In Kabul, where the Afghan Peace Volunteers have hosted me in their community, the US military maintains a huge blimp equipped with cameras and computers to supply 24 hour surveillance of the city. Remotely piloted drones, operated by Air Force and Air National Guard personnel in US bases, also fly over Afghanistan, feeding US military analysts miles of camera footage, every day.
All of this surveillance purportedly helps establish ‘patterns of life’ in Afghanistan and bring security to people living here. But this sort of ‘intelligence’ discloses very little about experiences of poverty, chaos, hunger, child labour, homelessness, and unemployment which afflict families across Afghanistan.
Recently, Zarghuna listed for me the survey questions that she and her young colleagues ask when they visit families in Kabul. The family visits help them choose participants in the Borderfree Street Kids School and the Duvet Project. The survey teams also help with plans for a ‘Food Bank’ that the Afghan Peace Volunteers hope to open sometime in the coming year.
The questions Zarghuna and the survey team use may seem simple.
How many times a week does your family have a serving of beans? Do you rent your home? Can anyone in your family read and write? Child laborers are asked to tell about what type of work they do in the streets, how many hours they work each day and how much money they earn.
But the answers open up excruciatingly painful situations as many family members explain that they never have adequate food, that the only person earning an income is one of the children, that once they pay rent for the mud home in which they live, they have no remaining funds for food, blankets, fuel or clean water.
I’ve watched the young volunteers work hard to develop useful survey questions and discuss ways to be sensitive as they visit families and try to build trust. Sometimes very difficult arguments erupt over which families are most needy.
As the Pentagon decides about investments in aerial, remotely controlled surveillance capacities, disagreements over which proposals to support have arisen within the various military forces. Defence companies pay handsome salaries to former military leaders who will advocate for one or another program. Afghanistan has become a ‘proving ground’ where different ‘protective’ systems have been tested, including successive generations of Predator and Reaper drones and the aerostat ‘blimps’.
Among opponents of continued funding for blimp surveillance, blimp accidents are but one of many criticisms raised. Some Army leaders argue that even a fully functioning blimp borne air defence system would be irrelevant in terms of the kinds of attacks that threaten US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other real and life threatening threats afflict many Afghan people, especially the 40 percent of the population who live beneath the poverty level. These threats are invisible to surveillance carried on by blimps or drones.
A UN Human Development Report recently revealed that Afghanistan has slipped to 171st of 173 countries in terms of development.
If US resources spent on unproductive military surveillance of Afghans were dedicated to assessments of both US and Afghan people burdened by poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and climate change, today’s US generations would be less willing to feed their tax money to the insatiable appetite of the ‘defence’ corporations and their illusions of omniscient security.
This article has been excerpted: ‘Surveillance and surveys in Kabul’.