The pain of war has become too much for these men. Wrapped in blankets, they have retreated into themselves. Vulnerable and
haunted by demons, they are the uncounted casualties of decades of war.
I was covering the war that erupted between the militias after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, photographing the aftermath of an attack on Kabul when, without warning another rocket attack began. I took cover in what turned out to be a hospital for the insane. Its residents were the victims of decades of war – both civilians and soldiers. There were no doctors or nurses, no electricity, no running water. The smoke from the fire of a makeshift kitchen blackened the ceilings and walls. The men and women there wandered around, or sat in a catatonic stupor.
Photographers work in metaphors, trying to distill experience in pictures. The scenes inside these hospitals get closer to showing the tragedy of the war than those of destroyed cities.
The rationale for the mission has lurched from one thing to another. Officials in Washington and in Kabul all try to explain what we are trying to accomplish. We have been told it is to keep the streets safe in America from Al Qaeda. It has been said that we are there to give breathing room to the Afghan government to build up their own forces. We hear that we are there to help build Afghan institutions so that the country can have a civil society with good governance.
The Century Foundation, a non-partisan research institute, has called on all sides of the conflict to enter into peace talks. Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN Special representative for Afghanistan, has co-chaired a special task force with former undersecretary for political affairs Thomas Pickering. Their recommendations are clear and blunt: it is time to stop deluding ourselves that there will be a clear victory in this war. The report, Negotiating Peace, was published this week.
Executive Summary Chapter One
Afghanistan has been at war for more than thirty years, and for nearly a decade, the international community has supported the country’s political, social, and economic reconstruction—and opposed the return to power of the Taliban. Afghans have seen many improvements over that decade, yet the resurgence of the Taliban across much of the country underscores that they are undeniably a force in Afghan society whose exclusion entails a very high cost. A majority of the Afghan people seem anxious for the contending factions to achieve a negotiated end to the war.
There will never be a time when we can achieve an historic battlefield victory and declare that the war is won. Tribal groups will always vie for power. Religious groups will always believe that the right way is only “their” way. Women will always have to fight for their rights.
Wars end with political settlements, and it seems clear to many, if not most, that this war will have no winner. Decades of war have been tragic for the Afghan people and the generations of children who have lost their childhoods, their limbs, and their lives. It’s time to see if negotiations can do what shooting could not.
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