Knots in the Stomach

by Joshua Foust on 2/24/2010 · 18 comments

I hate being right. Relief agencies have conflicting numbers of displaced civilians, but all of them are large.

IRIN, the source of my original post on displaced civilians, has updated their count to 3,700 displaced families registering in Lashkar Gah alone. They say this equals about 22,000 people, but a six-person family is really small for this part of Afghanistan. If we go by a more realistic 15-member family—which is still on the small end of the scale—then we’re looking at well over 55,000 displaced civilians. IRIN goes a bit lower later on, and says that 40,000 people, or half the population, have fled (I still find it hard to believe there were really 80,000 people there).

UNHCR produced a map (pdf) of displaced civilian movements. Here, the number of families is significantly higher: 4,208. Going by IRIN’s low-ball estimated family size, that equals a little over 25,000 people. But going by the 15-member family number, it would mean over 63,000 people are displaced. My original high-end estimate for family size, 20, would indicate almost 85,000 people displaced. That’s almost certainly too high an estimate, though, so we can discount it.

Either way you look at it, however, literally tens of thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes and livelihood in the area of Marjah. And, judging from the hints of reports coming out of Lashkar Gah and surrounding areas, aid groups are barely able to keep track of them. This is a serious problem, and I am worried to see ISAF’s apparent lack of a plan to address it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Michael February 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I’m confused. You discounted previous reports of sizable population. But now you have been crediting counts of high numbers of people displaced by fighting. Either a lot of people lived in the area or did not…?

Joshua Foust February 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm

No, I’m also doubting the numbers presented here (notice that first paragraph sentence about numbers differing by agency). But I think it’s undeniable a huge number of people have been uprooted.

Shannon February 24, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Have Iran, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan or any organizations within those countries shown any initiative in taking in Afghan refugees? It might make sense politically for Iran to take them, if they can afford to. Such a move could sway opinions in favor of Iran at the cost of the U.S.

Joshua Foust February 24, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I haven’t heard about Turkmenistan doing anything lately. Uzbekistan is generally cool to having any significant number of refugees. Iran just two years ago deported the last of its Afghan refugees; I doubt they’d want to take a whole mess of them back in.

anan February 24, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Something like 5 or 6 million Afghan refugees have moved to Afghanistan since 2001. Doubt many of them would want to leave Afghanistan.

More likely they relocate to other parts of Afghanistan or return to their homes in a few weeks. Most likely they return to their home in a few weeks.

Josh, it is possible that many families left a male relative or two behind to look after their property. This gives credence to the possibility that the average family size for those that moved was smaller.

Grant February 25, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Generally they don’t want to take in refugees (for understandable reasons). Also, I doubt Iran is trying at the moment to cultivate Afghanistan away from the U.S in the same manner as it is in Iraq.

anan February 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Iran’s priority at the moment is to defeat the Taliban and her allies; preferably by manipulating other countries to expend their blood and treasure to advance Iranian interests.

In Iraq, the competition with the US heated up after the Iraqi resistance (Sunni Arab militias) were defeated in 2007.

Iranian policy might change once the Taliban are losing.

Fabius Maximus February 25, 2010 at 1:33 am

Any thoughts as to the significance of this? Beyond the immediate suffering. Does this compromise the objectives of establishing local government considered legitimate by the local people AND gaining their allegiance?

Or is this just a form of collateral damage?

Zarathustra February 25, 2010 at 9:04 am
Zarathustra February 25, 2010 at 9:46 am
John February 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Joshua: Thanks for the post. It is the innocents that suffer so much. So the U.S. “chased” out the “Taliban” and all of the local population suffered, some will have died, everyone in jeopardy with no livestock or crops to go back to. I have said “Tell us about Swat Valley”, show us what it looks like today, how many of the 2.5 Million are still not back and where are they? What did Swat look like after the attacks? This is a failed policy, not sustainable, just clear out the “Taliban” and everything will be OK. These village dwellers will hate the U.S. forever.

Toryalay Shirzay February 25, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Yes,there are now a lot of internal refugees,a lot of suffering,pain, and anguish.Did you think that fighting evil is a pain free process?Growing opium and the resultant addiction and social ills are also very painful,practicing evil Islamic customs and habits such as denial of liberty to women,sexually molesting small boys,and habitual beating of children which is widely practiced in all of Afghanistan are also very painful.The violence in Afghanistan is not just by the Taliban and Arab fascists,but also it is due to a very oppressive and ugly .intolerable culture which itself breeds most of the violence.
Remember they are fighting a war there in an Afghans society with many,many layers of evil most of it hidden from outsiders;that soldiers are fighting with strict orders to avoid civilian killings should be commended,they are taking a lot of risk to their own lives,the Afghans are lucky to have US/NATO doing this kind of gentle fighting.Whereas the hellish situation in Afghanistan requires a very intense war to cleanse all those evil layers which have solidified like stone over many centuries since the imposition of evil Islam by bloodthirsty,violent,thuggish Arab fascist armies.

Turgai Sangar February 27, 2010 at 10:15 am

Do you have any new material for a change?

John February 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Toryalay Shirzay: You have described the perfect reason to Get Out of Central Asia, you can not cure these ills with force, especially infidel forces (non-muslim). This is cultural and for the Afghani’s to live with as they have for centuries. All of Central Asia and the Mid-East is based on tribes and customs. Outsiders will not change this. No matter how many are killed or by whom.

anan February 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm

John, Afghanistan was improving until 1973. Foreigners wrecked Afghanistan. Many of these foreigners were Takfiri crackheads from Arab countries and some extremist Pakistani factions.

Turgai Sangar February 27, 2010 at 10:16 am

You forgot Communists.

DE Teodoru February 26, 2010 at 12:05 am

If you have any illusions about our “savvy” command guys getting into the heads of the Afghans rather than being intel blind, language deaf, culture dumb and plain hubristic to the point of insolence because they can call in the bigger firepower—per Lt. Gen. Flynn– then please look at this Asia Society Vietnam and Afghanistan Conference where four “experts” babble their way into a circle like the Dodo Bird that flies in ever concentric circles until it disappears up its own cloacae. To get a feel for the Afghan reaction imagine these people being top surgeons called on a consult to decide how to save you after nine years of botched operations for a mere cholocystitis.

As an American exposed to US “counter-insurgency” I lament that to this day military leaders (just read Petraeus’s PhD thesis and McChrystal’s report to Obama of last August) STILL do not appreciate that we are not doing counter-INSURGENCY but counter-REVOLUTION. The important variable has been made clear by a number of European scholars of the area. It sums up to: THEY ARE WILLING TO DIE TO KILL US AND WE ARE ONLY WILLING TO KILL SO WE CAN LIVE. While I deem that tribute to our humanity, I think it criminal to keep sending back there a mom and dad soldier as punishment for having survived whole his/her last tour.

There is something one noticed in Vietnam that would apply quite well to this issue. Human HELPLESSNESS, especially when enhanced by pleading, dis-inhibits bestiality in people in whom one might ordinarily find that surprising. Jack the Ripper comes to mind as one dis-inhibited by the helplessness of his victims. With this in mind let us recall what people are trained to do as soldiers, how stressed they may be and then imagine what the dis-inhibition from the helplessness of prisoners might unleash. Also consider the unbelievable fact that women are mixed in the guard units. Only institutional discipline inculcated in training can restrain this tendency that such professional discipline had long been lacking in our military by then.

In sum, I think, we are dealing with the fact that not the most capable people make career of the military AT ALL LEVELS. Recalling that at the time of war, the military had to compete for the aggressive and best minds types with Wall Street and other lucrative career opportunities at a time when military service was looked down on. Surely, a lot of patriotic reflexes were aroused by 9/11. But such smart and able people did not go into interrogation or prison guard positions, most gravitating to informatics. There were many stresses on war theater people indeed. But the real issue is that upper command was not much better at level of one or more stars. Our command brass, in fact, consisted of academies classes that came after the total disrupting of the military by the outcome of the Vietnam War (a totally unjustified position). In my “meaningful dialogue” with a general on loan from the Pentagon to the White House, I was warned: IF YOU WANT THE DIALOGUE
BETWEEN US TO CONTINUE DON’T EVER DARE TO BRING UP THAT LOOOOOSER’S WAR, VIETNAM!” That officer’s historic ignorance infected his abilities on Iraq, to say the least.

In conclusion, abuGrahib was symptomatic of a low quality in the military ranks from which we suffer to this day when one compares the current “stars” to those in the Vietnam War era. Since the neocortex evolved to first inhibit the palleocortex’s animalistic tendencies, one can understand what price we as a nation pay for the low cerebral discipline we note in our 21st Century military. Given that the military is a “yes sir” organization, the dullest can impose a dimming of the bright lights by mere command. The evolving catastrophic “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect what happens when a bravado president unleashes a military he rules along with others civilians having little real warfare command experience and little capacity for complex abstraction, be it due to personal limits or lack of academic training. This nation should never go to war unless our military has full access to our best&brightest. After Vietnam, one doubts our stars were
fine-tuned by the academies.

I’m sorry to say this, but an all volunteer military should not be commanded by a society’s left-overs that corporate America did not want. Being older than in the era of conscription, our soldiers are moms and dads deserving nothing less than the best&brightest to lead them. Lastly, allowing Rumsfeld to continue as SecDef only so Bush would be able to use him as a scapegoat, as he did in 2006, leaves Bush guilty of criminal negligence motivated by political self-interest. As an American who in 2000 supported Bush heart and soul, I don’t think I will ever live down my sense of guilt for the way we as a nation sent our mom&dad soldiers into war intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb led by bravado pompous civilians with Joint-Chiefs parrots on their shoulders. Worst still, nothing speaks against an all-volunteer army as the American “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome by which Americans would allow to be done to “our” children as soldiers
what they would never allow to be done to their biologic children. abuGhraib was a direct and inevitable consequence of Mr&Mrs America’s utter lack of patriotism as they so willingly send our moms&dads to war hoping they could fill-er-up cheap their SUVs. God sure gave us our come-upins via Wall Street for our moral lapse of responsibility. What our bankers did to the USA binLaden would never have dared to dream of doing to us.

Toryalay Shirzay February 26, 2010 at 11:31 pm

John,your description of central Asia is not entirely correct and in Afghanistan and ,Pakistan and Iran ,Islamic customs were forced upon them as Islamic and Arabic customs are foreign from Arabs and they are not the original customs and cultures of the inhabitants of these lands.The Soviets succeeded in taming Islam in central Asia so that it is not menace there as it is in Af-Pak areas.The reason Westerners are not succeeding in Afpak is because of their halfassed job performance there and also due to their inept policies and practices.

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