Afghanistan 2050: A Chronic Low-Grade Sameness. Or, Each Life, A Story.

(Alternate title: When Borders Need To Heal….)

When we got to the Southern Afghanistan-Balochistan camps the first thing we noticed was the quiet. Even more strange than the lines of donated tents, the numbers of people, and the bizarre floating appearance of the inflatable camp hospitals dotting the landscape, was the relative silence. This surprised us.

Inside the largest camp hospital we found the recovered bodies of the missing Afghan-Americans. A make-shift morgue had been arranged with each body properly tagged in a kind of digital tattoo ink that kept a running score of the date of death, body temperature and presumed cause of death. The previous group of traveling NGO physicians (our hospital ship was semi-stationed for the duration at Balochistan Port) had left a good set up. Above each body “hovered” a bodily representation – a CT/MRI compiled projection – so that the morgue had the appearance of something spectral and otherworldly, the souls of the dead afraid to leave, anxious to ensure the truth.

Ours was not a typical refugee or disaster victim virtopsy. Those we had done in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, on international hospital ships in rough and calm seas both. We only needed the scans to do those. The bodies were not ours and were disposed of as the locals or families saw fit. (Presuming the families would let us scan them. This was sometimes difficult to arrange.) From the scanned images, however, we could compile data and enter it into the open database that our physician-NGO group provided to the public. We shared our conclusions with a world-wide audience of academics, the curious, the bored, the skeptics, war proponents, human rights activists, nationalists, speculators, terrorists, cranks, freaks, perverts, politicians – whoever felt like “tuning in.”

It was better this way. You couldn’t keep the data under wraps anyway. And still people never believed you! It got to the point that you learned to be a performer when imaged or filmed, you squinted your eyes in a simulacrum of compassion, wrinkled your brow in pretend concentration and consulted procedure manuals in a slow deliberate fashion so that the audience knew you played by international rules and norms. Even if we were an international NGO, even if we were careful to disassociate ourselves from the governments, they didn’t believe us. Paranoia is easy when you’ve got lots of numbers to sift through.

When you first start examining a virtopsy it’s like peeling an onion. You go in layers: the epidermis, the dermis, the subcutis and so on. Viscera can be examined separately and we always tell the medical students that rotate with us to look at each organ individually at first. From there, you can examine the various connections, the way the vessels course or the nerves wind. After you peel the onion, digitally of course, you slice and dice it and put it back together again. This is the advantage of a virtopsy over a traditional autopsy: each life, a “rewindable” story.

(I have no idea what Afghanistan will be like in 2050, but I am making the – reasonable, I think – assumption that various borders will remain contested leading to a chronic low-grade tumoil ready to be exploited by various regional actors and alliances. Populations will move from contested areas to zones of relative quiet or safety. Like many people, I have a tendency to look out at the world within the context of my own narrative (always a mistake) and that is the narrative of an immigrant raised on stories of “the old country,” of passions borne of the Partition, of flows and resettlements of peoples that continue in some fashion until today. In short, in some parts of the world the borders need to heal.

I predict the regional sorting out will continue for the next few decades, some of it good, some of it bad, and this will result in other regional insurgencies picking up steam. Something called Afghanistan will still exist, I just don’t know what the borders will be and what it will include. The interconnectedness of people across space will likely result in international humanitarian efforts becoming more open-sourced, more aggressive, more interactive, and private groups will continue to develop very sophisticated ways to do this. The people will not wait; they will lead their governments.

Predictions like the above are easy, though, aren’t they? A prediction by itself don’t cost anything, but wrong predictions sure do cost an awful lot.)

7 thoughts on “Afghanistan 2050: A Chronic Low-Grade Sameness. Or, Each Life, A Story.”

  1. I totally stole your writing style when naming this post. I only steal from the best. And yeah, this turned out a lot creepier than I intended. I tried to follow Lex’s rules but what I wrote was so incredibly boring I couldn’t take it. I’m clearly in over my head with this brief.

    “Specimens” do move around the globe – like x-rays read by techs abroad, or digital medicine and digital pathology.

    The scanning technology for the virtopsy already exists and many medical schools are doing the anatomy courses virtually, which freaks out the old-timers.

    – Madhu

  2. This article captures a little bit of what I was trying to say:

    “Just days after the scale of the flooding’s devastation became apparent, Pakistanis in their 20s and 30s began mobilizing their networks of friends and colleagues for the relief effort, often utilizing social media such as Facebook and Twitter. While President Asif Zardari was away from the country on his ill-advised trip to Europe and aid officials were saying international donations had been slow to arrive because people don’t trust the Pakistani government, young people across the country were organizing aid drops and going to the streets to collect donations.”


    “Western nations have in the past been keen to support Pakistan’s small military and feudal-political elites. That policy has hampered the evolution of Pakistani society and failed the country while endangering the wider world. But it’s not business as usual in Pakistan anymore. A new generation of Pakistanis who are less beholden to the dictates of traditional politics as practiced by their fathers and grandfathers are willing and able to prove their commitment to the future of their country. Out of floods, earthquakes and political catastrophes, these young people are changing the rules in Pakistan.”

    I think it’s too simplistic to blame Western nations for Pakistan’s problems, but our aid regimes are corrupting to many parts of the world. That is a completely reasonable point. And yet, the same “internationalists” continue to peddle the same solutions: more aid, more aid, more aid – regardless of where it goes, what happens to it, or how locally corrupting it is.

    Anyway, here is the link:

    – Madhu

  3. Readers note: the technique of employing a CT scanner to perform autopsies was developed in Israel, and is likely as good as, and in trauma patients, often superior, to traditional necropsy. This approach is so successful that the US has a CT scanner at Dover air force base, which is used to scan the remains of every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine. While the military does not require the consent of families to perform autopsies or distribute images obtained from them, it is obvious that black-and-white CT images elicit far less distress than the traditional color images of flesh.

    In that, this post is about the present, not the future.

    Very nicely done.

  4. @Madhu

    Be of good cheer. Not everyone can be David Ronfeldt.

    Of course most people don’t realize that David Ronfeldt is David Ronfeldt.

    Aid has its place has its place in the foreign policy toolbox. You just have to know what you’re trying to do and have a realistic expectation of what you can accomplish. If you take Cardinal Richelieu and Count-Duke Olivares (referenced in today’s review), they both had clear ideas what they wanted to accomplish with their funds. Neither got everything they expected.

    Richelieu poured money into the Netherlands and Sweden and bought a thirty years war instead of a ten year war. His efforts started France on its road to preeminence. Olivares poured money into Austria and Bavaria and got a stronger Austria and Bavaria for his efforts but his own country continued to go down the drain. France poured money into revolutionary America as a way to screw Britain. They succeeded but lost their heads in the process.

    Hiring an army of ninjas to liquidate Pakistan’s ruling class would be the best form of aid we could offer Jinnah’s Mistake.

    Here’s my favorite post title of all time to act as a lodestar:

  5. @ Fringe – I didn’t know that the technology was developed in Israel. Wow. That is interesting. Thanks for the links! (According to one of the articles linked, the technology supplements, but does not replace, a traditional autopsy. I think the techology will become so advanced that it will do so in the future.)

    @ Karaka – thanks!

    @ Joseph Fouche – Be of good cheer is something I’m working on. My baseline is grumpy which is too bad for me, and frequently, too bad for everyone else.

    As for the other examples you discuss (thanks, did not know all of that): ah, the laws of unintended consequences, “Mission Creep”, and human frailty….

    – Madhu

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