Gino Strada,
surgeon and founder of EMERGENCY

(text written on 3 August 2021)

Afghanistan is in the headlines now that the withdrawal of international troops from one of the most strategically important corners of Asia has been announced.

For the benefit of those who do not remember, it may be worth casting our minds back to how this war started. In its resolution number 1368, approved the day after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the UN Security Council declared its ‘readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the UN.’ The UN called on all states ‘to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors’ of the attack. The resolution was ignored. The Council – the only international body with the right to resort to force – was not given the time to do anything.

The United States ignored the Council’s resolution and went ahead with a military plan of its own (and therefore in total violation of international law), as the decision to attack and occupy Afghanistan had already been taken back in autumn 2000, by the Clinton administration.

On 7 October 2001 the US Air Force began aerial bombardment. Officially, Afghanistan was attacked for giving support and succour to Osama Bin Laden’s war against the US. The War on Terror thus became in practice a war to destroy the regime of the Taliban, who had held sway since September 1996, and who had previously, for at least two years, been cosied up to by the Americans in the hope of a treaty. The regime in Kabul was granted formal recognition and financial support in exchange for control of future oil and gas lines by American multinationals. The pipes would run from Central Asia to meet the sea in Pakistan; Pakistan, which had given life to, armed and funded Taliban groups since 1994.

This stage was set for full-scale aggression against a whole country, in pursuit of a terrorist group.

Three months into 2002, the slaughter in Kabul and its environs alone had already claimed more civilians than were killed in New York. The places, the dates and the names of victims have been collected meticulously by Mark Harold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. The information is less clear about the victims of the months and years that followed. Brown University’s ‘Costs of War’ documents approximately 241,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands more dead from starvation, disease and lack of essential services. In the past decade alone, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has recorded the killing of 8,099 children and the wounding of 19,085, numbers which are certainly underestimates.

© Riccardo Venturi/Contrasto

I first met with war in Afghanistan in 1989, as a surgeon at the Red Cross hospital in Quetta. That was my first encounter with the Afghan people, who had been devastated by landmines and fighting between their pro-Soviet government and the mujahideen. There were farmers wounded while tending their crops, market sellers hit by bombs in the bazaar, women and children injured in their houses.

I came back in 1999 with EMERGENCY. We had already opened a hospital in the Panjshir valley, an area then controlled by General Massoud. In spring 2001 we opened a second, in Kabul, then a third in Lashkar-Gah, Helmand province, in 2004. In each of these hospitals I operated on men, women and children of all ages. In Afghanistan, as in every war that I have seen with my own eyes, nine in ten victims are always civilians. I lived in Afghanistan for seven years all told. I saw the wounding and the violence rise year after year, as corruption and insecurity gradually devoured the country.

20 years ago we were already saying this war would be a disaster for all. Now the results of the aggression are irrefutable; it has been a failure in every respect. With more than 241,000 victims and almost 5 million refugees, including both migrants and IDPs, today Afghanistan is a country walking into civil war. The international troops have been defeated and their authority and very presence are even weaker than they were in 2001. It is a country destroyed. So many of its people choose to flee, even if it means going through hell to get to Europe.

To fund all this, the United States has spent a total of 2 trillion dollars. An approximate but plausible estimate puts the average yearly cost of keeping an American soldier stationed in the country at 1 million dollars. As always, the big arms dealers – of which Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are only the biggest three – are very thankful; they are the ones making a profit out of this war.

EMERGENCY, meanwhile, has spent about 120 million euros in its over 20 years in Afghanistan. This money has come from individuals, institutions and, in the last few years, the Afghan government. We have used it to treat more than 7.5 million people, train new doctors and other medical workers, and given jobs to about 2,500 Afghans. All at roughly the cost of keeping a small contingent of soldiers in the country for a year. As always in life, you have to know where you stand.