Long, hard road to true victory

January 20, 2002|By Jonathan Frerichs

VICTORY IN Afghanistan rests on the wellbeing of many people, not on the demise of one man.

Victory in Afghanistan is a matter of many millions of lives saved, not of one life taken.

Victory cannot be declared now for the country of 25 million; it won't be secured for months or years.

Every second Afghan child who is malnourished, every third citizen who is displaced will define it.

So will every fifth person who is hungry.

Victory in Afghanistan begins with the massive aid efforts underway now. It will be delivered at people's doorsteps in food and blankets each day this winter. It will be earned through aid and commerce that can travel without fear of bandits and extortion. It will be established when a new government earns the trust of skeptical citizens.

Victory will come with the return of the nearly 4 million Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran.

It will take hold when 21 million Afghans have safe drinking water again. It will be a victory over war, deception and drought. It will be a victory for tenacity, resilience and peace.

This road to victory is a high road, one where every life counts. It's a road where the powerful are accountable to the weak. It is a road where hard questions are asked and answered.

Our news media may report when civilian lives are lost - 15 villagers here, 50 there - but their numbers remain "impossible to confirm," and a record of the casualty toll is not kept.

Marc W. Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has been using major foreign media and first-hand reports to compile a list of civilian casualties since the U.S. bombing campaign began Oct. 7. He corroborates accounts and keeps his figures conservative. By Dec. 10, his estimate for civilian deaths caused by the bombing, or "collateral damage," was 3,767. Very few Americans heard that news.

UNICEF warned in the fall that a war-related increase in one of the worst child mortality rates in the world could cost the lives of an additional 100,000 Afghan children. In the arithmetic of terror, that means roughly one World Trade Center tower falling each day for the next four months.

The road is also a shared road. America's coalition partners are indispensable for victory. Afghanistan needs wise, generous and united support. Relief and recovery must mobilize that society around broad and common goals such as food, security, economic development and consensus politics.

In a country awash with guns, peacekeeping is a coalition task. When the Pentagon exerts pressure to keep peacekeepers in Kabul while America pursues narrow military goals that leave the field open for warlords and bandits, relief workers, medical personnel and de-mining teams have trouble doing their jobs.

America's focus on Osama bin Laden and those who sheltered him has sidelined international humanitarian actions in Afghanistan that the United States itself generously supports.

What boils down to a multibillion-dollar manhunt for a few men begs for comparison with much less costly, and much more feasible, humanitarian goals.

Perhaps the Air Force drones sniffing mountainsides for the body heat of al-Qaida fugitives could send back data instead about cold and hungry civilians huddled in the hills.

The road to victory is also long. Recovery for Afghanistan may take as long as the long years of crisis. The United Nations is calling for $15 billion of aid over the next 10 years. But agriculture, commerce, infrastructure and public services have suffered 23 years of damage.

The United States must stay the course this time and invest in Afghanistan without borrowing aid that is destined for people in other crises.

The first milestones on this victory road are in view. Average daily shipments of food aid into Afghanistan recently returned to pre-war levels. Basic needs are being assessed.

Our co-workers in the field are reaching widows with precious food packages. Canadian avalanche experts are watching mountain aid routes. U.N. helicopters are preparing to airlift food to a few of the country's most isolated villages. Long-awaited rain is falling.

Victory in Afghanistan will not be America's victory. It must be Afghanistan's victory. A watching world will know the difference. A much-abused nation is waiting to begin anew.

Jonathan Frerichs is spokesman for Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief, which is involved in the humanitarian and recovery efforts in Afghanistan.

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