Mention Afghanistan and most people think of the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, caves, drones, dust, and burkas. It’s a country few of us have a relationship with, even though our government has been at war with it three times, right now being the third and longest modern-day occupation for Britain to date. A total of 134,780 British troops have lived and patrolled here and 446 have died. British Reaper drone operators have launched at least 299 strikes, mostly from Creech US airbase just outside Las Vegas, but since April 2013 from British soil at RAF Waddington. The official Ministry of Defence line is that four civilians have been killed by British drones, but they refuse to release the names or numbers of those they have actually killed.
To date, the whole operation has cost us $60 billion – $25 million per day, or $3,000 per household since it began. It’s supposedly coming to an end, but with territorial, aerial and economic sovereignty off the table when NATO forces scale back (let’s not call it a withdrawal: the US wants 10,000 British and US Special Forces to remain), the idea of freedom is as cheap and disposable as the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) newspapers regularly dropped all over Kabul, which locals eagerly use for kindling for wood stoves (the main source of heating here) and chip paper.
Two million people have been killed in 40 years of constant war. Generations have grown up knowing nothing else. Poverty is extreme. Unemployment stagnates at an unofficial 60 per cent (and this is just for men, as women are not considered part of the workforce) and 90 per cent of all available work is in the casual sector: it’s men waiting at bridges to be picked up for construction work, cart pushers renting their backbreaking labour to market traders, women taking tailoring and embroidery into their homes, children selling incense blessings and chewing gum on the streets. Wages range from $1to $5 a day. Half a million remain refugees in their own country, defined as internally displaced. Those in Kabul live in old abandoned lots, on wasteland, opposite gleaming new hotels or an old amusement park. The camps are a full-on dystopia of plastic, sack cloth and mud shelters with open sewers. Children’s faces are tired and heat-scorched from wood fires. Intermittent aid drops have families scrambling for what they can under the machine-gun gaze of cops who steal their share with impunity. Above it all drift US surveillance blimps, data-mining this ‘adversary city’ for ‘advanced target acquisition’; scanning, ready to activate a ‘compressed kill chain’, as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency defines it. A push of a button in a bunker can execute a person, or several, in seconds.
Afghanistan is the drone-strike and landmine capital of the world. There are 10 million landmines still littered around the country – one for every three people here. The US has 200 declared drones, Britain 10. It’s a laboratory for robo-war and socio-political engineering. Successive invasions, war lords, mafias and Taliban groups have all manipulated the four main different ethnic sects – Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and Pashtun – against one another, using classic divide-and-rule tactics.
In the midst of this, in District 4, is a simple house with makeshift classrooms and workshops, home to seven young men, the core group of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (APV) and their mentor and group founder Hakim – a humble Ghandi and Martin Luther King-inspired doctor from Singapore gone native after 10 years of living here. In response to the brutal social engineering from above, Hakim and the volunteers are creating a kind of social engineering from below. The group consciously seeks to bring different ethnic groups together. It has a microfinance duvet-making project that employs poor women from different ethnic backgrounds to work together. The duvets are distributed freely to the poor, disabled and displaced
APV also runs a project for street kids, sending caseworkers to make contact with them and their families and giving them rice and cooking oil in exchange for allowing their children to come and receive free maths, literacy and English lessons.
The volunteers have harrowing pasts. Abdullhai, now 18, was forced to flee his village in Bamiyan when he was just five after the Taliban invaded. His older brother carried him on his back across mountains for weeks to a refugee camp where upon arriving he was apparently frozen stiff. He had to be suspended over a fire for two weeks to recover. When their mother joined them, she told them that their father had been murdered by the Taliban. Roz Mohammed, a smiley 21-year-old Pashtun from Wardak, lost his brother-in-law to a drone strike. US forces claimed he had been Taliban – he wasn’t. When Roz Mohammed’s nephew asked what had happened to his father, his mother said, ‘Your father was killed by a robot.’
Under this vertical oppression, from the government, from warlords, from occupation forces, from machines that kill, from a ruling class and aid industry that is often divorced from the poorest and most exploited, the idea of horizontal organizing from the grassroots up is rare and radical. The APV are deeply pacifist; here in Afghanistan, where violence is the dominant language, rejecting revenge and sectarianism and creating a safe space – for men and women – in one of the most violent cities in the world is revolutionary.
This blog is the first in a two-part series from Ewa Jasiewicz.