which could, on occasion, include interrogation and torture. Answerable only to their employers, the gunmen function with rampant audacity and impunity, the difference in their behaviour determined only by the professionalism of their client. Some rare organisations insist on no public display of arms while others are happy to have their security companies behave as brutishly as they wish since they can deny having direct control on their behaviour.
International companies justify the use of these hired guns, pointing to the complete lack of professionalism of the Afghan police. Though considerable effort has gone into building up the Afghan National Army (ANA), there has been scant attention to the police until recently. This, despite the fact that they are often the citizen’s first brush with governance.
Ill-paid, ill-trained and tasked with performing duties well beyond their capacity, the police are often seen as little more than thugs in uniform who are rampantly corrupt. Citizens in trouble try their best to resolve disputes, fearing they will have to pay a higher price if the police is involved.
The police on the other hand, have, as an institution, paid the single largest price, losing more men than the army and being targeted by anti-government insurgents, criminals and drug barons as the first line of defence and a soft target. Unlike the ANA which is largely deployed in secure military posts with the support and backing of the international forces, often following rather than leading the assaults, the police are deployed in insecure locations and have inadequate protection and equipment. Despite the well established linkages between crime, the narcotics trade and insurgency, it is the police who are tasked with anti-narcotics operations with virtually no support.
Violent face of the State
To many, the police unfortunately also represent the violent face of the State along with the judicial system. With rule of law extremely weak, it is customs, often violent, which underpin the functioning of the justice system, often penalising the victims or dealing out summary justice to criminals.
Women who run away from home are considered to have violated the customs of the country and put behind bars, including rape victims forced into so-called marriages from the age of as little as seven years. Torture in detention is now a well-recorded phenomenon in the jails and detention centres of the Afghan judicial and intelligence system.
Current levels of alienation with the government and pro-government elements is at its highest since 2001. To reverse this, the State will have to substantially prove its bona fides as a source of security rather than a source of violence whether this comes through “collateral damage” or the violence meted out through the institutions of governance.
I lost a brother, a son, a daughter and a nephew, all living in one family. Foreign troops raided our house some two months ago at midnight. They thought we were terrorists. But everybody knows I am with the government as a police officer but still fell victim to the pro-government troops. They have not coordinated the operation with the governor and local police.
Alif Din, 53, police officer with the border police in Khost, Muqbil Wam village.
I was travelling from Kandahar to Kabul when the Taliban stopped the bus I was travelling in. The Taliban took me on their motorbikes to a mountainous area and we spent three nights in villages that I did not know.
They asked me if I was working with foreigners and I said I was just a local radio worker and that I am a good Muslim. I have grown a long beard and sympathise with the Taliban. They were suspicious until I assured them that I wouldn’t work with foreigners.
I was harassed. I saw (felt) my death in my own eyes. I was expecting them to behead me soon. I forgot everything in the world. I was just doing my best to know what they wanted from me and to know how to satisfy them. Death will come one day, but this kind of death by knife on my throat or shooting was the worst I could expect.
I feel that my own country and people are on the verge of death. Nobody is to be blamed. We kill ourselves. We don’t know who is our friend and who is the enemy.
Abdul Hadi Patmal, 29, from Kandahar city, working with radio Kilid, a private radio, in Kandahar. He was kidnapped on July 12 by Taliban from the Kabul-Kandahar highway.
Assault on dignity
I was detained for two months by the American troops. They raided our house last year. We have nothing to do with the Taliban, but the Americans said I was a Taliban fighter. The problem was that my father is an influential local tribal elder and somebody has misinformed the Americans about us. I was caught in an early morning raid on my home. My father, brothers and the children were beaten, insulted and threatened by the U.S. forces. I cannot forget the feeling for revenge when they were insulting my noble family that dark early morning.
I was taken to an unknown place, probably a local U.S. base in Ghazni, for interrogation. In the two months I languished there, I was asked why I was fighting with the Taliban and whether I knew the Taliban leaders in the area. I was deprived of sleep. I was tortured on the way and in custody. Later, when they found out I did not know any Taliban member and could not give them any information, they freed me.
That detention has made me change my mind about my life in my country. Living in my own land as a high-status family, we are still being attacked by foreign invaders. They are threatening our security and our dignity.
Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, 27, Ghazni province, Andar district, Khani Qala resident.
AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR IS A FREELANCE WRITER BASED IN KABUL.