Spectator sports and practical solidarity

11:24 am - November 28th 2008

by Conor Foley    

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I have posted a letter from an Afghan woman on this site and also asked for other bloggers to post links to it. I think that it is important for people to hear and understand what Afghans think about their own country – and Orzala’s views are representative of what I have heard hundreds of times from ordinary Afghans.

I also happen to agree with her. For the last seven years I have been reading articles by western politicians and pundits about Afghanistan’s ‘liberation’ and all of the benefits that this has brought for women and for human rights.

Those of us who warned about the accommodation of warlords and gangsters in the government and the rising levels of corruption and lawlessness were dismissed as ‘whingeing Jeremiahs’. Before the British deployed to Helmand John Reid said he hoped that they could accomplish their tasks without having to fire a single shot in anger.

In recent months the mood has changed. Paddy Ashdown was one of the first to point out that we were losing the war in Afghanistan because “success is not measured in dead Taliban”. He also made a thoughtful speech a couple of months ago in which he questioned “the notion that we can make Afghanistan into a well governed state, with gender aware citizens and European standard human rights.” His latter remarks now appear to be becoming part of a new “pragmatic” orthodoxy. There has been a steady stream of commentators over the last few months calling for negotiations with the Taliban and a deal in which, as Jason Burke put it, “improvements in human rights, especially for women – will have to be at the very least postponed.”

What Orzala is saying is quite different and, in my view, she is much more realistic about what needs to be done.

The basic starting point, which everyone familiar with Afghanistan should know, is that while the Taliban are not going to be beaten militarily, they are not going to win either. The insurgency has reached a stalemate in which neither side can beat the other. The Taliban’s only hope is that western governments will tire of seeing their soldiers being killed and withdraw them. They also hope to turn Afghan opinion against the foreign military presence – because opinion polls continue to show most Afghans support the international presence in their country (by roughly the same margin as Iraqis oppose it).

That support has softened in recent years for a number of reasons. One of these could be some cultural insensitivity by some foreign aid programmes. But, contrary to Deborah Orr’s claim that the “focus on women’s rights” helps the Taliban, most Afghans I know say that it is getting bombed in air strikes, having their houses raided being forced off the road by western military convoys or held up for hours at check-points that they object to. As Orzala says: “We expect your support and investment in our local forces, while sending anti-corruption experts” to help strengthen the rule of law.

Orzala’s argument – which you can read for yourselves – is that while the Taliban cannot be beaten militarily, they can be isolated politically. She stresses the importance of supporting local, Afghan-led, peace initiatives and improving the social and economic conditions of ordinary Afghans. Strengthening the justice system, while recognising that 90 per cent of all cases get solved through customary law, improving access to education and supporting initiatives that raise the status of women are not distractions from the ‘real problem’ of tackling the Taliban, rather the re-emergence of the Taliban is a symptom of a wider failure of the intervention to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.

The insurgents already have de facto control of much of the south and east of Afghanistan. They are not going to go away and it seems likely that there probably will be some kind of accommodation with at least some of them at some point in the future. Frankly, though, that is for the Afghans to sort out for themselves. I personally think that a surge in US forces of the type that Obama is proposing could help to strengthen the government’s position and would also reduce the reliance on air strikes which have proved so counter-productive. But I agree with Orzala that more foreign troops could simply become part of the problem. Western military forces need to show greater restraint, exercise more cautious rules of engagement and abort more operations where there is a risk of civilian casualties.

The low attention span of so many western commentators means that they want ‘instant’ solutions to every problem. Either we can ‘beat the Taliban on the battlefield’, as Nick Cohen predicted a year ago, or we must welcome them into the government, as Johan Hari now favours.

Why are these the only two options?

The far more likely option is for a drawn out insurgency in which ‘victory’ involves either escalating it or keeping it at a low-intensity level. Time is actually on the side of the Afghan government if this is used to build up the national police and army and strengthen the courts and the rule of law, although, sadly, much of this has been squandered by a failure to pursue such policies coherently so far.

Viewed from this perspective what Orzala is advocating is far more pragmatic, sensible and coherent than those armchair warriors who define the squalid violence as part of a glorious global struggle for or against liberal imperialism – depending on what side they see themselves as being on. This type of ‘spectator sport’ attitude to conflicts has long been one of the least attractive features of what passes for debate amongst a large section of the British left, of which both ‘sides’ are equally guilty. It should never be confused with the type of practical solidarity that the people of Afghanistan are actually calling for.

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About the author
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
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Reader comments

1. douglas clark

Look Conor,

I actually believe that invading Afghanistan was probably necessary.

I accept that maybe the daft bastards ruling Afghanistan may have been willing to give up OBL. It does not suggest that the trial he may have faced would have been fair, or honest.

I do not agree with self serving Western governments, who said a lot about paying to rectify the Afghan economy, and then doing nothing of the sort. These are the criminals, I think.

It is quite noticable that the West requires opiates, yet Afghanistan refuses to allow it. Which is verging on ridiculous.

I prefer option 3: get the f**k out of there and leave ’em to it.

How can we (where the ole’ ambiguous “we” is defined as “British citizens”) show practical solidarity, Conor?


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