Ed Asner and Afghanistan’s Progress

I was watching Fox News a few days ago, and they had Ed Asner, the noted television actor on to explain his anti-war stance. Mr. Asner made some very good points, but this being Fox News, that wasn’t what the anchor conducting the interview wanted to hear. So they began some verbal sparring with the anchor suggesting that the Iraqis will be liberated by the war from Saddam etc., and that Mr. Asner was wrong. Asner stuck to his guns, and the anchor then suggested that Afghanistan had been liberated, and didn’t Mr. Asner think that was a good thing? Asner rejected that point, and went so far as to say that Afghanistan is worse off now than before 9/11.

That made my ears perk up, because, think what you want about Hamid Karzai’s government, it is hard to see how Afghanistan would have been better off in the hands of the Taliban. But Asner genuinely believed this.

It struck me that sometimes people are so used to only soaking up those little morsels of the news that agrees with their prejudices, that they can completely miss the obvious truth.

So is it obviously true that Afghanistan is better off now than before? I think there are clearly five major areas in which revolutionary change has occurred. The first is peace and the establishment of an effective government in Kabul that has worldwide recognition. Many do not realize that Afghanistan has seen full-scale constant warfare from 1978 to 2001. The country was utterly destroyed, and the Russians take most of the credit for that, but it was Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, the current nemesis of the US, who destroyed Kabul itself which the Soviets had left intact, and it was the Taliban that destroyed the Shomali plain, which was the agricultural heart of Afghanistan.

The decades of open and constant warfare have ended, and that is a remarkable achievement. And it was not ended with the heavy hand of some dictator throwing thousands into a torture chamber.

The second major area is the rebuilding of institutions. Under the Taliban, there was not even a single bank in Afghanistan. The government ministries essentially had vaporized, and basic things like road maintenance, public health, and a formal system of university education in secular subjects simply did not exist. These things are being put back into place, but will take five years to flesh out.

The third area is children’s health. The Taliban had no system of even basic immunization, so 30,000 Afghan children died each year from measles. Measles! One of the first major UN projects after the new government got started was measles vaccination. Tens of thousands of children have avoided the grave because of this.

The fourth area is education, particularly female education. Two million girls go to school now, which is far more than the negligible numbers under the Taliban. Not only is it more than under the Taliban, it is five times as many girls in school as have ever before gone in the history of Afghanistan (reported by the LA Times). The impact of educating girls is tremendous on the social development of the country and the health of their families when they grow to be mothers. This act alone shows how much better life is after the Taliban.

Finally, it is the return of refugees to homes abandoned for decades. In the 18 months since 9/11, two million external refugees and almost half a million internal refugees have returned to their home villages. These returnees have placed great stress on the resources of the country, and it is a long hard climb to simply regain what they had in 1978. But to have 2.5 million people exchange refugee status for life back in their own homes and villages, despite the meagerness of that new existence, is a breathtaking and wondrous outcome. No one thought this would happen when the US began its attack on the Taliban.

If only one or two of these things had happened, one could clearly say that life and prospects after the Taliban have changed for the better. So given that all of these things have happened why did Ed Asner say what he said? For Asner, the only relevant facts about Afghanistan are that the warlords are too powerful, Karzai is an American puppet, and the country is very poor and grows too much opium. All true, but Asner can’t see the entire picture. Why? Because people believe what they want to believe.

Facts have very little to do with it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a celebrity or just the guy with all the opinions when friends gather. Bias and prejudice trump logic and facts every time.