Sunday, 21 December 2008

Who's who in Guantanamo

The Brookings Institution has published a brief, but important, report called The Current Detainee Population in Guantanamo: An Empirical Study which makes for interesting reading. The report notes that since the camp opened in January 2002, the Pentagon has consistently refused to identify those who have been held there.
"We have sought to identify the detainee population using a variety of records, mostly from habeas corpus litigation", say the authors, " and we have sorted the current population into subgroups using both the government's allegations against detainees and detainee statements about their own affiliations and conduct."
The authors say that as of mid-December there were 248 detainees left in the camp - out of a total of around 779 detainees who have passed through since it was opened. Since 2004, when the Pentagon set up a review to evaluate the 558 remaining prisoners, 330 have been transferred or released. Other facts gathered by the Brookings researchers include the following:
1) 81 detainees travelled to Afghanistan for jihad
2) 130 stayed in al-Qaeda, Taliban or other guest/safe houses
3) 169 detainees took military or terrorist training in Afghanistan
4) 84 actually fought for the Taliban, many of them on the front lines against the Northern Alliance
5) 88 were at Tora Bora
6) 71 detainees' names or aliases were found on computers, hard drives, physical lists of al-Qaeda operatives, or other material seized in raids on al-Qaeda safehouses and facilities.
7) 64 detainees were captured under "circumstances - military surrenders, live combat actions, travelling in a large pack of mujahideen, or in the company of senior al-Qaeda figures, for example - that strongly suggest belligerency".
8) 28 detainees served on Osama bin Laden's security detail.

The Brookings Institution says that in order to make more concrete the US government's allegations against each of the present detainees, it has created five broad categories that help illuminate the role that each of them allegedly played in the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other groups.
Looking at the figures this way we see that:
1) 27 were members of al-Qaeda's leadership cadre
2) 99 were lower-level al-Qaeda operatives
3) 9 were members of the Taliban's leadership cadre
4) 93 were foreign fighters
5) 14 were Taliban fighters and operatives.

The problem of what to do with these remaining prisoners will eventually be solved by the new Obama Administration about to enter the White House. The foreign fighters in particular are said to pose a serious problem, although hundreds have been allowed to return home without incident. However, it has always struck me as odd that so many Afghans were held in Guantanamo. It cannot be because they were directly involved in bin Laden's activities. None of them would have been privy to the plans for the 9/11 attacks, not least because many of the Arabs around bin Laden looked down on the Afghans.
It is also unlikely that they were being trained for al-Qaeda operations abroad. Many of them were captured in the final days of the Taliban regime when their leaders deserted them and fled to Pakistan. Some of them were simply regular Taliban fighters involved in fighting the Northern Alliance. Others were Pakistani Pakhtuns sent over the border in a futile gesture of bravado and solidarity.
It is thought that at least another 60 prisoners are due for imminent release and the US has suggested that maybe only up to 80 others will enter into the US legal system following the closure of the remaining prisoner facilities. For some idea of the options, this article by Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith is very useful. Whatever happens, the closure of Guantanamo Bay cannot come quick enough.
Incidentally, if you would like to find out which 'celebrities' have recently visited Guantanamo, you might want to check out this page. If you would like to follow official news on what is happening with the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, you can look here.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Thriving on a sense of injustice

This morning the Guardian published a fascinating report by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad based on his interviews with a number of Taliban fighters in Wardak province, in Ghazni and in Kabul. The subject of much of the report was Qomendan Hemmet, a young Taliban commander who declared: "When I started in this area, three years ago, I had six fighters, one RPG and two machine guns like these. Now I have 500 fighters, 30 machine guns and hundreds of RPGs."
There is no way at present of checking these figures, but even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, no-one can now doubt that the Taliban is becoming organised throughout the country. Qomendan Hemmet explained how each province now has its own Taliban governor, military leader and shura (consultation) council. Below these are the district commanders, who in turn have smaller units under their command.
Hemmet explained that the Taliban now place a great deal of emphasis on offering some form of government in the areas in which it has a presence. Most importantly, its sharia courts dispense justice, mostly in cases involving bandits or land disputes. The success of the Taliban in offering even a modicum of justice may be one of the reasons behind the recent announcement by the Karzai government that it had begun executing criminals. It wants to be seen as decisive and as popular as the Taleban in the way it tackles crime and property.
Another interviewee, Mullah Muhamadi, also emphasised the importance the Taliban now attaches to being seen to be a government in waiting. "When we control a province we need to provide service to the people. We want to show the people that we can rule and that we are ready for the day when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes."
Those mistakes, it would seem, include the closing down of all schools and also the open-ended support for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. While deeply resenting what they see as the military occupation of their country by foreign forces, the new Taliban also know that it was bin Laden who brought death and destruction to their country by launching the 9/11 attacks from their soil. He may now have support amongst some of the tribes along the border because of personal connections, but most Afghans feel little, if any, allegiance to bin Laden and the global jihad.
The Taliban interviewed by Abdul-Ahad appear to have a consistent plan based on cutting the cities off from their hinterlands. They remark that the army and police may control the roads by day, but by night they are in charge. This strategy, most successfully developed by the Peoples Liberation Army in China under Mao Zedong, is just about the only one that can be followed by what is, in essence, a peasant militia. It is unlikely to lead to the collapse of the present government, but it will make much of the country ungovernable.
The reasons it is being successful include the fact that much of the population, particularly in the south, is disillusioned with the Karzai government for not getting rid of warlordism and not settling accounts with those who carried out atrocities in the past.
A good example of this has come to light in the last week. According to IRIN, the UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the site of a mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili near Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, has been disturbed in the last few months and human remains have been removed. The group Physicians for Human Rights, who discovered the mass grave in 2002, issued a statement alleging that General Abdul Rashid Dostum (see my previous blog below) is responsible for the recent excavations. The involvement of Dostum is examined in more detail in an investigation by Tom Lasseter of McClatchy newspapers.
It was Dostum's men who were accused of carrying out the original massacre of more than 2,000 captured Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance and US Special Forces after the fall of the city of Kunduz in November 2001. Ever since PHR discovered the remains in January 2002 it has been advocating a full inquiry into what happened there. Their own investigations showed that many of those who died had suffocated as a result of being crammed into freight containers. It was a shocking crime. At the time the US government played down reports about the deaths, saying only that several dozen had died.
However, PHR has now issued much more information that it received from the Departments of Defense and State and also the CIA as a result of a FOIA inquiry.
The documents include a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. "Despite having this information," says PHR, "the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes".
PHR adds that the FOIA response calls into question the US Government’s commitment to its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These laws require full investigation and accountability for war crimes undertaken by allies during joint military operations. During the time in question, US Army and CIA personnel were advising, equipping and protecting General Dostum, and both parties received the prisoners who surrendered at Kunduz.
So is it any surprise when we now hear that many Afghans are flocking to the banner of a resurgent Taliban? It took several years after 2001 for the Taliban to regain its confidence and to reassert its military forces. Now, as everyone can see for themselves that great unjustices have still not been put right, that aid money appears to have evaporated and that the old warlords continue in power we can harldy be surprised that the insurgency is getting stronger.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Taliban tightens the screw

The news that new talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are to take place in Dubai in the next few days is welcome, although the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has issued an uncompromising statement - his first for some time - in which he appears to argue that Coalition forces in the country are on the brink of defeat.
Speaking on the eve of Eid e Ghorban, Mullah Omar suggests that the collapse of the US economy is directly related to its military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and warns that sending more troops to back the regime in Kabul will not relieve the situation. "Thus the current armed clashed which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundreds of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up to thousand casualties of dead and injured simultaneously," he says.
He does not specifically mention the Dubai talks, but last time negotiations took place, at the end of September, the Taliban leadership denied that they had happened. "The Afghan Islamic Emirate leadership council considers such baseless rumours as a failed attempt of the enemy to create mistrust and concerns among Afghans and other nations and Mujahideen. No official member of the Taliban is currently or in the past negotiating with the US or the puppet Afghan govrnment. A few former officials of Taliban who are under house arrest or have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate."
Precisely who is involved in the negotiations and their importance will be the subject of a future posting, but whatever is happening in Dubai, it is clear that the Taliban and other groups opposed to the Karzai government are now in control of much of the country. According to a bleak new report from the independent International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 per cent of the country - up from 54 per cent a year ago (see map above).
The report claims that four of the five routes out of Kabul to neighbouring countries are now unsafe for Afghan or international travel. It points to a growing nexus between the Taliban and criminal elements who are "closing a noose" around the capital.
"The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily," says the report. "At the national level, talk of reconciliation and power sharing between undefined moderate elements of the movement and elected government officials is commonplace. At a local level, the Taliban are manoeuvring skilfully to fill the governance void, frequently offering a mellower version of localised leadership than characterised their last stint in power."
The report continues: "It is their combination of recruitment bulk and propaganda know-how that enables the Taliban to outlast NATO-ISAF and US forces. Simplistic though it may be, their unity of purpose gives them a distinct edge over the cumbersome command structure of Western security and development efforts."
"We don't see the figures in this report as being credible at all," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "The Taliban are only present in the south and east, which is already less than 50 percent of the country." And the Afghan government has also rejected the report and said "in addition to the questionable methodology of the report and its conceptual confusion, the report has misinterpreted the sporadic, terrorizing, and media-oriented activities of the Taliban."
Yet it is clear that travel in Afghanistan is now almost impossible for most aid workers, who cannot even visit the projects they are supposed to be financing.
And just across the border in Pakistan supporters of the Taliban have in recent days been engaged in a campaign of attacks against military supply convoys entering the country via the Khyber Pass. On Sunday 7th December insurgents broke into a depot on the ring road outside Peshawar and set fire to 50 containers. The previous night they had burned more than 100 vehicles (see picture above) carrying military supplies. Security guards said that around 200 militants had entered the terminal shouting Allah-o-Akbar and 'Down with America'. A week ago 22 trucks carrying food supplies were burned in the same area.
While these attacks are unlikely to act as a serious threat to the military mission in Afghanistan, they are certainly more than pinpricks. More important than the effect on supplies is the propaganda value. They demonstrate to the average Afghan that Karzai's government is losing control of the country. And in a country where historically people wait to see who is winning before deciding who to support, time is running out.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Gone at last?

So is it farewell, General Abdurrashid Dostum? The notorious Uzbek warlord flew out of Afghanistan onTuesday in a Turkish government jet, possibly to end his days in exile in Ankara - although a Turkish government official has merely confirmed that he is in the country for the Eid Ghorban festival. Removed from his largely symbolic job as military chief of staff to the President in February after kidnapping and beating up a former ally, it is being said that President Karzai agreed to drop all charges if Dostum left the country permanently.
Details of theoriginal incident are unclear, but on 2 February 2008, Dostum's fighters reportedly kidnapped Akbar Bai, a former ally who had become his rival. During the attack Bai, his son, and a bodyguard were allegedly beaten (according to former US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Dostum personally assaulted Bai with a beer bottle, almost killing him), and another bodyguard shot. The following day Dostum's house was surrounded by police. Bai and the three others were freed and hospitalized. According to the authorities, the stand-off ended with Dostum's agreement to cooperate with the authorities in an investigation of the incident.
A few weeks later he was suspended from his post. President Karzai was initially reluctant to take any action, but with growing protests he was forced to act. The investigation concluded in the autumn and then there appears to have been a certain amount of horse-trading, which has not reflected well on the President. Akbar Bai agreed to drop all charges and Dostum was restored to his old job on 30 October, if only to ensure he didn't lose too much face. However it may now be that he has agreed to leave Afghanistan forever.
Dostum's long and bloody political career began in the 1970s. He first rose to prominence as a Communist Party union boss and following the Soviet intervention backed the pro-Moscow government in its battle against the Western-backed mujahideen. He soon rose to become commander of the 53rd Infantry Division and then Unit 374 in Jowzjan, which was loyal to President Najibullah.
After the Russians left Afghanistan Dostum joined forces with the Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in April 1992 to fight against the islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His forces later captured Kabul where they were accused of rape and looting. Then in 1994 he swapped sides again, this time teaming up with Hekmatyar (another notorious warlord) to fight Massoud and the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. Once more charges of rape and looting were laid against his militiamen.
When the Taliban swept to power in 1996 Dostum teamed up with Rabbani and even protected Massoud's troops as they withdrew from Kabul in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
Based in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Dostum established a kind of mini-state where he earned a reputation for cruelty, sometimes executing people by having them driven over by tanks. However, in 1998 he fell out with his second-in-command, General Abdul Malik - who defected to the Taliban - and was forced to flee to Turkey where he lived in exile until April 2001 when he once again joined forces with the Northern Alliance of Massoud and the Herat-based Ismail Khan.
After the Taliban were driven from power it emerged that Dostum's troops had been responsible for a massacre of several thousand Taliban who had been captured in the northern city of Kunduz. The men were loaded into containers where many of them died after Dostum's men opened fire. Others were suffocated. The massacre remains one of the most shameful events in modern Afghan history.
Dostum's men were also involved in the battle at Qala-e-Jangi, an old fortress where around 300 mostly foreign fighters (Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis) were held at the end of November 2001. The fighters staged an uprising in which CIA agent Mike Spann was killed. It ended after almost a week with air strikes that killed all but 86 of the foreign fighters, most of whom were later transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Under the Karzai government Dostum was initially deputy defence minister, but he continued to court controversy and became involved in fighting against the Tajik commander Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor over control of Mazar-e-Sharif. Although that conflict later subsided, he remained a thorn in the side of Karzai, who was unable to touch him because of his support amongst the Uzbeks.
The attack on Akbar Bai seems to have been the final straw and although Karzai was reluctant to move against him, in the end he seems to have beeb persuaded to leave the country, according to Watan newspaper. In the northern provinces where he had wide support from the Uzbek population, Dostum was revered and could count on a loyal following. He allowed religious freedom (he is an atheist) and also allowed women to work outside the home.
Whilst Dostum may have protected the interests of his kinsmen in the northern provinces, he was never able to reconcile himself to the idea of a democratic Afghanistan. If he has left is a victory of sorts for progressive forces in the country, although it has shown President Karzai in a poor light for his indecisiveness. We can only hope that a few more of the Soviet-era warlords will follow his example and quit the country for good.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A culture in exile

Contratulations to Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan-born writer and filmmaker, who has just won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. His book Syngue Sabour (Stone of Patience) is about the thoughts of a woman as she sits besides the bed of her wounded husband, "somewhere in Afghanistan or somewhere else".
"At first, she prays to bring her husband back to life, but she begins to talk about herself, her suffering and her secrets and little by little, she trasforms her husband into this stone of patience," he said recently in a French TV interview.
The novel was Rahimi's first novel in French, having always previously written in Dari, his own language. His novel Earth and Ashes, written in Dari, was subsequently turned into a film that won a prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Born in 1962, Rahimi fled his native country in 1984 and lived in Pakistan for a year before obtaining political asylum in France, where he now lives.
An interesting, if slightly dated, interview with him can be found here.
Rahimi is only the latest literary exile from Afghanistan to make an impression in the West. Khaled Hosseini, whose novels The Kiterunner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have sold in their hundreds of thousands and have both been made into successful films, is probably the most famous. His novels bring out the uniqueness of Afghanistan and its people and remind us all of the extent to which we have let down this remarkable country.
Rahimi and Hosseini were part of an enormous humanitarian catastrophe, when almost a third of the country's population were forced to flee during the Soviet occupation of the country. At one point there were 6.5 million Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran alone. Tens of thousands more were in Central Asian, India and Western Europe.
At least 100,000 Afghans arrived in Germany, with more than a quarter of them living in Hamburg. More than 300,000 Afghans ended up in the United States, , with 40,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.
Even the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989 did not end the enforced exile. Terrible drought, followed by years of internecine fighting between the Afghan warlords and then the arrival of the Taliban in the mid 1990s ensured that the camps were always full. Writers and artists in particular faced persecution.
One of my strongest memories whilst in Kabul in 2002 was a visit to the National Art Gallery. Most figurative paintings had been destroyed and the wreckage had been gathered together in a heap as a kind of makeshift exhibit to illustrate the barbarism of the Taliban. Other paintings had been temporarily painted over by museum staff to hide 'offending' human figures from the zealots.
After the Taliban government fell in 2001 a number of programmes began to encourage Afghans to return to their homeland. For example, the International Organisation for Migration runs a Return of Qualifed Afghans Program and The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund also runs an Expatriate Services Program. These initiatives offer financial incentives to Afghans who agree to go home.
Many other Afghans have had little choice in the matter. Iran, in particular, has thrown out hundreds of thousands of Afghans, many of them Shia Hazaras. And Pakistan has also closed down many of the camps that had become almost permanent fixtures on the outskirts of Peshawar.
But still there are many thousands of Afghans who consider it is still too difficult or dangerous for them to return. Artists and musicians in particular are reluctant to return to a country where they know the Taliban would once again persecute them if it had the opportunity.
They include the great rubab player Khaled Arman and his father Mohammad Hossein Arman, both of whom live in Switzerland; the writer Spojmai Zariab (La Plaine de Cain and Ces murs qui nous ecoutes) and her writer husband Rahnaward Zariab who live in Paris; the writer Fateh Emam, who lives in Lausanne and is the author of Au-dela des mers salee and Un desir de liberte and many others too numerous to mention.
Afghanistan has great traditions of art and music. The poetry of Rumi, who was born in Balkh, and of the great Pashto mystic poets such as Khushal Khan and Abdur Rahman, is rightly regarded as amongst the greatest in any language. We all long for the day that Afghan poets feel safe once again in this land of poets.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Can the Taliban count?

There is no doubt that the insurgency against US-led forces in Afghanistan has gathered pace this year (see my previous post). And even if it is true that many incidents described as 'Taliban' attacks are not necessarily what they seem, that organisation is undoubtedly playing a leading role. Yet even the most devout Taliban supporter must surely wonder about claims of military success made on theTaliban's official website ( Take the last week for example; between 12th and 17th November the Taliban issued 32 statements about military actions. That's roughly four or five per day. If we look in a little more detail at the Taliban statements, they claim to have killed four Canadian soldiers, 15 British , 48 Americans, 10 French, 12 Germans, 44 soldiers from the Afghan national army and 14 policemen - a total of 143 fatalities in one week. They also claim to have destroyed 11 tanks and 10 other unspecified military vehicles. In one of these reports claiming to have killed 11 Americans in Herat in Western Afghanistan on 16 November the official statement says: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his explosives, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of American invaders were completely destroyed".
A second report on an attack in which the Taliban claim to have killed 11 German soldiers, also on 16 November, in Baglan province contains the following statement: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his vehicle, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of German invaders were completely destroyed few vehicles were damaged .
What a coincidence! Clearly we cannot place a lot of trust in the Taliban claims on the battlefield. They appear to be issued by rote, with little concern for the truth. In reality, several Coalition soldiers have been killed and there have been a number of firefights, but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, with the first heavy snows of winter already being reported in Laghman province, the level of fighting is likely to decline.
Even the most widely reported event of the week - the seizing of a number of US Army Humvees and other military equipment from a convoy that was halted and pillaged in the Khyber Pass (see picture above) - was not actually the work of the Taliban itself, but of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the movement's Pakistan-based co-thinkers, who have numerous differences with the Quetta-based Taliban leadership.
Why is it that the Taliban chooses to publish so many lies? After all, they are likely to be much happier about the present state of the insurgency than, say, the White House or Downing Street. The increasingly directionless US entanglement in Afghanistan will soon be that country's longest active military engagement anywhere.
Is it because they think people in the West will believe the lies? That is unlikely. The spokesmen for the Taliban (who can easily be contacted by journalists) are no fools. Although it is often difficult for journalists to travel within the country to check on reported incidents for themselves, they are unlikely to swallow such improbable 'facts' fed to them by Zabiullah Mujahid or Qari Muhammed Yousuf, the two Taliban spokesmen
. Eleven British fatalities on one day, as reported by the Taliban in the last week, would have caused a major political crisis in Britain.
It is because the Taliban are unsophisticated and don't care too much about accuracy? This is not true either. The organisation runs a professional propaganda operation, which produces well thought-out dvds that use the latest video technology and computer programs, runs regularly updated websites and often succeeds in getting its message across by being first to issue a statement on an important event.
No, the simple truth is that in many parts of Afghanistan, with little or no access to public information and high rates of illiteracy, the outlandish claims of the Taliban are believable. In an interview with the BBC last week, Abdul Raziq, a teacher in Lashkar Gar in Helmand province, spoke to reporter Jill McGivering: " 'The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country,' he told me. 'If the people were literate, they wouldn't have this insurgency now. That's why I'm trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it.' "

At the same time, people know that there are Taliban roadblocks appearing on a regular basis in many of the more remote places. Vehicles are 'taxed' by local militias. Night letters are distributed threatening anyone who steps out of line.
No wonder that they think the insurgents can destroy dozens of tanks, kill hundreds of foreign soldiers and drive them from the country.
That is a measure of where we are today. Even the most barefaced of Taliban lies is believable to many Afghans, who at the same time grow increasingly sceptical of Coalition claims, particularly following numerous recent bombings of innocent civilians. Unless Western policy on Afghanistan changes rapidly the Taliban will soon be calling all the shots.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

When the Army played the Afghans at footie

I was looking through some pics I took during a visit to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US-led invasion and thought I should share some of them with you. On 15th February 2002 at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul - previously infamous as the site of public executions by the Taliban - a remarkable football match took place between Kabul United and ISAF. Billed as the 'Game of Unity', the stadium was full to capacity and I was only able to get in by being passed over the heads of hundreds of Afghans who were less fortunate. I recall seeing some desperate fellows unwinding their turbans to pull their comrades over the high wall.
It was a most remarkable match. On the roof of the stadium ISAF marksmen lay prone behind their sniper rifles, while on the pitch the half-time entertainment was provided by a small group of Gurkha dancers. The 20,000-strong crowd jeered as the Gurkhas trotted to the middle of the pitch, wearing their white ceremonial costumes and red waistcoats, topped off by a headpiece similar to a fez. It was only when the Gurkhas, with a flourish, unsheathed their
kukris - the deadly knife they use in close-quarter combat - that the jeering turned into cheering. As the dancers faced each other and their curved blades flashed in the thin winter sun a roar of approval rose up from the crowd.
As for the football, the ISAF team was most British, but there were also Italians, Spanish, Norwegians, French, Dutch and Germans. It ended as a 2-1 defeat for the Kabul team, but honour was saved because the Afghan goal was a corker.
Today, of course, no such match could take place in Afghanistan. Large public gatherings are places to be avoided now that the Taliban has imported the technique of the suicide bomber. The goodwill that existed throughout the country in the wake of their overthrow in 2001 has somehow been frittered away. Too many broken promises, too many indiscriminate airstrikes and too much corruption have all played their part.
Don't let it ever be said that the Afghans did not give peace a chance. They did. It was the ignorance and incompetence of those who conduct the 'war on terror' that turned things around. Simple as that. Ask any Afghan.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Has Obama learned any lessons from history?

As President-elect Obama begins to form his administration his wisest counsellors will be pointing out the need for a major policy rethink in Afghanistan. For months senior military figures in both Britain and America have been speaking publicly of their own failure to win a military victory against the Taliban and the need for negotiation.
They join a long list of military commanders over the past two centuries who have learned the hard lessons of fighting in the Hindu Kush and the hot southern plains. The Afghans do not take kindly to
farangis who occupy their land and this issue will unite them as much as ethnicity, language, religion and geography divide them.
The generals may have known all along that the chances of defeating the insurgency were very small, but after seven years of fighting they can no longer be in any doubt. This summer the insurgency was more active and effective than ever before.
Two hundred and fifty soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year so far, including 151 Americans. In the whole of last year there were 232 casualties. More than 1,000 have died since the US-led invasion in 2001, of whom 634 were Americans (all figs from Many thousands more have been seriously injured.
Estimates of civilian casualties are harder to come by, but most estimates suggest somewhere around 7,000 people have been killed directly as a result of the conflict, with anything from 9,000 to 27,000 having been killed indirectly by the humanitarian crisis that has gripped parts of the country.
And while US and other forces have had some success in direct firefights, we have also begun to see accounts of battles in which the Taliban is willing to commit several hundred fighters at a time, occasionally over-running fixed positions before quickly withdrawing. On several occasions groups of soldiers have only been saved by the use of massive airpower.
But that is increasingly controversial. The last few months have been particularly noteworthy for the number of airstrikes which have led to civilian deaths, clearly as a result of poor targetting or misinformation. In the August bombing of the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan, in which many civilians died, it later emerged that information that led to the airstrike came from Afghan tribal opponents of the village that was hit.
One of the most striking differences between the present conflict and the many campaigns conducted by the British Army during the days of the Raj is the comparative lack of knowledge of the tribal and social structure of Afghanistan by the military.
The first Pashto grammar in English was written by Henry Walter Bellew (1834-92), a surgeon in the Bengal Army, who served with the Corps of Guides in Mardan in the 1860s. His
General Report on the Yusufzais (1864) and Inquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan (1891) remain important historical works. Many other British officers learned either Dari or Pashto and were familiar with the pashtunwali code of conduct.
Today there is little evidence that the military understands the importance of tribal politics in trying to understanding Afghanistan. How many military officers know that there are Shia enclaves in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example?
One consequence is that
all Pashtuns have been demonised, as military strategists find it impossible to differentiate between Taliban and Pashtun, often using the two terms interchangeably. The reality is that the insurgency is almost as fractured as the US-led coalition it is fighting. In parts of the south it is drug lords who predominate, in others the Taliban of Mullah Omar or the Hezbe Islami of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Understanding these local differences is vital.
As Obama consults his generals he would do well to consider the possibility that the Islamic world itself may have an important role to play in terms of resolving the present conflict. One could go further and reasonably argue that the chances of a negotiated settlement are minimal without the participation of moslems. For some time it has been rumoured that negotiations have been taking place with elements of the old Taliban leadership that has become disenchanged with Mullah Omar and his close association with al-Qaeda. President Karzai himself has admitted as much and not so long ago he threw British advisers out of the country for conducting such talks without his permission.
These may look like local talks, but the reality is that it will require power brokers based in Cairo and Jeddah to make these discussions turn into a real agreement.
For those living in Kabul, there is still a sense that they are living in a capital city, even though safety cannot now be guaranteed in most of the country. In the last week we have been told of three kidnappings - a Canadian and a Dutch journalist - both of whom were seized very close to the capital - and a 61 year-old American engineer who was held for two months before being rescued by US special forces. Two weeks ago a Frenchman was kidnapped off the streets of Kabul and before that UK citizen Gayle Williams was gunned down in the street, allegedly for spreading Christianity. The town of Sarobi, where ten French paratroopers were killed six weeks ago by a large force of Hekmatyar's men is only a half-hour drive from the capital.
It may be that the impending arrival of winter will slow the momentum towards national disintegration, but unless someone in Washington wakes up to the realities and convinces the President that missiles fired from drones and a surge in troop numbers will not solve this war, then the spring will bring another hard lesson for Operation Enduring Freedom.