Soon after 9/11, Ann Jones went to Afghanistan to help in whatever way she could, “embedding” with civilians who had been battered by the rigors of that war-torn land. Out of that experience, especially dealing with the crises of women, she wrote a powerful and moving book, Kabul in Winter. In 2010, she borrowed a flak jacket, put on her combat boots, and settled into a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border to see what life was like for American soldiers. (“Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.”)
The following year, she returned again to Afghanistan, this time focused not on the “collateral damage” to Afghans from our endless war there, but on the true costs of such a war to Americans. In a country that has never stopped talking about its “wounded warriors,” she alone, and not some young, hot-shot reporter from a major media outlet, followed American war wounded off the grim battlefields of that never-ending war all the way home. She started at the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, then travelled with often desperately wounded Americans via C-17 to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and afterward on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Finally, she visited traumatized and wounded veterans back in their homes. The book she wrote from this, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, is a one-of-a-kind odyssey on the up-close-and-personal costs of our global war on terror. (“As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.”)
On her latest trip to Afghanistan, she re-embedded with those who have born the brunt of and bear the deepest scars from the American war there: civilians, especially women, in a society that, after 35 years of Cold War combat, brutal civil war, and Washington’s war on terror, all involving religious and political extremism that should chill the soul, couldn’t be under more pressure. The U.S. has, of course, sunk many billions of dollars into the promised “reconstruction” of the country, a process of failed nation-building that turned out to also be deeply corrupt. Many more billions went into the kind of military-building that, across the Greater Middle East, has proven just as unsuccessful.
With U.S. (and NATO) forces being reduced there, the American-built Afghan security forces are already suffering unsustainable casualties and may one day go the way of the American-built Iraqi Army in 2014. With the war in Afghanistan going badly, the much-vaunted American “withdrawal” from the country has recently turned into a kind of dance in place, while a constitutionally challenged government in Kabul struggles seven months after coming into office to take control. More than 13 years after the U.S. “liberated” Afghanistan, that country’s main claim to fame may be that it’s become the narco capital of the globe.
Back in the streets of the Afghan capital, Jones now reports that its civilians, facing the nightmarish murder of a young woman, may be taking things heroically into their own hands. She describes the stirrings of what might someday be thought of as an “Afghan Spring.” Of course, given the disastrous pushback against the various Arab Springs, that in itself is a daunting thought. Still, hope has been in short supply in twenty-first-century Afghanistan, so consider this a potentially remarkable development. Tom Engelhardt
“Farkhunda is our sister”
A “martyr,” a murder, and the making of a new Afghanistan?
By Ann Jones
I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends. By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men. The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda. The name means “auspicious” or “jubilant.” She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away. I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons. It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.
In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers. Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal chargesagainst 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman’s murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it. On May 2nd, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power. It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves. This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.