Choosing which values you bring to war
The US and its allies have waged a decade-long war in Afghanistan in large part to replace the medieval Taliban’s rule with new national and local governments espousing western values. But what values are they trying to deliver exactly? Democracy for sure, and market capitalism, and women’s rights, and children’s rights, but not basic waste management:
What is it like living so close to an American base?…[the shopkeepers] tell me about a strange odor they say comes from the base. It smells of plastic.
The odor, the Afghans said, comes from a burn pit, a huge open dump site used on U.S. bases to consume mountains of trash, unleashing harmful chemicals. Burning plastic, for instance, releases carcinogenic substances that may increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory ailments, cause rashes and damage the nervous system. Computers, television sets and mobile phones release cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can also damage the nervous system and the kidneys.
The public health and environmental impacts of disposing of trash in burn pits are diverse but pretty serious, and that’s why the EPA bans burning of just about anything (including grass, food, leaves, not to mention anything obviously hazardous) in the US. So why are there 114 burn pits on US bases in Afghanistan? These could have a slew of short term effects on air and water quality, as well as very serious long-term health impacts on soldiers and civilians living nearby.
Now of course this kind of problem isn’t straight forward: a lot changes in war-zones, and basic concerns aren’t the same as in other places. But this isn’t a story about a little littering on the western front. Despite ongoing causalities, the majority of the war in Afghanistan involves community development, capacity building, police training, patrolling, and all the other hallmarks of country-constructing. about 100,000 US soldiers, countless contractors, and other foreigners burning 10lbs of garbage per day, per person. After ten years of war and development, of trying to rebuild a devastated country’s institutions and infrastructure, it is frustrating to see basic environmental and health concerns being ignored. It seems like these could be adding up to be additional legacies of this endless war.