Afghans fleeing war now face brutal winter

Introduction — Dec 29, 2014

As foreign forces prepare to depart one has to wonder what benefit the U.S. led intervention in Afghanistan brought ordinary Afghans?
It certainly didn’t bring them any respite from the ravages of war. If anything it only intensified them; as 2014 has proved the bloodiest year yet for Afghan civilians with over 10,000 killed or wounded.
Nor have Coalition forces won a resounding victory. Indeed the Taliban are already claiming “victory” and with some justification. First the Taliban overthrew the regime installed by the Soviets when they departed after 9 bloody years of occupation.
Now after 13 years of occupation Coalition forces are preparing to depart in what President Obama has described as a “responsible conclusion” to the war, which is one way of describing a face saving withdrawal.
An Afghan farmer collects raw opium from poppies in Balkh province, Afghanistan. Heroin production in the country has increased significantly in recent years. Click to enlarge

An Afghan farmer collects raw opium from poppies in Balkh province, Afghanistan. Heroin production in the country has increased significantly in recent years. Click to enlarge

It would be wrong to think that nobody benefited from the Afghan invasion, however. The War in Afghanistan did achieve one notable success, if one can call it that, and it may have been the real reason for the Afghan invasion.
In July 2000 the Taliban outlawed the growing of poppies as a sin against the teachings of Islam. At the time Afghanistan produced three-quarters of the world’s opium and the effect on the global narcotics trade was devastating. Within one growing season Afghanistan’s drugs production ground to a halt. By May 2001 Afghanistan’s once prolific drugs trade was all but history, a fact confirmed by visiting American narcotics officials.
Within six months that was to change with the U.S. led invasion, which not only toppled the ruling Taliban but saw a sudden revival of the near terminal drugs trade. The war against the Taliban served as a useful screen behind which country’s drugs trade was revitalised and flourished. To the point where at the end of 2014 opium production had reached record levels.
At which point Coalition forces withdrew from Afghanistan declaring: mission accomplished.

Afghans fleeing war now face brutal winter

Associated Press — Dec 29, 2014

Little girl at a camp for internally displaced near the Afghan capitol, Kabul. Click to enlarge

Little girl at a camp for internally displaced near the Afghan capitol, Kabul. Click to enlarge

Thousands of Afghans are pouring into makeshift camps in the capital where they face a harsh winter as the Taliban return to areas once cleared by foreign forces, who this week are marking the end of their combat mission.

On the grimy outskirts of Kabul, hundreds of families are huddled in flimsy tents or mud shelters at the Bagrami camp. By day the children forage for fuel and food. At night the families burn garbage to try to keep warm as the icy winds sweep down from the Hindu Kush mountains surrounding the city and temperatures plunge to below freezing.

“Violence has forced us out of our homes but here misery and poverty have made our life even more difficult,” said Abdul Qayyum, 52, who fled here with his wife and eight children. “Such a life is not worth living.”

Like the others in the camp, they fled their home in Sangin in the volatile Helmand province, an opium-rich region where the British struggled for years to keep the Taliban at bay before withdrawing in 2010.

The insurgents are now once again on the move, and have extended the summer fighting season as foreign forces have handed over front-line combat responsibility to Afghan security forces. This week the U.S. and NATO are formally ending their combat mission, 13 years after the invasion that toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The insurgents have taken advantage of the vacuum and seized territory across the country, redrawing battle lines through urban areas and putting civilians at greater risk. The Sangin fighting began in June after Afghan forces replaced withdrawing U.S. troops.

Emanuele Nannini, project coordinator of the Emergency aid organization, says its 90-bed hospital in Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah has been full for months with wounded civilians and combatants from both sides of the Sangin fighting. Unlike previous years, he said there had been no winter slowdown. The facility is “100 percent a war hospital,” he added.

This has been the bloodiest year of the war for civilians, with the toll of dead and wounded expected to hit 10,000 for the first time since the U.N. began keeping records in 2008.

Sangin is not the only place in Helmand where the Taliban are attempting to reclaim territory, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor. But it is an important junction on the insurgents’ supply routes and their access line to the capital. Zwak estimates that 3,000 families have been displaced from northern Helmand, mostly Sangin, since the summer.

Some of that tragic fallout from the renewed violence can be found in Bagrami, in Kabul’s eastern suburbs. People have been coming here from Sangin for the past six months, but conditions are so poor that many long for the war zones they left.

The Bagrami camp is effectively an illegal settlement on public parkland in a middle-class Kabul suburb. There is little local sympathy for the displaced, many in the camp said. Local authorities have objected to proposals to dig a well to provide more water for the 400 families here, and residents complain about the smoke from the fires as the displaced burn whatever they can find for heating and cooking.

After a mild start, the worst of the winter is yet to come. Temperatures can fall to well below freezing, with searing winds off the mountains and snow that turns to filthy ice. Every year scores of people — mainly children and the elderly — die of cold and hunger, though no precise figures exist.

Bebi has been at the camp for six months, she said, after losing her husband and oldest son when they were caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between government forces and insurgents. The men had stopped their farm work for a tea break when the firing started. “They were killed before my eyes,” she said.

She rounded up her remaining five children and made the 630-kilometer (390-mile) journey to Kabul in the hope of finding some means of support now that the breadwinners of her family are dead.

“I am so worried about my children,” said Bebi, who like many Afghans goes by one name. “We have no food, no water and even no blankets to keep my children warm.”

The cash-strapped U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs plans to distribute some relief — food, children’s clothing, firewood and plastic sheeting for shelter. But the agency’s deputy head in Afghanistan, Catherine Howard, told people in the camp during a recent visit that there was no money for blankets.

“It is really a struggle to get the money needed,” she said.

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