What Laila Sees

by , November 10, 2010

Kabul, Afghanistan – “We live in constant fear of suicide attacks,” said Laila, an Afghan woman who lives in Kandahar city and who visited with us yesterday. “When will the next one strike and where?”

“Twelve days ago,” she continued, “a good friend was walking home from the mosque. A four-minute walk. An IED was detonated, and my friend lost half his face. Another man lost his leg, and his son lost his leg, too. We live with that kind of uncertainty, when you don’t know what is going to happen from one moment to the next.”

Laila’s descriptions of living with fear and violence in Kandahar contradict the mild U.S. descriptions of the “security situation” there. “The Taliban do not control the city,” said Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in a May 13, 2010, briefing concerning a “much-anticipated” military operation in Kandahar. “You can walk around the streets of Kandahar, and there is business going on. It is a functioning city.”

Compare McChrystal’s blithe comments with Laila’s experience. “In Kandahar city, you don’t know what’s going to happen, minute to minute. Every single minute that we live – if you can call it living – every single second there is the thought that this is going to be my last second.”

Laila went on to illustrate this graphically. “A good friend of mine had a ticket to travel to Canada to visit her mom for a family wedding. She dressed in a burqa and went to say goodbye to some colleagues. When she returned home, traveling by rickshaw, she saw a neighbor outside. So she stood for two minutes to talk to her. In those two minutes, two men on a motorcycle drove up. One man shot her in the head and killed her, and the other man drove them away.”

Laila states that this style of killing – where two men ride a motorcycle and one is responsible for driving, the other for shooting – has become common in Kandahar. “At least 300-500 people have been killed in front of their homes, offices, shopping areas. The guys who killed my friend are still roaming around the city. No effort was made to find and question them.”

In late September, after months of “careful and quiet preparation” in Kandahar province, U.S./NATO forces officially launched what they are calling Operation Dragon Strike, currently their largest military operation in the country.

The New York Times reported that winning over Kandahar is crucial to shifting the balance of power in Afghanistan, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Blotz with the ISAF in Kabul called it the “most significant military operation” in the country. Last week, an AP news report from a journalist embedded in another province declared that “the Kandahar operation has so far produced stunning results.” And on Nov. 6, an NPR correspondent confidently stated his expectation that Gen. Petraeus will declare the Kandahar operation a “big success” when he reports to President Obama prior to the December “review” of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan.

But Laila and her friends and colleagues haven’t seen any “stunning results” or “big success.”

“Now we hear bombardment every night, but no communication about it. Is it really Talibs who are being killed, or ordinary citizens? Women? Children?”

Laila, who operates a business in Kandahar, used to travel back and forth everyday from her rented home to her office. “It’s only a three-minute ride,” but because even that is too risky, “I’ve moved into my office.”

In Kandahar, in August and September, the Mirwais Hospital received nearly 1,000 patients wounded by war. These were record high numbers and double the figures from a year before (International Committee for the Red Cross).

Some people have considered the management of Operation Dragon Strike a failure because in response to advance publicity many insurgents left the area ahead of time, and international forces have met with so little resistance. For people in Kandahar, however, this hasn’t meant a reprieve. While there has been less combat on the front lines, U.S. Special Forces are conducting frequent night raids in the area, breaking into homes, terrorizing families, violating people’s sense of privacy and honor, and generating deep anger and resentment. Further, there are assassinations every day related to politics, business disputes, and the practices of vigilante justice, all of which frightens people and reminds them of the terrible period of civil war between 1992 and 1994.

In addition to undiminished violence, people in Kandahar live with the sour taste and gnawing frustration of unfulfilled promises of development made by the U.S. and the international community. Residents in much of Kandahar, we are told by NGO representatives, have electricity only every third day. Development organizations made a huge investment in hydroelectric turbines for the Kajaki dam only to walk away and leave the project unfinished because insecurity has made the challenge of bringing in materials so daunting and death threats have driven subcontractors to abandon their efforts – six years of work with as yet nothing to show for it. Failed projects cause more than disappointment. Factories in a U.S.-funded industrial park in Kandahar city sit empty for lack of electricity, the employment possibilities they hold yet another undelivered promise. Local people see clearly that development organizations and their staff profit, while leaving little behind. This, too, builds resentment.

In Kandahar, home to the airfield from which U.S. drones operating in Afghanistan are launched, local Afghans refer to the pilotless warplanes as “computer tayarri,” or computer planes. The drones fly overhead daily, but they don’t see what Laila sees.

Read more by David Smith-Ferri