By Nicole Kobie

Many words have been written about human rights abuses throughout the world. We’ve all read about the unfair, horrible lives of people suffering in third world countries, of people enduring repressive regimes and of people struggling to survive in a war-torn nation.

In the case of Afghanistan, all three–a worthless economy, a repressive regime, and a long-running war–exist.

In his speech to Congress on Sept. 21, President George W. Bush said the United States “respects the people of Afghanistan.” The question remains though, just how much Afghan civilians will be considered in the American retaliation.

Many ideas that question our core beliefs have been raised in the days since the attacks. Had you read the details of Afghanistan’s human rights abuses for the decades preceding the events of Sept. 11, would you have reacted the same as you do now? Has the actions of a few terrorists lessened or negated your reaction to the atrocities in Afghanistan?

The modern history of Afghanistan, according to United Nations sources, began in 1973 with the end of Afghanistan’s monarchy. The constitution was abolished, and the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Of course, as there was only one party to vote for–the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan–it wasn’t exactly a good example of democracy. As this was in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union invaded the country with the hopes of replacing the “democratic” government with a new, communist version.

“The Soviets were very worried about the possibly unfriendly government that had come to power in [the capital] Kabul,” said University of Calgary Political Science Professor Bohdan Harasymiw. “They therefore intervened and installed a client of theirs to be head of a government that would be more friendly to the U.S.S.R.”

Calling this attempt “unsuccessful” is an understatement. Following the invasion in 1979, they suffered enormous losses. However, it was still a decade before the U.S.S.R. pulled out of that war.

“The United States was [involved] because it encouraged the Islamists to attack this Soviet-sponsored government, and eventually, they succeeded,” explained Harasymiw. “The [United States] helped Pakistan, and the branches of the coalition that were [based] in Pakistan moved the supplies into Afghanistan to help the war.”

Don’t assume, however, the United States ever backed the Taliban. The United States backed an anti-Soviet coalition, which is now part of the coalition that has unsuccessfully battled the Taliban for power in the past 10 years.

While the Taliban is not the official government, it is the main power. Since taking over Kabul on Sept. 27, 1996, they have been the sole source of power, eventually gaining nearly 95 per cent control of the country.

But who exactly are the Taliban? Formed from Pashtun Afghans raised in exile and trained in Pakistan, this extremist Islamic group’s name means “the seekers of religious knowldege.” Their military strength comes from years of fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s, and the National Alliance in the 1990s, according to the UN.

Human Rights

The combination of the civil war and the Taliban created a human rights catastrophe in Afghanistan. According to the UN, before Sept. 11, 2.6 million Afghans were refugees in other countries.

For the past two decades, Afghan refugees have attempted to escape. Massive repatriation efforts have returned millions to their homes; over half lived elsewhere for over a decade. Upon their return, 58 per cent of Afghans found they didn’t have health facilities within a reasonable distance. As well, 82 per cent of children don’t go to school, even if they did in their previous country. There are few schools, and females over the age of eight are not allowed to be educated. Knowledge is not easy to acquire from outside sources, as televisions are illegal, and few can afford radios or batteries.

The problems are more far-reaching than that, however. Malnutrition is rampant, exacerbated from the current drought and economic sanctions. Nearly half of Afghani children are affected by chronic malnutrition. According to the UN, Afghanistan is one of the most mine-infested countries in the world, with an estimated six million mines–most of which are there courtesy the Soviet Union. In the past decade, the UN estimates 70,000 Afghans were hurt or killed by mines. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest opium producer, and the Taliban are known to horde heroin to control prices.

People live in fear of the Taliban, according to Amnesty International. Crime is dealt with brutally. What is especially harsh is what the Taliban considers a crime. A thief is punished by amputation–the severed limbs are displayed for crowds of onlookers to see. Women accused of infidelity are crushed underneath walls or stoned to death. The family of murder victims carry out the death penalty, sometimes with a gun, other times with a knife. Converting to Judaism or Christianity from the Islamic religion is also cause for execution.

If a prison sentence is incurred, it will be served in a cramped, unsanitary cell. Family members are expected to bring food, as prisoners are not fed. A general in an opposing faction said he was tortured by prison authorities, and kept shackled in a windowless cell for three years before escaping.

Stories of lynched criminals swung through streets by their necks on cranes, and stadiums built solely for public executions are hard to validate, though. Freedom of the press is unheard of, leaving only the Taliban and “unconfirmed sources” to speak–neither of which are reliable.

The biggest problem with Bush’s “War on Terrorism” is not the bombs. It’s the mass exodus of aid workers from Afghanistan. According to UN sources, up to six million Afghans depend on outside aid.

“The reality is that the humanitarian assistance program is already at a dangerously low ebb,” explained UN Spokesperson Stephanie Bunker, to reporters in Pakistan. “Millions of people will face shortages of food, water and other supplies within Afghanistan if we cannot deliver relief assistance.”

With no aid workers or support, this winter can only be worse than the previous one. Last January and February, 650 people froze or starved to death. With a colder winter expected this year, and low food stocks, it’s expected to be worse.

Replenishing food stocks is nearly impossible, as few aid workers remain, and trucking companies are unwilling to cross Afghanistan’s border. Afghans trying to cross that same border, to find refugee status in one of the neighboring countries, have been largely unsuccessful. Since Sept. 11, over 15,000 have fled to Pakistan. Several thousand more have tried to escape to Iran, but the borders are now closed.

“They’ve been saying, ‘no more,’” explained U of C Amnesty International Association Executive Director Veevek Thankey. “In any country, when you accept refugees, there’s a lot of strain on the resources. Countries such as Tajikistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan [are] not well off to begin with.”

The question of what will happen now in Afghanistan is unanswerable. Many countries–including the United States–have offered aid before. However, it has rarely been enough. This year, UN agencies asked for $333 million US, and as of Sept. 10 received only $145 million. How likely is it that deficit will be filled now?

Average Life Expectancy:
43 years

Average literacty rate:
25 per cent

Access to health facilities:
58 per cent

Children with malnutrition:
48 per cent

Estimated population:

Total number of TVs:

Population under 14:
42.2 per cent

Total land area:
647,500 sq. km

Total water area:
  0 sq. km

What happens next?

In that case, what should or can be done to assist the people of Afghanistan? Whether you believe retaliation is necessary or not, any military action will likely affect thousands of innocent people.

There are two major questions, from a moral perspective, concerning warfare, according to U of C Philosophy professor Tom Hurka.

“Issue one, is when–if ever–is it morally permitted?” explained Hurka. “What constitutes a just cause? When is the damage and destruction that would be caused out of proportion to the importance of that cause?

“The second question is about which particular tactics are morally permitted in war.”

Most attention will likely be paid to the second question, as the decision to take military action seems finalized. However, the questions of what type of action, and where will it be focused, remain.

Normally, as Hurka points out, war is a conflict between two nations. However, the primary actors in this case are individuals.

“It’s more like a police action,” said Hurka. “The question is, will the United States and it’s allies succeed in bringing the terrorists to justice, to jail? In war, you don’t capture enemy soldiers and try them. If it’s a war, you kill them.”

Few people in the world have qualms about killing those responsible without trial. However, if the United States acts against all of Afghanistan, will there be a differentiation between Afghans who support the Taliban and those who don’t?

“Going to war is most straightforward when the other country is a democracy where the citizens have elected and supported the government that has initiated the war,” explained Hurka. “When the government is not a democracy you may be harming lots of individuals who have no responsibility for what the nation’s government did.

“If the side effect of achieving a legitimate aim is you have to cause a limited amount of harm to Afghan civilians, that may be morally acceptable. If you cause a huge amount of suffering, it’s not morally acceptable.”

Aside from being hurt in military action, Afghans are in danger of starvation. Any remaining aid groups won’t hang around long in the face of an all-out ground war.

“Most humanitarian efforts are reactive instead of proactive–they go after the fact,” said Thankey. “No organization would be in there while the United States is there. It doesn’t matter who you are, you could be a casualty.”


If a million Afghans die this winter, it’s not the fault of the United States. Conditions in Afghanistan have been horrific for the past two decades. Anything that happens as a result of an American militaryretaliation should not be held against the United States, but against the responsible terrorists. Were it not for them, we could have been sending in troops of humanitarian aid workers instead of the troops of soldiers.

However, would we have spent the same money we will on war as we would have on aid? If previous years mean anything, the answer is a resounding no.

President Bush claims to respect the lives of Afghan people. That doesn’t mean some won’t die or be harmed in the weeks, months and years to come at the direct hand of America. It is most likely that can’t be helped, especially if the United States retaliates on any scale, using any means.

However, during and after this war, the world must stop ignoring human rights catastrophes. Any country that has such a lack of respect for their own people will not respect the lives of the people of America, or anywhere else.

The world has seen a war on communism (or capitalism, depending on your perspective), and now a war on terrorism. How long will it take for a war on human rights abuses?

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