looking at afghanistan
Written by Madelyn Anderson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator
What is the situation like for the babies and toddlers of Afghanistan?
We know from running our BirthAid program and widely available research that there are high neonatal mortality rates in high-conflict areas. This means that many babies born in war zones often die within the first 28 days of life. Increased neonatal mortality rates in these areas are due to a combination of factors, including hospitals actively targeted, conflict upending infrastructure, and doctors moving out of the region. Women then do not have access to a skilled attendant while giving birth, either at home or in hospitals. In addition, due to the stress of conflict, mothers experience high maternal cortisol levels, reducing the gestation period. All these factors increase stillbirths, premature births, miscarriages, and the incidence of low birth weight.
The collapse of infrastructure also leads to more usually straightforward problems, like food scarcity and lack of access to clean water. These issues may be easy enough to solve in areas not riddled with conflict but are life-threatening to little ones where conflict impedes any aid reaching the most vulnerable. Throw in the threat of violent gender- and faith-based attacks, the withdrawal of most non-governmental organizations, growing Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugee populations, and widespread uncertainty for the future – so much so that people are clinging to the outside of planes and giving their babies to strangers across fences in desperation. This is Afghanistan today.
In short, the situation is dire, even more so now that U.S. military involvement has ended after 20 years, first launched by events that shook the world. So how on earth did we all get here?
I believe that out of respect for those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and in the twenty years of war to follow, for those who lost their lives recently, and for the Afghani people, we owe the current situation deeper examination than a raft of disturbing headlines and finger-pointing from every direction.
So again, how did we get here?
The Cold War, the Soviet Union, the ISI, and the U.S.
The story of foreign involvement in Afghanistan goes back decades before the attacks on the twin towers. We can see the first stirrings of U.S. involvement back in the 1950s and 60s when the U.S. began funding agricultural and water-related development projects in the nation. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union was also facilitating developmental projects, most notably a tunnel connecting to a previously cut-off region of the country.
But the Cold War complicates this arrangement. Dahoud Khan, leader of Afghanistan from 1973-78, began to ally with the Soviet Union more and more before being ousted and replaced by a Marxist-Leninist regime. This change led to the U.S. funding of pockets of armed resistance, called the mujahedeen, beginning in the late 1970s.
The mujahedeen were not ever really one cohesive group; they carried varying agendas and ideologies across the board. Some were extreme. Others, more moderate. But in either case, by 1979, the U.S. is funneling money to the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence services, who then get that money into the hands of the resistance – eventually resulting in a formal invasion of Afghanistan on the part of the Soviet Union.
The Geneva Accords, a civil war, and the Taliban
The status quo then changes again with the introduction of the Geneva Accords in 1988, an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan but of which the U.S. and Soviet Union are guarantors. This agreement says, essentially, that the Soviet Union will withdraw from Afghanistan in return for the U.S. halting the funneling of funds through the ISI. The Soviet Union withdraws, and U.S. payments largely cease. This sudden absence of both global powers has extreme ripple effects; in just three years, civil war erupts in Afghanistan, and out of this civil war, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerge.
In the words of Middle East and Islam Historian Ali A. Olomi, what happened is this:
“From that civil war will be born the Taliban who emerged as a completely new actor. They’re the second generation that grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan – Afghans were born in refugee camps, raised in refugee camps. They arrived fresh on the scene. They intervene into this civil war, are able to exploit it, and therefore establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996-7.”
The Taliban stay in power until 2001, at the beginning of the American campaign. But clearly, they have been biding their time for the last 20 years, waiting for their opportunity to return to power. After 2.31 trillion dollars spent and between 171,000 – and 174,000 lives lost, they’re taking their chance. And now, due to the country’s collapse and the withdrawal of western forces, they will have uninhibited access to an entirely new generation of Afghans that are disenfranchised and war-weary, living out their existence in refugee and IDP camps like so many in the Taliban have before.
Looking to the future
This access within a power vacuum to indoctrinate war-torn people from the time they are small is just one of many reasons it is essential to look at the past for direction on how we step into the future. This is why it is so vital that we continue to look out for the most vulnerable – babies and toddlers.
From the history of how the Taliban was born out of a civil war that was arguably caused by a power vacuum, we know that little ones who manage to survive in such harsh conditions will grow to be adults one day. They will grow up in war zones and refugee camps, witnesses to the traumas and injustices that form their environment. The Taliban know this, and they know how to exploit this. Each precious baby represents an adult who can change their world and community for the better – or the worse. And these adults will ask, “Why?” “Why didn’t the world care? Could they not see us?”
Well, we can see we have a growing humanitarian crisis on our hands, and we know what happened the last time outside forces leaving Afghanistan created a power vacuum. Civil war erupts, angry and oppressed peoples rise in violence, and extremists are made – not born. The type of change the next generation of Afghanis bring about will be primarily affected by the world’s action, or inaction, in the coming years: action by global powers, by the Taliban, by humanitarian organizations, and by individuals.
The whole world may be watching Afghanistan, but the Afghan people are looking back at us all, watching to see what we will do next. I won’t pretend to know exactly what to do about the collapse of a nation. But please, let’s not leave another generation to ask the often hollowly and disingenuously answered question of “Why?”
Please join us in our commitment to the most vulnerable, babies and toddlers. Saving Moses is continually evaluating conditions on the ground with the help of our partners in-country, and we remain deeply committed to meeting the needs of babies and toddlers where the help is most needed and least available.
Crawford, Neta C., and Lutz, Catherine. “Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan” Costs of War, August 25, 2021, Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan, 2001-2022 | Figures | Costs of War (brown.edu) Accessed September 1, 2021
“Timeline – The U.S. War in Afghanistan” Council on Foreign Relations, 2021, The U.S. War in Afghanistan | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org) Accessed August 31, 2021
Stewart, Emily. “The History of U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan, from the Cold War to 9/11” Vox.com, August 21, 2021, The history of Afghanistan and US ties, from the Cold War to 9/11 – Vox Accessed August 30, 2021
Barr, Heather. “I Would Like Four Kids – If We Stay Alive: Women’s Access to Health Care in Afghanistan” Human Rights Watch, 2021, Women’s Access to Health Care in Afghanistan | HRW Accessed September 1, 2021
Mahtani, Melissa, et. al. “The Latest on Evacuation Efforts in Afghanistan” CNN.com, August 31, 2021, Afghanistan latest news: Kabul attack and Taliban takeover updates (cnn.com) Accessed September 1, 2021
Semini, Llazar. “Evacuated Afghan Activist Dreams of Going Back Home One Day” Associated Press, August 30, 2021, Evacuated Afghan activist dreams of going back home one day (apnews.com) Accessed August 30, 2021