"First, a massacre campaign will start. The human cost in this country will easily be up to two million people killed, at least. It will not be big news for Afghanistan. We are used to tragedies, throughout our history. But the cost for you will be bigger."
The ousted Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh issued that warning in this recent interview. In the din and hopeful chatter about an impending NATO-backed Afghan exit strategy midwifed by a Karzai peace pact with the Taliban, Saleh's warning has gone almost completely unnoticed. This is exactly the way Afghan president Hamid Karzai and U.S. president Barack Obama would want it.
It is one thing for a nameless Afghan police commander to warn that a precipitous NATO withdrawal would reduce Afghanistan to such an abbatoir that "this time there will be so much blood you will smell it from as far away as London." It is quite another thing when such a warning comes from Amrullah Saleh. Until two months ago, when Karzai sacked him to shut him up, Saleh was the head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, a post he'd held with distinction since 2004.
This would not be the first time for Saleh's warnings to go unnoticed.
In 2001, Saleh was the youthful intelligence chief for the great anti-Taliban guerilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. On September 9, 2001, Saleh contacted Richard Blee, the head of the CIA's Al Qaida unit, with the heartbreaking news that Massoud had just been assassinated by an Al Qaida suicide-bomb squad posing as a team of French journalists, and disaster was imminent. For years, Massoud's forces had been warning the Americans of the coming conflagration. For weeks, Blee had been briefing the White House about a gathering cloud of evidence that Al Qaida was preparing for an attack on American interests. Blee took note of Saleh's warning, but the CIA failed to put two and two together. U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Cold War hawk who'd been intimately complicit in America's horrible bungling in Afghanistan, connected the dots easily. "Something terrible was about to happen," Rohrabacher reckoned. That terrible thing unfolded only two days after Saleh's call. . .
- from my essay in today's Propagandist Magazine.
Today is World Humanitarian Day. The good that will come of it is that there will be opportunities to remember and honour the selfless bravery of war-zone aid workers. Well worth the read is this tribute, from Care International's Melanie Brooks, in memory of her friend Shirley Case, from 100 Mile House, British Columbia. Shirley was murdered in August, 2008, along with three other aid workers, in a Taliban ambush south of Kabul. Shirley and the others were unarmed, of course. They were doing fieldwork for a project that gives children with disabilities equal access to education.
The best and clearest articulation of the nature of the war in Afghanistan as it specifically relates to humanitarianism, can be found in an urgent declaration that has come our way, signed by several dozen Afghan intellectuals, poets, journalists, and academics. The declaration was issued in response to the August 5 assasination of ten aid workers in Badakhshan: These crimes are against human beings, not just “foreigners” or “Afghans.” These are crimes against human beings, and it does not matter what religion those human beings follow, or whether they follow no religion. . . We must grow gardens of knowledge, and teach ourselves and others to follow the International Declaration of Human Rights. Religions and all “isms” are made for humans, to serve humans. We accept no justification from religion to kill any human being.
The ridiculous aspect of World Humanitarian Day is that the world over, the news media will be dutifully performing stenographic services for the grave and ritualistic utterances of various politicians and high officials. In this, a typical example, we read: "Afghanistan is a very difficult and dangerous environment in which to deliver aid," says Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs. "Canada continues to call for unhindered access for humanitarian workers and encourages all parties to promote the safety of aid workers.” Robert Watkins, special representative of the UN secretary general, chimes in: "Aid workers operate on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Humanitarian workers must be protected - not targeted.”
If it's not obvious why this is ridiculous, it may be because the delusional basis of these appeals is staring you right in the face. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is not going to provide "unhindered access" to aid workers, and will not promote their safety, precisely because the Taliban hope and intend to murder aid workers, quite deliberately. Reading the UN's appeals, you'd think they were asking the jerries to mind where they're bombing when the Red Cross trucks are rambling down a backroad in Brittany. You'd think the Taliban's murder campaign against aid workers is something that happens merely because of the Taliban's lack of due diligence in respecting their safe passage.
Killing aid workers is what the Taliban does. It is what the Taliban wants to do. But read the four principles Watkins mentions as though they were some sort of pass you could wave under a Talib's nose so he won't chop your head off. It is precisely because these are the principles that govern a humanitarian aid worker's service that the Taliban targets them and kills them. It is precisely because the delivery of humanitarian aid in a place like Afghanistan cannot be "autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold" that it is delusional to carry on in this way.
But that is precisely how the UN's most senior officials and certain NGO bosses have been carrying on, to the great disservice of aid workers and to the great benefit of the Taliban. The UN's insistence that it can be somehow held above the fray has caused very specific harm to NATO's efforts to bring stability and the rule of law to Taliban-held areas.
It is no state secret that the pivotal Operation Marja in southern Afghanistan has been going rather less than well. The point of Operation Marja was to rapidly clear the district of Taliban gangsters and proceed immediately to the quick delivery of basic services like schools, clinics, and job programs. Only days before the Operation began, the UN issued a surprise announcement that it was bailing out because its involvement might be construed by the Taliban to be “the militarization of humanitarian aid.” Wael Haj-Ibrahim,a UN bigshot in Afghanistan, explained the decision thus: “If that aid is being delivered as part of a military strategy, the counterstrategy is to destroy that aid.”
Delusional. It doesn't matter whether you're delivering aid as part of a military reconstruction operation or not. The Taliban will kill you anyway. The work Shirley Case and her colleagues were doing wasn't part of any military strategy. The Taliban butchered them anyway.
It is just as delusional to imagine that the struggle in Afghanistan is a "war" in any conventional sense of the term. If it is a war at all, it is a war on humanitarianism, a war on women, a war on the poor, a war on education, and a war on the very notion of the paramountcy of "life and health" and "respect for human beings" that the UN cites among the foundational principles of humanitarianism.
As Samantha Power makes clear: "Neither the blue flag nor the red cross is enough to protect humanitarians in an age of terror." Sarah Chayes has been working "outside the wire" in Kandahar for several years now and puts the point even more directly. You can wear a helmet or an Oxfam t-shirt, it won't matter: "The only place as dangerous to be as a NATO military convoy is a clearly marked humanitarian vehicle."