When I grew up, every child in Norway knew what Kandahar was. Yes, Kandahar meant “Kandahar ski bindings”. Kandahar meant quality. It was the best you could get - in the land we used to call the ‘cradle of skiing’. I don’t think any of us gave much thought to where the name came from. It was just a name. We did not know much about Afghanistan, or that Kandahar is situated quite high, surrounded by mountains on the edge of a desert with freezing winter winds.
The ‘city of candy’, Gandhara or Kandahar, was founded by Alexander the Great a few hundred years before our calendar began counting time. Today, in many dialects it is called Alexandroupolis. What a great name and what a great city it has been - and is yet to be. But is it not a great city today? Perhaps not, not in all matters, not just because it is a stronghold of the militants, but rather because of the negative presence of Nato and America. Why can we not, 10 years into the imposed war on terror, sort out the conflict and let the people live their daily lives in peace and prosperity? Why do we allow children freeze to death, leaving poor people entirely in the hands of God, or the opposite, it seems?
Last week, children were freezing to death in their homes, not having gone astray in the mountains or hiding from attack by the occupying forces. A father explained that he had lost one child this winter, and one a few years ago. In the morning, he found his child lifeless under the blanket in the freezing ramshackle they called home. And in the vicinity, the Nato and Isaf facilities, new and refurbished buildings with heating of course, had all the resources and equipment necessary - to destroy or build.
Technically, the Isaf is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government, approved by the United Nations Security Council, or UNSC, with its civilian UNAMA agency, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The truth is, though, that Nato and Isaf are occupying Afghanistan. What do they then care if a few children die? After all, war is about killing and using force to make enemies succumb. War is never fair and often civilians perish. In Afghanistan, that seems to have become acceptable, partly used as a strategy to ‘win the war’ against an ill-defined enemy. Only last week, eight children died when the Nato airplanes bombed them, not once but twice, in a remote village in the northeast of the country, Carsten Jacobson, the Isaf Spokesperson, has conceded.
How come the richest and mightiest countries of this world don’t feel compassion with the poor and destitute, irrespective of political persuasion and cultural traditions? How come they don’t realise that winning the hearts and minds is not just what they say in seminars and conferences? Or in meetings where foreign taxpayers listen, or at least their governments, so they can receive new monetary allocations?
My childhood Kandahar deserves better destiny than what is the case today. Afghanistan has the right to a better fate. It is a disgrace that children die in their homes due to cold, or being bombed; it is as bad as the way women and girls often are treated in Afghanistan. We - the Westerners – must take our large share of responsibility for both. Now we have had 10 long years to change and improve Afghanistan, but we have not achieved much if children and women still keep dying.
A few years ago, I was contemplating taking a job in Afghanistan. I am glad I didn’t because I would have been seen as a representative of my home country, which is also a Nato and Isaf member, and I would have had my share of responsibility for the West’s misguided actions and meagre positive results. Do I say too much? No, I don’t think so! We should have had a development, peace and reconciliation strategy from the very beginning. Nato shouldn’t have been called in to ‘assist the Afghan government’, even under UNSC cover. The Soviet Union was also said to have come in 1979 on the request of the Communist leaders in Afghanistan, but it was a military occupation. If they had used common sense, and followed democratic rules and human rights ideals, the military operations would have been minimal, or none at all! Through a peaceful approach, we would today have been able to see a prosperous Afghanistan and, probably, a country friendly towards its neighbours and the West.
I often refer to the wisdom of Professor Evelin Gerda Lindner, the founder and leader of the Network for Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, based in Oslo and New York. She draws upon her own family’s traumatic history in Hitler’s Germany during World War II, and uses her recent empirical studies in Somalia and Rwanda/Burundi. She also uses her gender research and normative studies, emphasising equality in dignity. Brutal actions and humiliation against individuals, groups, genders, and nations are always counterproductive and will be remembered for generations, even after the real causes and concrete actions have been forgotten.
The humiliation of the Afghan people and the lack of building a culture of peace will cause serious difficulties for a long time to come. The two decade-long invasions have happened under disguise and hidden geopolitical agendas where the occupiers pretended that they came to give freedom, justice and prosperity to the Afghan people out of concern for them. If they came with compassion, how come the recent Kandahar deaths could happen, or those in the northeast of the country? How come Afghan lives are so cheap and Pakistani lives, too, when attacks take place on both sides of a porous border? Drones and airplanes have bombed wedding and funeral processions, village homes, shops and mosques.
I do cry for you Kandahar - and the whole of Afghanistan. I am ashamed of the West’s actions, as a pacifist, yes, but just as a human being. No, I don’t think it will be a perfect land after the said withdrawal of the foreign forces takes place. I, probably, disagree with most of the age-old cultural traditions and the political culture in Afghanistan. But then the only way to contribute to improve the situation is to use positive approaches.
I do cry for you Kandahar. I want my childhood picture of Kandahar back. It wasn’t a real picture. We didn’t see things the way they were. But we should have helped the Afghan people make things real by now. We can no longer humiliate adults and children. Or can we? At what cost? We must do the good we want to do, not the evil we do not want to do!
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.