Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conventional Wisdom And Afghanistan: In And Out Of The Shadows.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come; then we'll come from the shadows. - “The Partisan,” Leonard Cohen, 1969. The wind blows through the graves, freedom will return. We will be forgotten. We will return to the shadows. - “Le Complainte du Partisan,” Emmanuel d‘Astier, 1943.

Do notice the subtle difference. In the 1969 version, freedom ushers the partisans from the shadows. In the original, freedom summons the partisans back to the shadows. I chose the 1969 version for the title of my forthcoming book on the subject. I am inclined to the 1943 version as being, in a word, prescient. But taken either way, the Afghan partisans persist, the wind is beginning to howl among the graves, and the way things are going the "war in Afghanistan," as people like to call it, has not yet even begun.

Last week, in one of his typically trenchant assessments, Hussain Yasa, senior editor of the Kabul daily newspaper Outlook Afghanistan, mentioned almost in passing that "the old allies from the days of the resistance to the Taliban have established a political alliance which is due to be announced after Eid, in early September." He goes on: "Until now Afghans who have worked for the success of the Bonn process have understood the presence of ISAF as a guarantee against the resurgence of the Taliban. . . but the certainties built up over the past ten years are starting to be stripped away. " Indeed, for many Afghans, it's already over.

Last May, Yasa pointed out the many reasons why the received wisdom in certain western establishment circles - the fantasy that negotiations with the Taliban will produce "peace" in his country - is a calamitous folly. He also had something to say about the origins of the conceit: "Contrary to popular belief, the UK, the US or Germany are not the first ones to moot this idea of talking to the so- called moderate Taliban. Earlier, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Maldives and Turkey too had been involved in mediating peace with the Taliban. As far as the Afghan government is concerned, it has been involved in such a peace process since 2004."

I'll notice that it is also a fiction that the late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton was the first to see profit in the peace-talks racket. The NDP's specific policy formulation owes its origins to a concoction cooked up by the Islamist far-right in Afghanistan, the crypto-fascist Afghan Mellat party, and some of the more gruesome characters who were hanging around Donald Rumsfeld's office back in the day. Call it what you will, this is not a policy based on "love, hope and optimism,” anymore than it even vaguely resembles a true thing that Layton's memory should be savoured for his "prescient call for negotiations with the Taliban."

Stephen Lewis is not at all wrong to say that the NDP's support for talking peace with Talibs is now "conventional wisdom," if by that term we mean the doctrine consistently favoured in such establishment circles as include Pakistani generals, Khomeinist imams, Henry Kissinger acolytes and eccentric British Tories. Claiming authorship of the most reactionary and anti-progressive policy as the blood-soaked Iranian ruling class will counsel and then tarting it all up as a "progressive" posture is not what I thought the NDP was for. More fool me. But just as conventional wisdom also means the current fashion, as bell-bottoms used to be, I've long argued from what I admit is a minority position that the blame for Canada's peace-talks idiocies cannot be so easily laid at Layton's feet. Still, if New Democrats insist on taking all the glory, then they're going to have to take the shame along with it:

"Statistics show that over 9,000 insurgents had laid down their weapons and returned to normal life ever since the initiative kicked off. But the ground reality paints a different picture, where the situation has become bloodier with each passing year," Yasa points out. Here's how prescient Yasa has proved to be: The Taliban are now killing more Afghans than at any time since they were chased out of Kabul a decade ago.

Yasa vests a great deal of hope in the upcoming Bonn Conference, with the huge caveat that its chances rest on whether "strong Afghan political parties, civil society groups, women and the vibrant Afghan media can share their views and vision with world leaders." Don't count it, but still. Yasa: "The best way of ensuring that the conference makes a solid contribution is to get the opposition there en masse. This will make for a lively event, challenging the Afghan administration on its strategy. Far better the Afghan administration answer for itself on the conference floor than on the battlefield."

Last January, in Belgium, Yasa was, if I can use that word again, "prescient." Echoing what anyone who knows or cares anything about the prospects for a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic has long insisted (see the findings of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung's Babak Khalatbari, for one small example), Yasa put it this way. "What we need is a complete revamp of the ruling system in Afghanistan – the administrative system, the political system – which is a breeding ground for instability. The whole process should have started ten years back. At that time, when there were talks about reviewing the political and administrative systems, the international community was in a completely different mood. They just found a leader for Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and they wanted to control the country through one man. They didn’t care that these roots of chaos were lying around in the streets – if you’re not going to fix that, one day it will resurface eventually."

Further: "Now, the most important question is whether the international community, or the region, can achieve anything through the current government. And the answer is no. At this stage, everybody is feeling that security has almost collapsed, and Afghans feel that they are losing despite all of the new institutions of the last nine years. . . What we need is a system that would change the status of an Afghan from a subject to a citizen."

Before we jump at the always-handy idiocy that these troublesome Afghans are simply costing the "west" too much money, can we please at least acknowledge, as William Marsden does in journeyman fashion in today's Montreal Gazette, that while most Afghans somehow persist on roughly $2 a day the US military in Afghanistan has spent roughly $20 billion over the past two years just on air conditioning for itself? Ten years after September 11, NATO is still shipping in almost all of its soldiers' daily requirements. While Afghan farmers produce a remarkable variety of breads, fruits and vegetables, the excuse of "military health standards" is still relied upon to sink billions of dollars every year into the bank accounts of such flush contractors as the Amsterdam-based Supreme Group and the U.S. contractor KBR (between 2007 and 2009, $13.1 billion has been shovelled into KBR pockets, almost all for its NATO contracts in Afghanistan).

There's only so much that the international community or the "west" can do for that country, granted. There's only so much that the United States can afford to do. But at the very least, the Obama White House should stop making things worse. At a minumum, the Americans should accept responsibility for their catastrophic mistakes in Afghanistan and reverse them before the absurd 2014 exit-date rolls around.

In this month's Foreign Affairs magazine, the anthropologist and historian Thomas Barfield, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, surveys the broad sweep of Afghan history and deftly catalogues the main grave errors the Americans have most recently made in Afghanistan (here's a summary), most notably thehorror show the White House made of the Afghan constitution at the Bonn Conference of December, 2001. Barfield concludes with three main recommendations, and unlike the various troops-out and peace-talks narratives, Barfield's propositions do not require a belief in either fairies or unicorns.

To summarize Barfield, the Americans should:

1. Insist on a new political arrangement in Afghanistan that jettisons the structural disincentives that hobble political parties. If the Taliban want to reconstitute as some sort of gargoyle political party, then let them, then we'll see how they fare - they'll certainly do no better than they would in any "backroom deal" that Karzai might attempt to make with them on his own.

2. More democracy, not less. It's where "stability" comes from. Devolve power to provinces and districts, let citizens elect their own governors, let provincial governments raise local taxes to fund local services, and get rid of the largely American-imposed 2001 system that only retained the worst Afghan traditions of "kings and dictators."

3. Give your head a shake about 2014, which Barfield calls a "taboo" of the Americans' own making. Despite his avowals, Karzai is still widely suspected of harbouring plans for an end-run around the Afghan constitution, to hang on after 2014, and "most Afghans believe that without pressure from his patrons in the West, Karzai will not step down." Focus on a new democratic horizon post-2014 and Afghans will mass towards it. This will open up democratic space for "new ideas and personalities, particularly to the younger generation of Afghans who have so far been excluded from the political process."

This is most sensible, and it requires no prescience at all.


Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

A refreshingly un-Canadian view from the Aussie military, in a major article worth reading:

'Beaten Taliban can be crushed
Some emphasis is now switching to the east to deal with the Haqqani network, which is allied to the Taliban and has links to al-Qa'ida and Pakistan. The group is heavily involved in extortion and other criminal activity including the drug trade and uses terror to advance its cause. It carries out most attacks in Kabul and its members are considered the best trained and equipped insurgents. They are responsible for some of the bloodier attacks on civilians.

"They are not going to reconcile so we'll probably use more counter-terrorist techniques against them than we would use classic counter-insurgency," Krause says.

Such as? "Killing them [emphasis added]. They're not going to reconcile."

By 2014 the Afghan security forces will be fully trained, fielded and equipped, Krause says. "They will have the lead in the security of the country. We will be in support of them by then."

Krause says 2014 will not be the end of the operation but a change of mission.

After 2014, the US and NATO will have a strategic agreement with Afghanistan to demonstrate a long-term commitment.

When Smith outlined plans for Australian troops to hand over security control to Afghan forces by 2014 he said some instructors would stay on. Australian special forces will stay on too [emphasis added].'..


10:31 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Refreshingly un-Canadian maybe, distinctly un-American certainly. Take ISAF's reigns from the Yanks, give them to the Ozzies.

12:13 PM  

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