By Peter Jouvenal and Edward Girardet. The following article is the Introduction to the 4th edition of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan and the Region. It is being provided as a courtesy by the editors of the 4th edition, which will be available in early 2013.
Introduction: Afghanistan for Rent – A Decade of Missed Opportunities
The pledges of international support for nation-wide Afghan recovery following the US-led invasion in October, 2001 and the temporary displacement of the Taliban, who briefly faded into the mountains, brought renewed hope that Afghanistan might finally witness real peace.
The sad reality is that the West’s involvement since then has had little to do with ordinary Afghans. Peace today is even more elusive than it was in 2001. Hardly any informed person today genuinely believes that the last decade’s efforts at development have been either sustainable or commensurate to the billions of dollars spent, or mis-spent by the United States and other donors since the January 2002 Tokyo Conference in which these promises were made. Or that the military intervention has justified the number of Coalition soldiers and Afghans killed. Afghanistan is still a country at war and considerably less secure than over a decade ago.
British journalist Peter Jouvenal and Essential Field Guide editor and author Edward Girardet, both of whom have reported on Afghanistan since the start of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, explore what has gone wrong and what is needed to get it right.
Afghanistan’s war is now well into its fourth decade with no end in sight. For many who know this country and region well, Western intervention over the past 11 years has proved little more than disastrous given all that it could have achieved. A better informed international community might have had a far greater impact at a fraction of the cost had things been done right from the very beginning. Given that the United States alone has channelled more than 300 billion dollars (roughly one million dollars for each of Afghanistan’s 30 million citizens) toward its involvement in Afghanistan, some suggest that it might have been more effective to simply hand over 5,000 dollars to each individual Afghan. They would very likely have put the money to far better use.
While Afghans bear some responsibility for the current mess, the overwhelming blame must lie with the Americans, Europeans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Arabs, Chinese and other outside players, who have imposed policies, political agendas and economic strategies that suited their own needs, but had little to do with Afghans themselves. If anything, such actions have undermined Afghanistan’s own efforts to resolve its internal disputes as well as religious and tribal differences.
In the period immediately after 9/11, there was ample on-the-ground experience among both Afghans and expatriates, including a small group of pragmatic Afghan “wallahs” within the American and European diplomatic corps. Their message was simple: whatever you do, go slow with a very long-term strategy (20-30 years at least), do not throw money at Afghanistan, and, above all, do it in direct collaboration with grassroots Afghans rather than privileged elites. Donors, aid strategists and security analysts largely ignored this group, despite its acquired understanding of Afghan terrain and culture. From the beginning, Western recovery efforts were riddled with “quick fixes” that made little sense, and were often arrogant and out-of-touch. Yet they looked impressive to distant policymakers and bureaucrats back in Washington, London or Brussels.
As a result, Afghanistan today is hardly any closer to a sustainable peace. The future promises to be even bleaker. Well-connected Afghans, warlords, the Taliban and other insurgents jostle for power, and are positioning themselves to benefit from the country’s impressive natural resources. Foreign companies from China, India, the United States and Europe have targeted mineral resources including copper, iron, tungsten, gold and even the rare earth minerals, vital for computer chips. When the majority of NATO forces pull out in 2014, ordinary Afghans will hardly be the ones to benefit. Bitter ethnic and religious strife is emerging as a catalyst for an even more ruthless civil war. After seven years working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Reto Stocker, who was the ICRC’s chief delegate in Kabul until October 2012, warned: “Life for ordinary Afghans has taken a turn for the worse.”
Michael Keating, who headed UN humanitarian operations in Afghanistan until November, 2012, suggests that descent into chaos is not inevitable. A more peaceful scenario, however, depends on how appropriate the post-2014 commitment from the international community will prove. Keating stresses that this needs to include encouraging a dialogue among all parties at all levels. Both he and others believe that the West must stop branding the armed opposition as ‘terrorists’ given that they represent elements of Afghan society which need to be brought to the table. At an EFGA co-organized Afghanistan Roundtable in Geneva in early December, Keating was blunt. “This means taking action. Now! Now! Now!” he said.
At the same time, no one can deny that, compared to the Taliban period of the late 1990s, the past few years have achieved some impressive gains. New roads have been built, power-grids re-established, health centres opened and over half the country’s children (some seven million) are now in school. (SEE EDUCATION) The state universities are flourishing once again. Several private institutions, such as the American University of Kabul, have been created. Numerous entrepreneurial and local initiatives have promoted new business, such as improved agricultural extension networks. While the extraordinary urban development in Kabul and other cities now peppered with Dubai-style office blocks and garish villas can be seen as examples of investment confidence in the new Afghanistan, much of this expansion is a reflection of the country’s massively artificial aid economy which has been supplemented by drug trafficking, thuggish land speculation and graft.
One area where western support has made a marked difference is the media. Scores of radio and TV stations plus newspapers and magazines have been set up since 2002 even though many are now proving incapable of surviving as funding dries up (SEE MEDIA). Select Afghan news outlets have emerged as the only truly effective form of public monitoring for promoting transparency and accountability. However, many of these publications or broadcasters are not likely to survive the next few years. Outspoken journalists are also increasingly harassed by both the government and the insurgents.
Overkill in donor funding (some 60 billion dollars alone for reconstruction and development) has encouraged massive corruption. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been misappropriated by a small minority of privileged government officials, warlords and entrepreneurs. Much of this also has been sucked up by exorbitant administrative overheads, high salaries and costly private security contracts by western companies, who are equally if not more corrupt. (SEE MERCENARIES) Aside from cultivating political connections, many foreign firms show little long-term vision or understanding of the country. Numerous contractors have been allowed to operate on the basis of “good enough” initiatives that are shoddy or inappropriate. Many, too, have been granted contracts by Western government officials perfectly aware that such firms could not possibly perform. The main thing was to tick the boxes to show that the work was being undertaken. Few American or European taxpayers are aware of the extent with which such public funding has been misused.
Not surprisingly, Afghans have a hard time finding any semblance of a normal life. Apart from Kabul and other cities, the only really significant improvements have tended to occur in select border regions with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, where local initiatives and private investments have ensured bustling economies. Numerous Afghans in Nangrahar and Kunar, for example, retain close trade links with Peshawar or Islamabad, where they have businesses and families. (SEE REFUGEES). Agriculture has expanded, while many small towns and villages now boast internet centres, fitness gyms, well-stocked shops and even hydro-electric generators to produce power.
Western Support: An Imbalance of Objectives
Most of this change has little to do with foreign aid or military projects. While some NGOs, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan or the French agricultural organization, Madera, focus on the rural areas that are home to 75 percent of Afghans, the bulk of western support has gone to Kabul. This is despite ample warnings from experienced aid workers and observers that too much money in the wrong place can only make matters worse. By ignoring Afghanistan’s countryside, the international community has excelled at avoiding the implementation of successful reconstruction.
Afghanistan today is not even close to supporting itself. Since there is only limited investment in rural areas, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have flocked to Kabul, Herat and other urban centres. For the first time, genuine slums have appeared on the outskirts of these cities. The situation has been made worse by the fact that since the end of 2001, international organizations, such as the World Bank, European Union, USAID, and the principal donors began competing with each other to hire qualified Afghans at excessively high salaries. These organizations were repeatedly warned that inflationary employment would prove counter-productive, but they were more concerned about their own immediate needs. The result was a completely unrealistic job market, which has no chance of replicating itself once most of the foreign armies leave. While this employment undoubtedly injected money into the economy, little of it trickled down to the vast majority of Afghans.
Afghanistan is now trying to cope with this short-sightedness. As many as 100,000 jobs are likely to disappear by the end of 2014. Since each person employed is estimated to support up to 20 or more extended family members, the impact will be far greater than it appears on the surface. As many as two million Afghans may be affected. By mid-2012, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a huge source of employment in recent years, stopped handing out new contracts. This created a sense of panic among many Afghans, particularly educated ones, who see their time running out. Senior government officials, ministers and members of the Karzai ‘clan’, began placing their money outside the country long ago. While publicly voicing confidence, they are now falling over each other to move their families and wealth out.
Most expect that once foreign troops leave, the situation will deteriorate rapidly. Even Afghans who previously criticized the West are beginning to want foreign forces to remain. Although the US, Britain and others are expected to maintain some bases and special forces inside the country (estimates vary from 14,000 to 30,000 troops), that is doing little to assuage Afghan fears. Few have any confidence in the Kabul regime. Nor do they trust the insurgents.
For many young Afghans, who represent 60 percent of the population and have now tasted the benefits of re-newed education but also mobile phones and the internet, the former Jihadists and neo-Taliban do not represent what they want. This so-called “Third Wave,” who have everything to lose, are now becoming politically active in a bid to unite all Afghans under an Islamic but modernist banner. Whether they can pull together as a non-divisive nation-wide movement that is not solely urban-based is another matter.
Given the current situation, it is sometimes easy to forget that the US-led invasion of October, 2001 was at least initially broadly welcomed by many Afghans. The first mistake by the West, and notably by the United States, was to take sides in the already brutal civil conflict between the Taliban and the United Front (Northern Alliance). Washington, under guidance of the George W. Bush administration, threw its support behind groups and individuals, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and other discredited warlords, who had no standing among many ordinary Afghans. The US failure to pay attention to the complexities of the Afghan situation led to many tribal Pushtuns believing that the intervention was intended to pit the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnicities against them.
By 2003, Washington and London were pushing more for a military rather than a political solution. The Coalition armies quickly ramped up their forces, but it was already apparent that the war they were conducting could not be won. Most western governments soon realised the mistake. The declared intention by Coalition partners to withdraw by the end of 2014 is designed not only to appease voters back home, but to secure a phased retreat without admitting defeat. (SEE VIETNAM-AFGHANISTAN). Canada, for example, “declared victory” – as Paul Watson of the Toronto Star put it – when it pulled out its combat forces in the summer of 2011. “Few Canadians realise what a complete fiasco it’s been.” (Since then, however, it appears that residual Canadian training missions in Kandahar might still be used in a combat capacity).
The military objectives for a war that did not need to happen were confusing and often contradictory. As western commanders saw it, the mission ranged from killing Osama bin Laden and implementing an ill-defined and ill-fated “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT) to crushing the local Afghan insurgency, which had faded away following the US-led intervention, countering the narcotics’ trade and providing security for all of Afghanistan. Some military analysts insist that the purpose was always to reinforce democracy and recovery, but this contention is refuted by others, such as one American War College instructor who maintained that US involvement has nothing to do with nation-building. “We went in there to destroy terrorism and this is what we have done,” the instructor insisted. That characterization was reflected by President Obama’s assertion that now that al-Qaeda has been neutralized in Afghanistan, the rationale behind the US intervention has ended.
The fact that it took a decade to track down and kill the al Qaeda leader or that repeated military operations have failed to quash an enemy that simply disappears only to re-emerge days, weeks or months later are proof that policy planners failed from the beginning to fully grasp what conflict in Afghanistan really means. In particular, they failed to examine how the mujahideen operated during the 1980s and why they proved impossible to crush. The Taliban and other insurgents operate in much the same manner, but have introduced new tactics such as the widespread use of IEDs and suicide bombers, which makes it even more difficult for NATO force to pinpoint their enemy.
A Pointless War
Western pundits, including some US military commanders, often appear under the illusion that the current war began in 2001. The American or NATO conflict is in reality just another phase of the extraordinarily brutal and unresolved civil conflict which began in the summer of 1978. The true roots of this dragging belligerency derive from the revolt of mainly conservative, rural tribesmen against an increasingly repressive communist regime backed by Moscow. (Political tensions had already started well before that in the 1960s and early 70s.) When the Soviets sent troops across their southern border at the end of 1979 it became a national resistance against a foreign invader. The United States, too, heavily backed Islamic fundamentalists as part of the Afghan resistance against the Red Army. Some of these, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani Network, are now fighting against the Coalition forces.
The situation in Afghanistan is further complicated by the fact that Washington, London and Brussels often confuse the Taliban and other insurgent groups with al-Qaeda. The West frequently overlooks the fact that Saudis, Chechens, Pakistanis and other interlopers in the tribal border areas are just as much outsiders as Americans and Europeans. Each has his own purpose for being in Afghanistan. The black and white simplification that many outsiders try to impose on this country and its society is a major factor in the failure of programmes promoted by the United States, NATO and other foreigners.
Not unlike the Soviets of the 80s, the West today is caught up in a classic guerrilla war that involves a multifarious armed opposition consisting of numerous fronts, some well-organized, others not, that is proving surprisingly difficult to put down and that has time on its side. NATO’s decision to announce its proposed withdrawal by the end of 2014 has only encouraged the insurgents to keep up the pressure. They can be expected to increase their attacks against Coalition forces but not engage in an all-out war. They may also seek to focus less on targeting Afghan security operatives. Instead, as happened during the Soviet occupation, the Taliban may encourage more localised arrangements, such as active collaboration against the government or de facto ‘opt-outs’ with police and military standing on the sidelines. Much, too, will depend on how involved the Pakistanis will become in pressuring their Afghan cohorts or cross-border tribal operatives (many Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen share close family or clan ties) to avail themselves against the Kabul regime.
Washington’s announcement in early September, 2012 to declare the Haqqani Network a “terrorist organization” underscored the current administration’s inability to recognize the guerrilla nature of Afghanistan’s war. This created yet another obstacle to bringing the insurgents to the table as part of an eventual negotiated settlement, which needs to involve all parties on equal terms.
Today, the armed opposition – but also increasingly numerous grassroots Afghans – perceive the West as an outside occupation. Many no longer differentiate between military troops, mercenaries and humanitarians. They see foreigners as one and the same. This has made it much more difficult for the UN and other members of the international aid community to implement relief and development programmes outside Kabul and the larger urban zones. Over 70 percent of Afghanistan is now classified as “insecure,” and that includes many previously quiet areas, such as Badakshan, Kunduz and Balkh. (The ‘war’ only really began in Kunduz, for example, once the Germans were deployed there from 2004 onwards. Until then, the situation had proved relatively calm.)
There is a growing consensus that the more than 3,000 Coalition troops and an estimated 30,000 Afghans (military and civilian) have died over the past decade for nothing, a reality that much of the western media is still unwilling to report. This does not take into account the thousands more who died “out of theatre” or have suffered from horrific injuries or been maimed for life from the psychological trauma of war. More active US military personnel died from suicide in 2011 than were killed in combat.
By 2012, Washington, London and select partners among the 48 foreign Coalition armies were still maintaining the fiction that the insurgency was being contained – if not thwarted — by targeted military operations, the deployment of remote-controlled predator drones and the use of hearts and minds propaganda programmes. These “H & M” initiatives are largely conducted by Special Operations units, who grow beards and wear clothing that look Afghan. While Special Forces, are better informed and more incisive than conventional troops, these tactics have not proven particularly effective despite claims to the contrary by ISAF. The Afghans play along because they have no choice. It is all but impossible for conventional armies to engage with the public because foreign troops, who are armed to the teeth, also fear and distrust the local population.
Most of the armies operating in Afghanistan try to avoid having even a single casualty. But catering to political sensitivities at home does not win wars. Many of the 100,000 plus foreign occupation troops in country, including the 3,000 based at Kabul Airport, contribute little or nothing toward counter-insurgency. They are there primarily for show.
In contrast to some of the for-show-only contingents, British army units and American Special Forces have made determined efforts at understanding the Afghan psyche. The United States operates an impressive Afghan Training Center in Missoula, Montana, where Special Forces soldiers spend an intensive six months learning Pashto and Dari as well as Afghan culture. Many of these troops are of South Asian background, suggesting that they will be deployed on-the-ground in tribal areas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border where they can blend in more effectively. Culturally, however, success is not guaranteed. Afghans will often say what they think appeals to foreigners – it is part of basic Afghan hospitality – but privately, they may think quite differently.
The bottom line is that — as any general worth his salt knows only too well – conventional armies are not suited to fight insurgencies. Guerrillas, for example, can hear the helicopters at a distance and they are usually gone before troops can touch ground. Unrealistic political parameters often force soldiers to act like occupiers. The Dutch were the first to engage anthropologists in the military, a practise now adopted by other forces. But it may be too late for such cultural sensitivities to have a decisive impact.
Similar to the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s, the opposition (who increasingly refer to themselves as ‘mujahideen’) have infiltrated both the Afghan government and the security forces. So-called “green on blue” killings by Afghan military or police against their American, British and other foreign counterparts are on the increase. This includes the murder of five Australian soldiers at the end of August, 2012. Coalition forces are increasingly unable to rely on their Afghan allies. Attacks by suspected anti-government sympathizers (or soldiers with personal grudges) within the Afghan security forces against their own colleagues have become more prevalent. Hardly a week goes by without an “incident.” By late summer, 2012, the Kabul government was purging its forces by ousting of hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers suspected of collaborating with the insurgency.
On a more positive note, ISAF points out that some 5,000 ‘insurgents,’ mainly from the northwest where the Taliban have only a limited presence, have switched to the government side since 2010. But such swapping of allegiances has more to do with Afghan pragmatism than ideology or the preference for one faction over another. Afghans will always act in what they perceive to be their best interests at the moment. The changing of allegiances can prove very short term.
The Taliban and Other Insurgents: Hardly a spent force
For their part, the Taliban and other insurgents show no sign of collapsing. The past several years have witnessed a steady rise in the use of IEDs against NATO forces, including ISAF headquarters. The Haqqani Network has made a practice of launching murderous assaults in the heart of Kabul, Kandahar and other towns. They are conducting an effective, long term and often brutal form of guerrilla warfare that relies on inflicting severe casualties. This is the major difference between the Taliban and the mujahideen of the 1980s, who stayed clear of suicide tactics and indiscriminate booby-traps that were likely to kill civilians. Although US drones have managed to “take out” hundreds of experienced guerrilla commanders and fighters, including Baddrudin Haqqani, one of the Haqqani Network’s key assets and a son of Jalaluddin in August, 2012, a seemingly endless supply of hardline operatives with even less interest in seeking a negotiated peace appear ready to take their place promising even more suicide attacks. Many of these young Afghan militants were brought up in Pakistan and – as tribal elders complain — no longer have any real traditional ties with their homeland on the other side of the Durand Line.
As a disparate and often localized opposition movement, the Taliban does not respond to a single identifiable command structure, nor does it have a unified strategy. As was the case with the mujahideen, most of the numerous ‘fronts’ operate independently of each other. These include Talib fronts, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-e-Islami, but also tribal groups that oppose the Kabul regime for a variety of reasons, including in some cases what they perceive to be affronts to their dignity. The reasons can be extremely personal. It might be simply anger at having one’s opium crops destroyed by the government or the fact that neighbours suffered casualties during a Coalition attack. The inadvertent killing of at least eight women in a NATO bombing in mid-September 2012 is one such example. Animosity also has been provoked by the perceived mistreatment of local populations by foreign or government forces. A convoy forcing civilian cars off the road or a mercenary rudely telling local Afghans to “fuck off” may be enough to shift a clan or a group to the insurgents’ side.
Some groups operate at a district or provincial level; others from the Pakistani side with backing from Islamabad’s nefarious military InterServices Intelligence organization, or ISI. Certain fronts make a point of maintaining good relations with local populations, while others conduct indiscriminate terror against foreign soldiers and aid workers, but also Afghan civilians. Increasingly, too, some groups function like the rogue mafia-style Jihadist gangs of the 1990s killing, robbing and raping villagers. The ruthless execution of ten western and Afghan humanitarians in the summer of 2010 is a tragic illustration of this.
Such incidents have horrified many Afghans, including those opposed to the Karzai regime and the NATO occupation, causing some Taliban to worry about their public relations. In certain parts, local communities have risen up to retaliate – successfully – against insurgent excesses by hounding down, killing or arresting militants. The blowing up of half a dozen street children near ISAF headquarters in late summer 2012 by a teenage suicide bomber also illustrates how coldly indifferent some insurgents are. For the first time, however, there appeared to be seething anger among ordinary Afghans against such murders, particularly of innocent children.
Perhaps the greatest cause of Washington’s failure in Afghanistan was the Bush adminstration’s decision in 2001 to rely on its generals rather than its diplomats to call the shots. Most policy decisions have been made through a security lens, which failed to take into account the widely varying local and regional conditions, and the constantly evolving changes in power. In many ways, this obsession for keeping the military in the lead is one reason why the West’s handling of Afghanistan has proved so calamitous. Other aspects such as incompetence, poor intelligence or the failure to make sufficient effort to understand this country, its people and above all, its history, have prevented any form of negotiated peace and reconciliation from emerging.
The reality is that as Western troops withdraw, the armed opposition – or at least anti-Kabul elements – will move back either by force or by pragmatically cutting their own deals with local security forces. That is precisely what happened when the Soviets pulled out in 1989, after the official loss of more than 15,000 troops. (The Soviets may have lost up to 25,000 soldiers, according to informal sources). Moscow believed that the US had backed the mujahideen during that phase of the war primarily as a way of weakening the USSR. Washington seemed to prove them right, when it pulled the plug on its funding once the Red Army was gone, leaving Afghans to fend for themselves and creating a political vacuum. The result was a ruthless civil war, that resulted in the Battle for Kabul, the rise of the Taliban, an attack against the World Trade Center in New York, and the quagmire that has Washington pinned down today.
Ignoring History at One’s Peril
It’s common for anyone dealing with Afghanistan today to talk about lessons learned from history. But for the most part this is talk. Few take the time to understand the real lessons of the past. Most foreigners do not grasp Afghan culture, a process that takes months if not years of conversations with the local population, usually over a cup or three (and many more) of tea drinking.
The West largely ignored the experiences of the British in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, when the Raj tried – and ignominiously failed – to control the country. Afghanistan during those days was not just a matter of launching a punitive expeditionary force in order to impose one’s policies. A key reason why the First Anglo-Afghan war proved such a disaster was that the British failed to pay subsidies to the royal family. They thought they could manipulate matters from the outside without taking into account local sentiment or customs. Afghans, for example, have always sought to ‘buy’ influence in Kabul and have thus created a dependence on subsidies and payoffs that are just as relevant today as then. The unrestrained and indiscriminate ‘dumping’ of funds on Afghanistan has only encouraged this.
The lessons from the 1980s, when the Soviets, Americans, Saudis, Pakistanis and others all played their games, were also conveniently put on the backburner. Many who became involved with Afghanistan during the post-2001 period have acted as if history did not exist. Today, there is almost nothing to suggest that the Red Army was ever present in Afghanistan. Some wonder whether, in twenty or thirty years time, the NATO intervention will have the same lack of impact.
Part of the problem is that no player has ever intervened in this country expressly to help the Afghans. Whether the Soviets and Americans during the Jihad period, or the Pakistanis, Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and the Coalition forces today, all have intervened in support of their own specific agendas. Outside efforts to buy influence have usually corrupted a certain type of Afghan, whether government official, warlord or insurgent, who will do anything for money and often involves renting his country to the highest bidder. But dealing with a land as traditional as Afghanistan is also a matter of understanding the role of Islam and recognizing that this is what cements Afghans together, whether the government or the Taliban.
Ordinary Afghans are extremely angry about corruption, yet the way the West has operated in Afghanistan since the early 2000s by favouring privileged individuals with the right contacts, guns and power has only encouraged such abuse.
Afghanistan today suffers from a severe lack of capacity. The majority of Afghans, 70 percent of whom are illiterate, still lack basic education. Most qualified Afghans fled the country in the 1980s, a brain drain often encouraged by the West. Too much of the international effort has gone to promote government-sponsored initiatives rather than the efforts of ordinary Afghans. Foreign donors need to inspire not only foreign but also Afghan investment. There needs to be more incentive for Afghans to commit to their own country.
For many visiting consultants, it is far easier to work with government ministries in the capital, sometimes on programmes of questionable impact, rather than more difficult, but in the long-term productive initiatives in the countryside. Why put your money into cumbersome rural enterprises which take time to develop and with the country still at war? Far better to invest in real estate in safe havens such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi. This is precisely what privileged or monied Afghans have been doing. For much of the past decade, too, Kabul itself has proven a highly profitable investment with luxury villas and offices to rent to wealthy international organizations. But with 2014 fast approaching, prices are dropping and the only good bet is outside the country before everything collapses.
Justice or Impunity?
Despite numerous rule of law projects, Afghans still lack confidence in their own legal system. Government judges and police are widely regarded as corrupt so Afghans see no point going to them. The outcome of court cases often depends on the amount of baksheesh that is paid. Afghan’s point out, only half jokingly, that it’s the criminals who go to the police for protection. Many police are involved in drugs, either as users or dealers. An effective police force depends on training and proper salaries. Lacking those two elements, the police naturally look to other sources for their finances.
In Helmand province, villagers consider the US marines to be helpful, but they distrust the uniformed Afghan police who follow the Marines and loot people’s houses. Despite frequent pleas to exclude Afghan police from these operations, Coalition forces continue to insist that police participation is part of their handover responsibility. Given a choice, rural Afghans prefer the Talib-backed shar’ia courts. The more culturally sensitive concepts of traditional justice that these courts exhibit are regarded as quick and relatively fair, if at times harsh.
Even the Afghans who work for NATO often prefer to use Talib rather than government justice, since it reflects cultural standards that people understand. In contrast, the Western judicial system simply does not work in Afghanistan. Not only Afghans, but foreign investors have become disillusioned by the corrupt officials they are expected to pay off.
Western dependence on a government that has little credibility is just as problematic as relying on generals to produce military solutions. Afghan government bureaucrats naturally tend to avoid work or to direct their attention to those activities where a financial incentive is involved. Go into any Afghan ministry and you will see people drinking tea, their eyes riveted to a nearby TV.
Some of this is a legacy from the communist era. Rather than continue to employ a huge bureaucracy that is largely ineffective, the international community could work towards cutting away the dead wood in the system and then doubling the salaries of those who remain, while insisting on greater efficiency.
It has not helped matters that Western donors have blindly channelled funding to the government without following through to check on how it was actually being spent. Many USAID, DFID, EU and other aid coordinators are aware that much of the funding they have provided has disappeared to Dubai or into the pockets of foreign contractors. The number of Afghan officials who have apartments or houses in the Gulf countries or Europe and North America is staggering. This was clearly not paid for with government salaries. Ordinary Afghans are furious, and they are even angrier at the internationals who let the abuses take place while continuing to collect lucrative contracts and salaries. The perception is that there is a symbiotic relationship between corrupt officials and international development contractors who were supposed to be doing something for the country. The funding taps are now being switched off, but as the Afghans see it, it is for all the wrong reasons. From the Afghan point of view, the West has largely botched the whole process and now simply wants out.
Overall, the biggest problem for the international community in Afghanistan is understanding what is going on. Deploying troops on a six-month rotation – the current practice – does not allow foreign military to develop a deeper understanding of what is happening, and yet the military is relied on to set policy. What Americans especially need to understand is that rather than trying to introduce something new, such as western-style democracy with electronic voter IDs, the Afghans really want to embrace their own culture. And to do things their way.
Afghanistan today is a question of dealing with a mixture of different factions, some of whom are little more than criminal gangs posing as insurgents. When a terrorist bombing, kidnapping or armed assault occurs, the first question is often not whether the Taliban are responsible, but which ministry? It is no longer possible to talk in general terms about “the Taliban.” It is necessary to treat each faction on an individual basis and to know who is really calling the shots and for what reason. The kidnapping of an American doctor (who was rescued by Coalition forces) in the Sorubi region in December, 2012, for example, was blamed on the Taliban. However, Sorubi has been long renowned as an area where groups more concerned by personal profit than ideology have operated.
Every Afghan has his own agenda and local intelligence is often not reliable. This became obvious immediately after 9/11 when much of the information purchased by American intelligence proved bogus. The US Reward for Justice programmes encouraged informants to finger fellow Afghans for cash and they did so, often without evidence. The vast majority of denunciations resulted in grave miscarriages of justice with innocent Afghans sent off to Guantanamo or Bagram. There is a lot of tribal competition and local players will do everything possible to discredit the other.
American predator drone attacks against known associates of the Taliban or Haqqani Network have proven effective in the short term, but these tactics may prove detrimental in the long-run. They destroy the known enemy clearing the way for lesser known insurgents who may be harder to control and who are prepared to use even more violent tactics. The result is to nullify acquired intelligence about who is actually running the Taliban and consequently to make realistic planning even more difficult. Better to deal with the enemy that you know than the one that you don’t.
A Swiss-nurtured dialogue: the only tenable solution.
A continuing problem is Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. While ISI is frequently identified as maintaining active links to the Taliban, elements of the Pakistani Federal government have also been implicated in the undermining the government in Kabul. During the 1990s, Islamabad helped instigate renewed civil war by supporting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and then changing its allegiance to the emerging Taliban.
Pakistan has never really been concerned about Afghanistan stability. Its real strategic concern is that India might one day align itself with Afghan groups in order to squeeze Pakistan from both frontiers. As absurd as a resurgence of the Pakistan-India dispute might seem to many Westerners, the fear is still very much alive in the minds of Pakistan’s aging military leadership. As a result, Pakistan’s strategy is to keep a working relationship with those insurgents that it thinks might rise to power once the international community loses interest and abandons Afghanistan. In short, Pakistan is doing everything possible to keep its options open, and that means promoting a political situation in Afghanistan that is essentially fluid. Afghanistan’s other neighbors, Iran and the Central Asian Republics, have similar concerns, but not as intense as Pakistan. The bottom line in this scenario is that much of what will happen in Afghanistan in the near future will depend on how the West deals with Pakistan – as well as Iran and the Central Asian Republics.
For many who know Afghanistan, the only clear way out is to engage in broad-based reconciliation in a manner acceptable to all Afghans, and not just the warring parties. Islamabad’s proposal in late 2012 to assume ‘responsibility’ from the departing Americans for talks is a worrying one. Pakistan is clearly not a neutral player. Nor are the Americans and other NATO countries, or even the Qataris. Probably one of the only countries capable of promoting if not overseeing transparent (a firm need for most Afghans) rather than secret negotiations is Switzerland.
Peter Jouvenal, a British television cameraman and producer, is widely regarded as one of the world’s most authoritative observers on Afghan affairs. He currently lives in Kabul and the UK.
Edward Girardet is a journalist and writer who has reported on Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet invasion in December, 1979. His latest book is: Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.
Both Jouvenal and Girardet began reporting together from inside Afghanistan in early 1980. They have also worked in other conflict zones such as Somalia, Liberia and Sri Lanka.