|Photo: MAKHMUDJON ESHONKULOV|
December 2008 completes seven years of the Karzai reign; seven years since the Taliban has ostensibly been ousted. Yet for the past three years Afghanistan has been caught in an expanding spiral of violence that today threatens large sections of the Afghan population, the new institutions of state as well as development initiatives. It is a violence that is being increasingly felt in larger areas of neighbouring Pakistan and managed to strike India’s financial capital in late November.
As Southasian governments attempt to tackle murderous attacks striking at the heart of densely populated cities against citizens, Afghanistan offers important lessons. Why has a combined effort by the world’s largest superpower, the NATO countries and the Afghan government, involving both military might and billions of dollars, been unable to contain, let alone reverse the violence? Who is the Afghan government going to negotiate with as it attempts to talk to the ‘Taliban’? At the heart of the issue that confronts the whole region is the central question: what is ‘terrorism’? In focusing the battle against individuals like Osama bin Laden and groups like al-Qaeda or the Taliban, is the war against ‘Talibanisation’ itself being lost?
In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to revisit the end of 2001. It is now well established that US claims to having “liberated” Afghanistan from Taliban oppression notwithstanding, the Taliban’s denial of the basic human rights of Afghans did not invite active military intervention by any power until such time as the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Though the Taliban’s ‘ideology’ of crushing women’s rights, limiting schooling and education, health and freedom of information and refusing to allow all forms of democratic principles proved convenient in subsequent efforts to demonise them, there was little attempt to differentiate between the ideology itself and the dangers of the group utilising the ideology as a tool of control. The assumption was that the elimination of a group or a set of individuals would disappear their ideology. As is now evident, not only have individuals been replaced, more worryingly, the conservatism that spawned and kept the ‘terrorists’ in power, is creeping insidiously back.
Many of the tenets of the Taliban were only an extreme form of an ideology that had its roots in the traditional practices and customary laws of some tribal groups. Inspired by tribal codes and principles of restorative justice, many of the customary laws of Afghanistan, especially the Pashtunwali (the unwritten code of honour of the Pashtun people practiced even today), would be considered abhorrent and a complete violation of basic principles of internationally recognised human rights including the right to life and liberty. The use of women as private property in dispute settlement; taking lives in exchange for injury or murder; treating the sheltering of a battered woman as a kidnapping which demands retribution through murder; all of this did not begin or end with the Taliban. Nor did the practice of summary or public executions. The brutality that is now seen to characterise the Taliban regime was evident in the behaviour of the ‘commanders’, ‘warlords’ and power brokers, with long years of conflict having brutalised the fighting men and having entrenched the most egregious aspects of the ‘spoils of war’ as routine practices.
While the Taliban undoubtedly epitomised the worst of these horrific practices, demonising the group, rather than viewing ‘terrorism’ as a tactical tool, has allowed the international community as well as the Afghan government to stop short of examining and tackling the roots of this behaviour. Conduct which originates from a combination of factors: the dehumanisation after years of war, the culture of conquest and pillage, the hostility towards outsiders and external influences, the severing of geographical, cultural and social roots, the loss of identity and the destruction of family and homes.
In Kabul’s largest prison today, half the women inmates have been incarcerated on grounds of ‘moral crimes’ – most of them simply for having violated the social mores by running away from abusive families. Many of the commanders who were responsible for the earlier depredations (which allowed the Taliban to project themselves as saviours and enjoy some popularity for a short while), are now well entrenched in power, their fiefdoms are kept alive through generous international assistance. Despite a deeply flawed justice sector and an international demand for a moratorium on capital punishment, executions without transparent trials are becoming more regular. Children, especially young boys, are being sexually abused and exploited by members of the armed forces and armed groups according to the UN and the practice extends to senior military commanders. Media freedoms have come under attack and entertainment programmes are being curbed on grounds of being culturally inappropriate. Yet these trends have not caused much consternation since they do not come accompanied by the name tag of the ‘Taliban’, ‘al-Qaeda’ or ‘terrorism’.
Not only is there a lack of resolve to tackle these serious issues, there is an increasing tendency to adopt a position of moral relativism with the internationals increasingly speaking of ‘Afghan culture’ and the need to respect local traditions. It is obvious that the desire for security trumps the need for democratic rights and freedoms. This has also allowed the US to wage a ‘war’ during the course of which it has used abhorrent practices in detention, in total disregard of international law. In the US military base of Bagram on the outskirts of Kabul, detainees are held without any due legal process or recourse to justice, processes that are now very well documented.
Not surprisingly, arbitrary detention is widely acknowledged as a popular reason for public disenchantment with the government and its international backers, which drives increasing numbers of recruits and volunteers to the Taliban.
The intensifying conflict has brought with it the increasing use of air power, a tool that has led to a higher number of civilian casualties. Criticism of high civilian deaths and wounding in the air operations has been met with the bald response that the international military forces are not deliberately targeting civilians and that the fault lies with the Taliban for operating in populated centres. A senior NATO general even also offered the view that commanding officers in the field whose actions had led to these casualties could not be held responsible since it is very “difficult to rule afterwards on judgement calls made in the heat of the moment” where commanding officers “may have made a wrong call for the right reason”. With such easy immunity enjoyed by senior commanders, it is unlikely that the graph of ‘collateral damage’ will go down in the heat of intensified fighting that is expected next year. A senior UN official confirms the point.
The high tolerance for ‘collateral damage’ is an underlying characteristic of this war. The focus on securing the state as opposed to the citizenry has allowed military commanders as well as politicians not only to permit greater civilian deaths to go unpunished but also to make claims of success in the face of an obviously deteriorating security situation. The deepening conflict has been attributed to the international forces entering ‘new’ areas, a claim which incidentally has been repeated for the last three years. The increasing deaths are also blamed on the use of asymmetric tactics – the use of explosives, bombs and suicide bombers – as if the use of asymmetric tactics is not to be accounted for in an assessment of military conflict. Military patrols through populated areas which are supposed to bring a sense of security to the population now march through with bayonets pointed at every civilian while any civilian who gets too close to a convoy is seen as a legitimate target in what is euphemistically termed ‘an incident of escalation of force’ resulting actually in death or grave injury of such passers by.
While neither the Kabul government nor its international backers have so far been able to curb rampant lawlessness and increasing criminal activity by armed groups or predatory ‘commanders’, they now seem willing to share the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force as well. Faced with a worsening security situation, the international community and Kabul came up with the concept of an ‘auxiliary police’, community based recruits would be inducted to swell the ranks of the police but without the training, oversight or accountability of a professional force. This experiment is now largely accepted to have failed as a tactic, and instead the concept of arming tribal militia has taken root. While opinion in the international community is divided on this issue, NATO seems to be poised to launch a pilot project in this direction, notwithstanding the considerable evidence that the arming of communities in the country has inevitably backfired. Based on the concept of tribal loyalty, this new plan however does not take into account the fact a tribe’s loyalty is first to its own members and not to a distant government, leave aside abstract principles of governance and democracy. There is nothing to prevent tribes, thus armed, from suddenly changing their loyalty and throwing their allegiance behind a group acting against the interests of the government.
Nowhere does the narrow definition of ‘terrorism’ or the distinction made between the ‘war on terror’ and instability in general, between good governance and criminal activity become more absurd than in the matter of counter-narcotics. Despite the well-established linkages between ‘terrorism’ and drug trafficking in Afghanistan, until now, drug trafficking has been considered a matter for the Afghan police. Though publicly the international forces merely argue that this is outside their ‘mandate’, privately most have acknowledged they do not want to open another ‘front’ in the ongoing and difficult conflict by taking on the wrath of the drug traffickers. Indeed, the British military forces in the Helmand province, which currently produces 66 percent of the country’s opium, issued a statement saying they were not going to target poppy cultivation even while, ironically, the UK is the lead country for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. NATO has recently accepted the need to take on drug traffickers but the implementation of the idea is yet to be seen.
How new the new Taliban?
As the year drew to an end, the noise about talks with the Taliban became louder. While a process of ‘national reconciliation’ under former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi had already been established, the new initiative seems to have greater backing from both the international community as well as President Karzai. What remains unclear is which elements of the Taliban will be considered for inclusion in such a peace process. While renunciation of arms and acceptance of the Constitution remain the principles on which the talks are supposed to be premised, are they sufficient as markers? Will yesterday’s ‘terrorist’ or today’s suicide bomber be legitimised simply by renouncing violence and accepting the Constitution? How far will this immunity stretch? President Karzai has already promised to defend Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban leaders against the international forces should they choose to come and talk. On the other hand, blanket immunity is not a new concept. Despite a well-established process of transitional justice, the country’s parliament, which is dominated by the former leaders of the conflict, the commanders and the warlords gave all leaders immunity against prosecution for crimes committed during the conflict. This Amnesty Bill was signed into law by the President in March 2007.
Another presidential election will take place in 2009 with parliamentary elections scheduled for the year after. Both electoral exercises are already being portrayed as signs of the entrenchment of democracy. Yet, apart from the ‘electoral’ process, Afghanistan’s democracy does not resemble any democracy in the very countries participating in rebuilding Afghanistan. In the current climate, where sections of the Afghan polity as well as a section of the international backers have begun characterising human rights and democratic principles as ‘Western’ and ‘alien’, by the time the much-touted talks take place, will it just be a question of replacing one Taliban with another? By failing to distinguish between the use of ‘terror’ as a tool and as an ideology centred on undemocratic and abusive practices, the ‘war on terror’ runs the risk of replacing one set of ‘terror’ groups with another while failing to address the dangers of that ideology. Individuals may be removed, replaced or routed, but as long as the ideology and its roots remain unchallenged there will always be more individuals and groups waiting to use it and also to use terror to enforce it.
At a time when New Delhi seems to be falling prey to the activation of its own ‘war on terror’ following the Bombay attacks, it would do well to understand the quagmire of ‘tribal’ and faith-based forces it would be unleashing as it proceeds, many of which as yet unrecognised. India would do well to study Afghanistan and the Western misadventure there before starting on its own quest.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)