Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Free To Starve

"Freedom" and "democracy" are tossed around liberally these days, esp by the swivelchair crowd. Of course, what they really mean when they say "freedom" and "democracy" is simply "shut up." These words are conversation-enders, not preludes to expanded debate. Criticize the war? Then you hate "freedom," so clam your traitorous ass. Believe that the Bush gang is corrupt? Then you despise "democracy" and need to be escorted from the room.

"Freedom" and "democracy" have been used to cover all manner of crimes and madness, but now the strain is starting to show, primarily in Iraq, but also in mostly-forgotten Afghanistan where we are told, when the topic bobs up, that "democracy" is taking root. No need to explain further. Go back to your regularly-scheduled life. Praise Bush. Shop Wal-Mart.

As in Iraq, Afghanistan's elections were supposedly proof positive that, finally, true freedom had come to that battered land. As I argued last December, elections are a very limited form of popular expression in the US, much less in a war-ravaged place like Afghanistan, where armed tribes control different areas, and the living standards are among the lowest in the world.

The awful conditions that Afghans continually endure were verified in a recent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Program. Titled "Security With A Human Face," it paints a horrid picture of a supposedly "free" Afghanistan:

*Life expectancy: 44.5 years
*Poorest 30% of the population receive only 9% of the national income, while upper third receive 55%
*One out of two Afghans can be classified as poor
*Twenty percent of Afghan children die before the age of five
*More than 300,000 children may have died as a result of recent wars
*Adult literacy: 28.7%
*Over 80% of girls do not attend school
*Opium economy is 38.2% of official GDP
*Over 25% of the population has sought refuge outside Afghanistan
*Only Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone are poorer

Afghan women continue to suffer, facing rape, forced marriage, violence and malnutrition. And according to the report, a woman dies of pregnancy-related problems every half-hour.

There are some bright spots amid all this despair, primarily some economic growth in certain areas. But overall, Afghan reality is very bleak, and could get worse.

Now, if this were happening under the Taliban, we'd be reminded of their inhumanity hourly by the media and war bloggers. But when the above report was released over a week ago, I saw only a few stories dealing with it (The New York Times, the BBC and Radio Free Europe). I'm sure there were more, but there's hardly been an avalanche of concern. Why should there be? After all, the Afghans are "free."