When Congress contemplates the upcoming 2002 Supplemental Appropriations bill, there’s a small item that should be added to the budget: $20 million to help the Afghan people who were mistakenly hurt during the US military campaign.
The Pentagon has not released any figures regarding the number of civilian casualties. But it appears that hundreds of Afghans–perhaps thousands–were killed by errant bombs, while others were wounded and/or had their property destroyed. There’s a growing chorus both in the United States and Afghanistan calling on the US government to help these families, just as the government so compassionately helped the families who lost loved ones on September 11. By helping the Afghan civilian victims of the recent military campaign, we’ll provide badly needed assistance to people living in desperate conditions, improve our image internationally and move closer toward lasting peace and security.
During recent fact-finding delegations to Afghanistan, Global Exchange met with dozens of Afghans affected by US bombs. Many are living in dire conditions. People whose homes were destroyed sleep in makeshift tents or amid the rubble of their bombed-out houses. Orphans are crowded with overburdened relatives. New widows, desperate to feed their children, are reduced to begging. Many have medical and psychiatric needs–from lost limbs to severe mental trauma–that go untreated.
Six-year-old Fardin is so traumatized that he no longer speaks or walks and has lost all memory. Twenty-year-old Azizolah had to have his leg amputated after it was pierced by bomb fragments, and has nowhere to turn to get a prosthetic limb. Thirty-year-old Suraya lost her husband to an errant bomb, and now has no way to feed her children.
Let’s be clear: These people had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or the Al Qaeda network, and they didn’t vote to have their country taken over by the Taliban. Some were sleeping in their humble dwellings when the bombs hit. Others were walking in their fields and accidentally stepped on an unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb. Many of the victims are young children.
The US government has, on many occasions, assisted mistaken victims of US military actions. When hundreds of homes were destroyed in Panama during the 1989 US military intervention to capture Manuel Noriega, Washington helped the homeless families rebuild their homes, according to the State Department. The United States gave financial help to the victims of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and in 1988 the victims of the downed Iran Air Flight 655 were compensated. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, Washington gave $1,000 to each of seventeen Afghan families whose loved ones were killed during a “friendly fire” incident while fighting on the side of the United States. If the US government is helping the families of friendly soldiers accidentally killed, we should be willing to help the families of innocent civilians as well.
Afghan relief organizations suggest an average grant of $10,000 per family would suffice to rebuild homes, secure medical care and compensate for the loss of breadwinners. Assuming 2,000 families seek compensation, this would amount to $20 million–less than the $30 million we spent during each day of the bombing campaign. We currently spend more than $300 billion a year on our military. Certainly we can spend tens of millions for healing the wounds of war.
Assisting the Afghan people is not just morally right–it’s also strategically wise. While Afghans are happy to have the Taliban removed from power, civilians who suffered from US airstrikes expect the US government to help them. Several hundred families have petitioned the US Embassy in Kabul for help, and as the weeks go by with no response, their anger and resentment is growing. Outside Afghanistan, particularly in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the lack of support for these families is seen as proof that the US doesn’t care about the lives of Muslim people. A fund for the Afghan victims would quell this resentment and prove that Americans do, indeed, mourn the loss of all innocent victims.
Dozens of Congress members signed a letter asking that money for such a fund be added to the 2002 Supplemental Appropriations bill. Conservative Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has said that helping Afghan victims is the “decent and honest” thing to do. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has expressed his support, as has the US Embassy in Kabul. This is a case where a small amount of money can go a long way toward helping thousands of needy people and enhancing our own security.
Let’s hope Congress makes the right decision. The foundation for a more secure world will be built through compassion.