Is This What Success Looks Like in Afghanistan?

An Afghan National Army soldier stands near the body of a suicide attacker near a NATO base in Khost province of Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010. AP Photo/Nishanuddin Khan

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and at TomDispatch. His latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan  (Verso Books), which brings together leading analysts from across the political spectrum, has just been published. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute.This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

With the arrival of General David Petraeus as Afghan War commander, there has been ever more talk about the meaning of "success" in Afghanistan. 

At the end of July, USA Today ran an article titled, "In Afghanistan, Success Measured a Step at a Time." Days later, Stephen Biddle, a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, held a conference call with the media to speak about "Defining Success in Afghanistan."  A mid-August editorial in the Washington Postwas titled: "Making the Case for Success in Afghanistan."  And earlier this month, an Associated Press article appeared under the headline, "Petraeus Talks Up Success in Afghan War."

Unlike victory, success turns out to be a slippery term.  As the United States approaches the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, pundits have been chewing over just what "success" in Afghanistan might mean for Washington.  What success might mean for ordinary Afghans hasn't, however, been a major topic of conversation, even though U.S. officials have regularly promised them far better lives and trumpeted American efforts to reconstruct that war-torn land.

Between 2001 and 2009, according to the Afghan government, the country has received $36 billion in grants and loans from donor nations, with the United States disbursing some $23 billion of it.  U.S. taxpayers have anted up another $338 billion to fund the war and occupation.  Yet from poverty indexes to risk-of-rape assessments, from childhood mortality figures to drug-use stats, just about every available measure of Afghan wellbeing paints a grim picture of a country in a persistent state of humanitarian crisis, often involving reconstruction and military failures on an epic scale.  Pick a measurement affecting ordinary Afghans and the record since November 2001 when Kabul fell to Allied forces is likely to show stagnation or setbacks and, almost invariably, suffering.

Almost a decade after the U.S. invasion, life for Afghan civilians is not a subject Americans care much about and so, not surprisingly, it plays little role in Washington's discussions of "success."  Have a significant number of Afghans found the years of occupation and war "successful"?  Has there been a payoff in everyday life for the indignities of the American years -- the cars stopped or sometimes shot up at road checkpoints, the American patrols trooping through fields and searching homes, the terrifying night raids, the imprisonments without trial, or the way so many Afghans continue to be treated like foreigners, if not criminal suspects, in their own country? 
For years, American leaders have hailed the way Afghans are supposedly benefiting from the U.S. role in their country.  But are they?

The promises began early. In April 2002, for instance, speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, President George W. Bush proclaimed that in Afghanistan "peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works."  He added, "We're working hard in Afghanistan: We're clearing mine fields. We're rebuilding roads. We're improving medical care. And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world's demand for drugs."

When, on May 1, 2003, President Bush strode across the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver his "mission accomplished" speech, declaring an end to "major combat operations in Iraq," he also spoke of triumph in the other war and once again offered a rosy picture of Afghan developments.  "We continue to help the Afghan people lay roads, restore hospitals, and educate all of their children," he said.  Five years later, he was still touting American aid to Afghans, noting that the U.S. was "working to ensure that our military progress is accompanied by the political and economic gains that are critical to the success of a free Afghanistan." 

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama seemed to suggest that efforts to promote Afghan wellbeing had indeed been a success: "There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years -- in education, in health care and economic development, as I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed -- lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier."

So, almost 10 years on, just what are the lives of ordinary Afghans like?  Has childhood mortality markedly improved?  Are women, if not equal in terms of civil rights, at least secure in the knowledge that men are not able to rape them with impunity?  Have all Afghan children -- or even most -- started on the road to a decent education? 

Or how about a more basic question?  After almost a decade of war and tens of billions in international aid, do Afghans have enough to eat?  I recently posed that question to Challiss McDonough of the United Nation's World Food Program in Afghanistan.

Food Insecurity

In October 2001, the BBC reported that more than seven million people were "at risk of malnutrition or food shortages across Afghanistan."  In an email, McDonough updated that estimate:  "The most recent data on food insecurity comes from the last National Risk and Vulnerability Assesment (NRVA), which was conducted in 2007/2008 and released in late October 2009.  It found that about 7.4 million people are food-insecure, roughly 31 percent of the estimated population.  Another 37 percent are considered to be on the borderline of food insecurity, and could be pushed over the edge by shocks such as floods, drought, or conflict-related displacement."

Food insecurity indicators, McDonough pointed out, are heading in the wrong direction.  "The NRVA of 2007/08 showed that the food security had deteriorated in 25 out of the 34 provinces compared to the 2005 NRVA.  This was the result of a combination of factors, including high food prices, rising insecurity and recurring natural disasters."  As she also pointed out, "About 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and cannot afford basic necessities.  Staple food prices remain higher than they are in neighboring countries, and higher than they were before the global high-food-price crisis began in 2007."

Recently, the international risk management firm Maplecroft put together a food security index -- using 12 criteria developed with the United Nations' World Food Program -- to evaluate the threat to supplies of basic food staples in 163 countries.  Afghanistan ranked dead last and was the only non-African nation among the 10 most food-insecure countries on the planet.

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