The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West is indifferent to Afghanistan and Iraq’s world of terror

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It's a truism that the world has grown numb to terrorist attacks outside the West. When the Islamic State set off a car bomb on Tuesday outside a popular ice cream shop in Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding dozens more, no candlelight vigils took place in Western cities. No imperial monuments were lit up in Iraqi colors in European capitals. When militants set off a devastating explosion in Kabul's diplomatic enclave on Wednesday, killing at least 80 people and injuring hundreds more, no CNN anchor uploaded the flag of Afghanistan on social media. No pop stars organized solidarity concerts.

Part of the contrast, of course, is the extent to which we are used to hearing these stories. In the global news cycle, a bombing in Baghdad or a Taliban strike in Kabul is like a typhoon in the Pacific or a Sean Spicer gaffe. These things happen. If we pay attention at all, we do so fleetingly, grimace at the calamity and move on.

The difference lies in distance. The capitals of Iraq and Afghanistan are zones of war, their roads made familiar to us only through years of U.S. military deployments. In the American consciousness, this is where the killing is supposed to happen.

But easy as it is gloss over death, it's important to recognize life.

On Tuesday in Iraq, “hours after the blast, builders were working at the al-Faqma ice-cream parlor, plastering over cracks and repainting walls,” noted an editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper. “By evening the streets and restaurants were full again with families, demonstrating the resilience that was feted in Manchester and is taken for granted in the places that must summon it time and time again.”

In shell-shocked Kabul, scene of one of the worst attacks in many years, residents lurched into a new reality. My colleague Pamela Constable reported on Thursday from the perimeter of the massive blast site as protesters vented their rage and grief at a government that couldn't keep them safe.

“Let us turn the silence of suffering into a national voice. We must all come together to stop terrorism from going any further and raise our voices against oppression,” a young man with a bullhorn exhorted the crowd.

In the United States, a great deal of attention has been paid to the effect of more than a decade of war on the mental health of American servicemen and women — and rightly so. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, whole societies have been traumatized. Millions of children grow up amid bombings, displacement and political collapse. Public health workers and aid agencies are still trying to measure the immense psychological toll they may have suffered.

So it's worth considering the depth of courage ordinary Afghans and Iraqis must show in the face of daily threats and violence.

“There had been many other bombings, some even deadlier. But this time, it felt like the collective burden of a society at war had suddenly become much heavier,” Constable wrote after the attack Wednesday. It's a weight that can't be easy to carry.

“People have an anxious feeling now, like a psychological illness. I feel suspicious if I see someone carrying something,” said Gul Rahim, 42, a real estate agent whose office lost all its windows in the blast, speaking to The Washington Post. “I was in the jihad [against the Soviet Union], and there were a lot of bombs and rockets. This was much worse.”

No group — neither the Afghan Taliban nor outfits connected to the Islamic State — have asserted responsibility for the attack. As Constable reported, the aftermath has been punctuated by anger at the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which is hobbled by infighting and, like its predecessors, persistent allegations of corruption and incompetence.

“In the face of this senseless and cowardly act, the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is unwavering,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity.” The Pentagon is said to be pushing the White House to authorize a new surge of troops. But peace will require negotiations and a political settlement with the Taliban that Trump has so far shown no interest in championing.

In the meantime, consider the struggles of those already scarred by war. A stunning piece recently published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism detailed the prevalence of amputees on the front lines of the war against the Taliban.

“If I go and sit in my house Taliban will go to my house and kill me,” said Kudai Rahm Shakir, a police official in Afghanistan's insurgency-ravaged Helmand province who lost both legs to an improvised explosive device a year ago. “This is the only way for me to protect myself and survive.” Another police officer deployed not far from Shakir drives a Humvee with “no problem.” He's missing a leg.

“There are people who are in worse condition than I am,” he said. “I still have one leg.”

You can lament their desperation, wonder at the woeful state of Afghanistan's security forces and even celebrate their resilience. But months from now, will the world still note these acts of courage, or remember the many victims in Kabul and Baghdad the way those slain last week in Manchester will be memorialized? Probably not. And it's more than time for that to change.

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