THE lodge where I stay in Kabul was badly damaged October 8 when a suicide car bomb exploded 80 metres down the road near the Indian embassy. Seventeen innocent Afghans working in photocopy shops near the embassy were killed and another 60 wounded, while Indian diplomats went unharmed. No apologies were offered by the perpetrators for the killings.
Nobody was hurt at my lodge, but 75 windows were blown out. The next day, I was talking with the owner who, for the third time in three years, had to fork out US$3,000 to fix his windows. I asked him: What would happen if NATO pulled out of Afghanistan? He replied without hesitation, looking me straight in the eyes while obviously referring to the Taliban and their allies: “They will kill us all.”
His comment struck a still-raw nerve. Thirty-five years ago, in November 1974, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia. As a young backpacker, I was foolhardy enough to spend six weeks poking around a country at war.
At the time, the US congress was debating whether to continue or cut off aid to the beleaguered and corrupt Lon Nol government. After more than four years of civil war and the disaster of America’s experience in neighbouring Vietnam, congress and the American people were fed up with everything to do with both countries.
In Siem Reap, I met a Cambodian man who spoke English. He graciously offered to show me around the few parts of the town still under government control. The Communist Khmer Rouge controlled the Angkor temples and the surrounding countryside. There were intense firefights at night. At one point, my host turned to me and said: “I hope America doesn’t abandon us. If they do, the communists will kill us all.”
As an erstwhile anti-Vietnam War protester in the US, I brushed off his comments, thinking how nothing could be worse than the corrupt, US-backed Lon Nol government. I was wrong. The US cut off aid and the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh five months later, imposing a reign of terror unparalleled in modern history.
After three-plus years in power, before being ousted by the Vietnamese, Pol Pot and his KR henchmen had left almost 2 million Cambodians dead, roughly a third of the entire population.
The struggle to recover from that horror continues to this day. I know. As a publisher in Cambodia, I documented this painful process in great detail for 17 years, like a meticulous storyteller of horrific tales about lost, shattered souls.
The Obama administration is presently engaged in one of the most intense debates it will face: whether or not to increase US troop levels in Afghanistan. Without access to military intelligence, I don’t know, but what is clear is that ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal’s 66-page report to President Obama, leaked to the Washington Post in August, is one of the most interesting and thoughtful analyses on the current situation in Afghanistan that I’ve read. In fact, it’s the only one. Sadly, nothing else significant has been made public from inside governmental or UN circles. What’s most striking is that McChrystal’s report is even more critical of NATO’s policy to date since 2002 than what one reads in the established press. The general seems to have scooped the media on that one.
If the concerned public wants to make an informed opinion on the troop level debate, they should read the report cover to cover. This may be a lot to expect, given the increasing Twitterisation of global culture. Can anyone read more than 140 characters these days? Lives, however, are at stake. This stuff matters to us all, and the situation on the ground here is terribly complicated. Troop levels are only half the debate.
In the 10 weeks I’ve been in Afghanistan, I have not met a single Afghan yet who likes the current government – or any government in living memory, for that matter. Afghanistan is listed as having the 176th-most corrupt government in the world by Transparency International, out of a total of 180. It’s no wonder people here don’t like it. Since the Taliban were overthrown in 2002, Afghans expected and deserved much better.
Whatever the result of the debate about troop levels, if the international community doesn’t drop the hammer, privately or publicly, on any new government formed after the runoff elections on November 7 to cut graft and improve services to the people, any decision on NATO force structure may not matter.
Barring discernible change on the good governance front in the next two years, it’s a sure bet Afghan cynicism will increase, the Taliban will get stronger, public support for any continued troop deployments here in the West will continue to wane, and we should all prepare to inure ourselves for the day when “they will kill us all”.
Michael Hayes is senior editor of The Phnom Penh Post,
which he co-founded in 1992. His columns can be found at www.phnompenhpost.com.