Afghanistan, art of resistance

Afghanistan: Exiles of the Mountain of Oblivion.

11/photo © Seamus Murphy/

O exiles of the mountain of oblivion!
O the jewels of your names, slumbering in the mire of silence
O your obliterated memories, your light blue memories
In the silty mind of a wave in the sea of forgetting
Where is the clear, flowing stream of your thoughts?
Which thieving hand plundered the pure golden statue of your dreams?
In this storm which gives birth to oppression
Where has your ship, your serene silver mooncraft gone?

Light blue memories, Nadia Anjuman

It’s been almost a year now since I dedicated a post to Nadia Anjuman – Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers.

A new book featuring her poetry came out couple of months ago, entitled Load poems like guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan. It made me think of Anjuman again, made me dive into her poetry and admire it once more. And when I think about Anjuman, I think about the sorrows of Aghanistan.

Just last month, Obama extended the Afghanistan mission into 2017. And in these links of war, the news is also that his administration approved an $11.25 billion deal to sell four advanced, Lockheed Martin-made warships to Saudi Arabia (although Amnesty International has called on the US to halt arms transfers to Saudi Arabia or risk being complicit in war crimes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is waging a U.S.-backed campaign against Houthi rebels).

Not surprised, but still surprised (you can feel both at the same time) and sad about this news, I went through Anjuman’s poetry and Seamus Murphy’s photo series from Afghanistan.

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Murphy’s photos carry the beauty I find in Anjuman’s poetry. Yes, they can be extremely sad, but yet they show a spark of resistance, a different view, a possibility other than indifference. An all of that is very subtle, very nuanced, very quiet.

One day my hands will become weavers

and upon life’s wasteland of a body

spin a gown with wheat and flowers

In one interview, Murphy said about his book Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible: “Although Afghanistan is obviously a troubled place, the book and the exhibition has very little of war in it, although most of the pictures are taken during wartime. But a lot of them are quiet pictures.”

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Unlike A Darkness Visible, the photos I chose to accompany this small note about Anjuman & Afghanistan are colorful, taken by Murphy mostly in 2009 and 2012, during his trips to Afghanistan. I think they are still quiet and still manage to catch the darkness in the most subtle of ways. But not just darkness – and that’ the beauty.

And why color this time? Because when I dream of Anjuman, I dream in color.

//all photos © Seamus Murphy//

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Afghan Women by Farzana Wahidy.

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The Afghan city of Kunduz was seized by the Taliban this week. A hospital in Kunduz was bombed today during the US airstrike – Medecins Sans Frontieres says it gave the coordinates of hospital (hit by an airstrike that killed at least 19 people) to US forces several times.

Another 19 human beings and all their lives are now being reduced to collateral damage. Afghanistan, and all the other war-torn places can’t seem to leave my head…

Farzana Wahidy was born in Kandahar and moved to Kabul at the age of six. She attended school during the years of the Afghan civil war. After the Taliban came to power and prohibited the education of women, she secretly attended an underground school located in an apartment with three hundred other girls (it made me think of Nadia Anjuman and the Golden Needle Sewing School).

And Anjuman’s verses just keep on reappearing in front of my eyes, falling all around – sounds of shattered glass.

One day my thoughts, instead of a chill

will bring fireworks

One day my eyes will be wide open

such that

in seeing the shrunken leaves of the ocean, they continue flowing

One day my hands will become weavers

and upon life’s wasteland of a body

spin a gown with wheat and flowers

But back to Wahidy now. When the Taliban were defeated Wahidy continued her education, completing high school then enrolling in a two-year program sponsored by AINA photojournalism Institute. In 2004 she began working part-time as a photojournalist for AFP becoming the first female Afghan photojournalist to work for an international wire service. She continues to freelance for a number of international news outlets.

These are some of the photos from her Afghan Women series.

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/all photos © Farzana Wahidy/

I’d like to end this post with one more Afghan woman I admire and often think of – Setara from the Afghan Star. I don’t know where and how she is now, but I hope music still lifts heaviness from her heart and she still manages to look life in the eyes with a smile.

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For more on Farzana Wahidy and her work, visit her official website.

For more on Nadia Anjuman and her poetry, visit Circumference.

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Time Travel Booth: Afghanistan by Paolo Woods.

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All of the following photos were taken by the great photographer Paolo Woods, during his visit to Afganistan in 2002. Unlike many Time Travel Booths, this one is not about how much has changed, but rather how much remains the same.

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The UN has sent back to his village Shamsuddine and his family from the refugee camp in Mazlak where they had sought protection from the war and the drought. They were given one sac of wheat to eat and one to sow. It is not the sowing season so after the first sac was finished, they ate the second. Now they eat wild grasses.

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Qablei Rahmani is a Mirab, a master of water. This is the first year the rain is back after a long drought. His work is to distribute the water of the Murghab river to the 1270 small landowners that live in the area. The Murghab river flows down from the Hindu Kush all the way to Turkmenistan.

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Since the Taliban have been defeated the UN has decided that all the children have to attend school. But in most villages there are no schools left. Here in Arab Arzai 400 kids learn sitting on the grass. But not only the facilities are missing, there are no teachers left. The students that know how to read try to teach the ones that don’t. 

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On TV hill, one of the hills overlooking Kabul, a boy swings from the dangling electric wires of a pylon destroyed by the war.

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Hundreds of Hazara’s have been burried in this vast unmarked cemetery. They are the victims of the civil war (1992-1996).

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In 1979 the Russians built an Olympic swimming pool on one of the hills overlooking Kabul. The swimming pool has been completed just months before the invasion of the country. It has never been filled with water and it has never been used. The kids of Kabul come here, hang out and play with kites.

/all photos © Paolo Woods/

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For more on Woods and his photography, visit his official website.

Previous Time Travel Booths:

Middle East by Inge Morath

70’s and 80’s Sudan by Abbas Habiballa

Palestine, First Intifada

20th Century Syria

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Afghanistan, art of resistance, travel

The Beauty of the Wakhan Corridor.

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First time I was introduced with the beauty of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor was through the photos of Benjamin Rasmussen. The Wakhan Corridor is a unique territory stretching from the far north-east of Afghanistan all the way to China, Pakistan to the south and Tajikistan to the north.

It made me happy to see a new photo essay about the Wakhan Corridor on Agence VU. Andrew Quilty took some extraordinary photographs capturing the harshness of the area (you can feel the coldness through the photos) but also the mesmerizing beauty of the Corridor and its people.

Quilty writes:

“Like the territory itself, Wakhanis seem insulated from the turmoil that has gripped greater Afghanistan the last four decades. However foreigners are welcomed in the Wakhan,without any sense of suspicion. The iconic blue burqa—ubiquitous elsewhere—is nowhere to be seen. Instead, women and girls wear vibrant, red scarves that flow from round skull-caps as they undertake daily chores which seem less dictated by gender than elsewhere in Afghanistan.”

Here are some of Quilty’s photos, and for more – be sure to visit Agence VU.

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//all photos © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU//

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

The ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN.  Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. Northern Alliance troops marching. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. Northern Alliance troops marching. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

The following article was written by Demian Vokši and it makes me happy it is first published here on Middle East Revised.

In the heat of the race for the 2016 US presidential election primaries, Jeb Bush – brother of the former US president George W. Bush, admitted that he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he had been in his older brother’s shoes. [1] Faced with overwhelming outrage over such a confession, he tried to point out that Hillary Clinton would have done the same, and then tried to dump the blame for the Iraq catastrophe on Obama but damage was already done.

The upheaval over his statement was huge and the degree to which the sentiment is controversial is telling a lot: a US presidential candidate, even a republican one is esentially comitting professional suicide by admitting his support for the 2003 invasion. Such is the legacy of Iraq- an illegal war built on a foundation of lies, resulting in an estimated half a million civilian deaths, destabilizing a whole country and pushing it towards a civil war which resulted in the birth of the so called ‘Islamic State’.

But for all the outrage which is being made about Iraq, it seems that its older brother, the War in Afghanistan is getting none of it. The Afghanistan war, spearheaded by the United States and later led by NATO has been perceived legitimate by almost everyone who cared to comment about it, and has been supported by virtually all of the top players on the global political scene.

In the Afghanistan- Iraqi tandem, the Afghanistan war is seen as, how Tariq Ali had put it in his 2008 essay, the „Good War“ [2], a legitimate and legal older brother of the failure that is the War in Iraq. Such a reasoning is inherently flawed- it ignores the geopolitical context of the invasion, it downplays the histories of Afghanistan and the very important neighbouring Pakistan, and it creates space for making the same mistakes in Afghanistan which were made in Iraq- mistakes which are already in the process of repeating themselves.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. 2001. Refugees living in the ex Russian embassy compounds.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. 2001. Refugees living in the ex Russian embassy compounds. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

To explain Afghanistan we would have to go back to in time. The initial reason for the invasion were the terrorist attacks of 9/11 after which the US commenced Operation Enduring Freedom by bombing Afghanistan extensively in order to eliminate terrorist training camps. In order to succesfully operate in Afghanistan the US had to secure the cooperation of Pakistan. On the surface it would seem that Pakistan, a long term US ally, would not object to the US operations in Afghanistan but the reality is that the Taliban were basically an extension of Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, especially its secret service ISI, had been a major player in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. Although the horifically inept Afghan Communist Party had kickstarted the Mujahideen rebellion in Afghanistan by rash and not particularly thought out implementation of land and social reform (even Soviet officials suggested a more gradual implementation) thus pulling the Soviet Union into Afghanistan to protect the interests of its ally state, the US and Pakistan had exploited that chain of events to the best of their abilities.

The US has supplied Pakistan’s ISI with military equipment and money, and ISI has channeled those resources to fuel the Mujahideen rebellion in Afghanistan. The US logic behind this was obvious- to hurt the Soviet Union and give them its own Vietnam, and the Pakistani logic was that if Afghanistan fell in Soviet hands, the Soviet Union would be just a step away from its long time wish – a warm water port, possibly in Pakistan itself.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. The river. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. The river. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

After the Soviet withdrawall, the US lost its interest for Afghanistan, and Pakistan was now unable to control the warring fractions of the Mujahideen which engaged in a civil war across the country. Therefore it turned to the new rising force, the Taliban. The Taliban were largely groomed in Pakistan’s Madrassas – Islamic seminaries.

The students in those Madrassas (and the word Taliban literally means students in Pashto) came from the Afghan refugee population and the local Pakistani population- poor families unable to support all of their children would often send their sons to Madrassas because the Madrassas would not only grant them education in a country with an underdeveloped educational infrastructure, but would also house and feed them during their stay thus relieving the family of that burden.

Thus, the rise of the Taliban in the 90’s (although they had already been active in the 80′) was navigated by Pakistan as a way to stabilize Afghanistan, to lead it out of the civil war phase and to ensure that the country is calm enough so Pakistan can go on with the new energy deals which would connect it with the rest of Central Asia, whose infrastructure would have to go through Afghanistan. The need for such energy deals has been a vital interest for Pakistan who to this very days still suffers from energy reductions.

Meanwhile the US mainly kept away from the issue of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It even tried to dissuade Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Mujahideen leader of the opposition to the Taliban, from putting up a fight. He refused to surrender. Only after several Al Qaeda operations against US targets in the 90’s, had the US started to cooperate with Massoud and his Northern Alliance.

AFGHANISTAN. . Southeast region. On the road to Tora Bora refugees escaping from the conflict areas. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. . Southeast region. On the road to Tora Bora refugees escaping from the conflict areas. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan (one of the three states, together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has recognized the Taliban led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) had to turn its back on its most succesful foreign policy, at least oficially, and had lent its help to the US, and the NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The US started a bombing campaign designed to rout the Al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan and to end the Taliban support for the terrorist organization. Interestingly, in October 2001, not long after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban had offered to hand Osama bin Laden to a third country under conditions that the US stop their bombardment and that they offer proof that bin Laden is guilty of the 9/11 attacks. Bush turned the offer down. [3] The invasion went underway, and was soon enough taken over by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by NATO forces with the goal of combating Taliban and Al Qaeda forces and rebuilding the country.

Almost 14 years later ISAF concluded Operation Enduring Freedom on December 28, 2014 with not much accomplished. After the initial show of force and establishing its presence in the whole of the country, NATO, led by US forces had been caught in a lenghty and tiring assymetric warfare with the Taliban forces. The number of the Taliban fell from the inital estimate of 40 000 fighters, only to rise again in recent years.

AFGHANISTAN. Kalakata front line, Northeast region. A Northern Alliance soldier jumps out from the truck bringing him to the front line. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kalakata front line, Northeast region. A Northern Alliance soldier jumps out from the truck bringing him to the front line. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Their number in 2015 is estimated to be 60 000 in Afghanistan and there are more of them in Pakistan. Accordingly, although the number of Taliban attacks fell during the initial years of the NATO operations, they have risen again in 2013 and especially in 2014. [4] The reasons for the spike in attacks can be attributed to the fact that the Taliban were simply waiting for the foreign forces to leave and were starting to intensify their attacks when the US withdrawal was underway.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) consisting of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have proved time and time again to be not particularly cohesive [5], have been described as generally unprepared [6], are plagued by corruption (especially the police) and desertions. The number of ANA troops fell from 184 839 in February 2014 to 169 203 in November 2014 with the complete number of ANSF forces being 34 000 people short of the 325 000 projected goal for the end of 2014. [8]

An incompetent army, low on numbers and morale rings dangerously similar to the American  project of disbanding the army and building it from scratch in Iraq, only to see that army being blasted away by the forces of the ‘Islamic State’ again and again. The danger is only amplified in Afghanistan which has an unpleasant tradition of being utterly unmanageable by any unprepared invading or even domestic force since Alexander the Great, and then through the British wars, the Communist period, the Soviet invasion, Mujahideen civil war and lastly the US/NATO invasion.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. Chicken street. The woman showing me a drug prescription. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. Chicken street. The woman showing me a drug prescription. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Although Operation Enduring Freedom has ended, NATO forces have mantained a presence in Afghanistan through the new Resolute Support Mission devised to advise ANSF. The US have also started Operation Freedom’s Sentinel devised to root out the remnants of Al Qaeda form Afghanistan [9] although Al Qaeda has not been a significant force in Afghanistan for years now and has since started a number of other branches including one in Iraq (which has evolved into the ‘Islamic State’), and in the Arabian Peninsula (which has, among plentiful other activities, managed to pull off an attack in January this year in Paris, targeting the magazine Charlie Hebdo). Such a lasting commitment in Afghanistan also goes against Obama’s promise of a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan by the ond of 2014, later prolonged to 2016.

With the US desperately chasing remaining irrelevant Al Qaeda members in Central Asia so it could somehow justify the immense civilian deaths, the 14 year long strain on the economy and the, if seen in the light of recent Taliban successes and gains, failed attempt to eradicate radicalism from Afghanistan, the game has transferred into other parts of the world.

Terrorism has gained a globally distributed network, and new centres from which it can operate. The US was not particularly opposed to negotiating with the Taliban when it has not had an interest in Afghanistan so why should it be difficult to negotiate now? After all, the Afghan government is already negotiating peace talks with Taliban leaders [10], and considering all of the US support for the most repugnant dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, the Afghan government-Taliban cooperation is not really something that impossible to imagine being supported by the US.

In the end, the War in Afghanistan has proved to be a particularly gruesome child of the imperialistic Wolfowitz doctrine and the knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks which could have been handled much better. In fact, it could not have been handled worse. Its enduring legacy is 20 000 dead civilians [11], almost 2 000 000 refugees [12], and a country not much better than it was to begin with, with a dangerous tendency of turning to worse. Iraq’s older brother, the „Good War“ has proved itself not to be so good in the end.

[1] http://time.com/3853505/jeb-bush-iraq-war/

[2] http://newleftreview.org/II/50/tariq-ali-afghanistan-mirage-of-the-good-war

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/14/afghanistan.terrorism5

[4] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50111#.VWoKGu_a9TQ

[5] http://rt.com/op-edge/178404-afghanistan-shooting-security-soldiers/

[6] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/afghanistans-army-still-unprepared

[7] http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/12/afghanistan-s-3-6billionpoliceproblembrokensystemsandcorruption.html

[8] http://www.stripes.com/news/casualties-desertions-spike-as-afghan-forces-take-lead-1.332504

[9] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/12/29/meet-operation-freedoms-sentinel-the-pentagons-new-mission-in-afghanistan/

[10] http://www.wsj.com/articles/taliban-afghan-officials-to-meet-for-peace-talks-1424335356

[11] http://www.costsofwar.org/sites/default/files/Direct%20War%20Death%20Toll%20in%20Iraq,%20Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20since%202001%20to%20April%202014%206%2026.pdf

[12] http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-refugees

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//all photos © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos//

For more on Demian Vokši and his writing, contact him at demian.voksi@gmail.com.

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Afghanistan, art of resistance, Jordan, Syria

A Refugee Footnote.

According to UN data, more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution, the highest number since the mid-1990s.

More than 15 million of the uprooted are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands — so-called ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs).

Major refugee populations include Palestinians (4.8 million), Afghans (2.9 million), Iraqis (1.8 million), Somalis (700,000), Congolese (456,000),  Myanmarese (407,000), Colombians (390,000), Sudanese (370,000).

Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees. Many of them spend their entire childhood far from home and without access to basic education.

Following are the photos from refugee camps outside of Islamabad, home to almost over a million displaced Afghan children (registered and unregistered); and from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, home to some of the more than one million displaced Syrian children.

Refugee children from Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the "last breath" as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

Refugee children from Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the “last breath” as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

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An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY)

An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN )

 

/Photos by: Mohammad Sajjad, Mohammed Muheisen, Nathalie Bardou, Pedro Ugarte, Emilio Morenatti,  Faisal Mahmood/

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Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan

Five For Friday: Costs of War.

This week, Five For Friday presents five charts and graphics concerning wars in Afganistan, Iraq and Pakistan. These exist thanks to the Costs of War project. First released in 2011, the Costs of War report has been compiled and updated by more than 30 economists, anthropologists, lawyers, humanitarian personnel, and political scientists as the first comprehensive analysis of over a decade of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The project analyzes the implications of these wars in terms of human casualties, economic costs, and civil liberties. Some of this data is from 2011 and 2012, so have in mind that these numbers are probably significantly higher today.

1. Iraqi IDPs and refugees.

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There are more than 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Fifty-eight percent of Iraqi IDP households are food insecure, consuming only cereals and carbohydrates on a daily basis. Approximately 500,000 people live as squatters in Iraq. For more on this issue, read the Costs of War report.

2. Afghan IDPs and refugees.

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As of 2012, there remained 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. There are an estimated 447,547 IDPs in Afghanistan (updated). Over half of all Afghans do not have clean water and 63 percent lack effective sanitation. There are an average of 55 health personnel—including doctors, nurses, and midwives—for every 10,000 inhabitants. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

3. Education in Iraq.

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Education is important. After the 2003 invasion, Iraqi universities were stripped of their cultural artifacts as well as basic equipment—such as books, lab equipment, and desks—that allowed them to function at all. As of 2006, an estimated 160 to 380 Iraqi professors had been killed, and over 30 percent of Iraq’s professors, doctors, pharmacists and engineers emigrated between 2003 and 2007. Up to one million books and ten million unique documents have been destroyed, lost or stolen across Iraq since 2003. The US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education received only $8 million dollars to reconstruct Iraqi universities, including the provision of basic supplies. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

4. Direct war deaths: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

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The tally of all of the war’s recorded dead — including armed forces on all sides, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers and civilians — shows that over 350,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and many more indirectly. 220,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict, and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as the violence continues. But most observers acknowledge that the number of civilians killed has been undercounted. The true number of civilian dead may be much larger when an adequate assessment is made. For more – see the full Costs of War report.

5. The impact of military spending.

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The increased military spending following 9/11 was financed almost entirely by borrowing.  According to standard macroeconomic models and evidence, rising deficits have resulted in higher debt, a higher debt to GDP ratio because debt has risen faster than income, and higher interest rates. There are many other reasons the debt has grown since 2001, including tax cuts, increases in other government spending, and the effects of the largest postwar recession and the policy response.  But military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised annual deficits by about 1 percent of GDP, a trend that the Congressional Budget Office expects to continue through 2020. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

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Previous Five For Friday:

Conversations With History

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

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