Afghan realities

3:54 pm - July 25th 2009

by Conor Foley    

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There are two good pieces at Comment is Free written by Afghan women.

Malalai Joya, who was formerly the youngest Afghan MP, notes that ‘Almost eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled, our hopes for a truly democratic and independent Afghanistan have been betrayed by the continued domination of fundamentalists and by a brutal occupation that ultimately serves only American strategic interests in the region.

You must understand that the government headed by Hamid Karzai is full of warlords and extremists who are brothers in creed of the Taliban. Many of these men committed terrible crimes against the Afghan people during the civil war of the 1990s.’

Nushin Arbabzadah, who is Afghan-born but now lives in the west, also has a nice analysis of the televised election debate, in which two candidates participated, but without President Karzai. Both Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank employee, and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah would be an improvement on Karzai – although both are open to the same criticisms of corruption that have been levelled against him.

As Joya notes, Karzai is a disaster and has named two notorious warlords, Fahim and Khalili, as his running mates for the upcoming presidential election.

While Arbabzadah is cautiously optimistic about the election she conceeds that many believe that ‘the race between Karzai and Ghani is no mark of progress and only a continuation of the old tribal rivalry of Durrani versus Ghilzai Pashtuns for the leadership of Afghanistan.‘ Joya goes even further in arguing that ‘Under the shadow of warlordism, corruption and occupation, this vote will have no legitimacy, and once again it seems the real choice will be made behind closed doors in the White House. As we say in Afghanistan, “the same donkey with a new saddle”.

What is refreshing about both articles, though, is that they are writing about the Afghanistan that actually exists and not the one in so many western commentators heads.

The United States invaded Afghanistan because of 9/11. It had no other political or strategic signifcance than being a failed state that had become a base for international terrorism. There is no pipeline there and neither Tony Blair nor George Bush ever cared anything about the plight of Afghan women. The group of gangsters who were installed in power after US bribes and bombs ousted the Taliban (the ‘invasion’ was carried out by a few hundred special forces operatives) are not much better than the militias they replaced. The international community (which really means the US and a few other western countries) messed up the occupation from the begining by failing to deploy enough troops, invest enough money or tackle corruption and impunity. A large number of Karzai’s ministers – including his current running mates are war criminals who should be at the Hague (Afghanistan is actually a state party to the International Criminal Court).

Currently Nato is fighting an unwinnable war in the south of the country. The Taliban cannot be beaten, but they are also very unlikely to be able to move beyond their Pashtun support base. The Afghan army, which is based on their pre-war enemies, the Northern Alliance, could probably hold its own if the west withdrew its forces. The outcome will be peace talks either way. There is not that much else to say about the situation – although I doubt if that will stop people.

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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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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik ,South Asia

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Reader comments

1. Edwin Moore

Yes a fine piece Mr Foley . Here – for those who missed it – is Christina Lamb’s interview with Creepy Karzai –

And here is her view of Fahim and the monstrous Dostum –

‘To the horror of many in the international community, his slate includes warlords such as Marshal Mohammad Fahim and General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Both have received US support in the fight to oust the Taliban. But Dostum is a whisky-drinking Uzbek who has been known to rip his enemies in two by strapping them to tanks moving in opposite directions.’

I read an interview with a British soldier who said it was hard, very hard, to be fighting on behalf of men who bought and sold children for sex, which pretty much sums it up for me.

We should pull out now. I remember the late (and great) George MacDonald Fraser describing the invasion as one of the biggest acts of folly of the age. He was right; bring the troops home.

2. Leon Sheffield

“The United States invaded Afghanistan because of 9/11….There is no pipeline there and neither Tony Blair nor George Bush ever cared anything about the plight of Afghan women”

Agree with the reasons for the invasion being 9/11 and little else, especially the conspiracies about pipelines and my favourite recent one a pre-Iran stop-over. I’m not so sure you can so glibly say that Bush/Blair didn’t/don’t care about Afghan women; granted they were not the raison d’etre for the incursion (and only ever used as an additional justification to win over sceptics), but to say that Blair/Bush cared nought for them is perhaps taking it to an extreme. Personally, I always had the sense that Blair very much cared about those things, maybe I’m gullible (I think of Sierra Leone).

” It had no other political or strategic signifcance than being a failed state that had become a base for international terrorism”

In, and of, itself its importance is limited, but when viewed as a “strategic whole” with Pakistan (and more specifically the Afghan-Pakistan tribal/border areas) things are different IMHO. These areas are possibly the MOST strategically important in terms of Islamist extremism and terrorism, providing a “safe house” of sorts for some actors and fertile grounds for the salafist, Mawdudi inspired, madrassas in Pakistan (some of the most important establishments for fostering extremist/Jihadist sentiments). However, that said, whether these “lawless”, almost un-patrollable areas could ever be brought under medium-long-term control via this invasion and war is quite another matter!

“The international community (which really means the US and a few other western countries) messed up the occupation from the begining by failing to deploy enough troops, invest enough money or tackle corruption and impunity”

This is the single biggest disappointment of the war in Afghanistan. I supported it, for reasons of liberty and human rights (as I would admittedly supported incursions into many countries of teh world), not for the post-9/11 reasons, and had hoped that the post-invasion planning would be better than it has, leadikng to more freedom for Afghans. I still hope this will be the end result, but can’t help feel that this goal could have been met, if more care and attention had been paid from the outset (who can really say though?)

“The Taliban cannot be beaten, but they are also very unlikely to be able to move beyond their Pashtun support base”

The first part is probably correct, especially if one takes the Jason Burke line, of the Taliban being, in large part, a reaction to modernity, as much as a conservative Islamic grouping. It would be impossible to foresee a quick end to them if this were the case. The question is: how to deal with them, as, on the surface, they seem too extreme to be involved in the political process in any constructive sense that would enhance the liberty of Afghans (admittedly the current regime may well be corrupt and not exactly progressive, but it is hard for me to see how they aren’t an improvemnet on what went before)? If an already non-progressive administration comes into talks with the Taliban, it is hard to see a positive outcome in the long-term (admittedly, the eventual outcome of the situation we currently face may be no better)?

Thanks Edwin: yes there are so many Dostum stories.

Leon: There is a liberal case to be made for the ousting of the Taliban and replacing them with a democratic state. The problem is that is not what was done in Afghanistan. We just backed one set of warlords against another.

Compare Afghanistan to Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example. There were 60,000 Nato troops deployed there after Dayton and a High ProConsul was appointed with executive powers. Pretty much the same happened in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The basic model was a large number of (mainly western) troops a large amount of money and a great deal of international oversight. That is also the model that was used in Iraq (although in that case the UN was sidelined and the CPA was basically appointed by the US). There were also international criminal tribunals to take out the biggest war criminals and a whole range of policy initiatives that included micro-management of the economy, law-making and administrative procedures.

But none of that happened in Afghanistan. The UN mission was tiny (one human rights officer for the whole country when I was there) as was the international military presence (4,500 ISAF and some US Special Forces down in the south). Half the country’s police chiefs and provincial governors were self-appointed and the army was just a re-hatting of the pre-existing militias (although these days we prefer to call them Private Security Providers and they are being used to guard the US army).

I have spent years listening to people arguing for Tony Blair’s ‘liberal interventionism’, or dismissing it as ‘neo-imperialism’, but it simply has nothing to do with Afghanistan because the policy wasn’t implemented there.

4. Leon Sheffield


I don’t know if we’re at crossed purposes? I concur that the liberal reasons were not those for the invasion.

I certainly agree about the planning, I thought I’d made that clear in my post? THat was the single biggest “disappointment” for me, as there was a real chance to make a difference and we ignored/blew it, as you said the current govt is only marginally better than the Taliban in some ways.

Again, I agree that Afghanistan, as carried out, had little to do with liberal interventionism, and though I consider myslef one, the term continues to make me feel uneasy.

My only real point of contention with the article is/was the strategic importance of Afghanistan. (THat’s not to suggest I consider that a good reason for the invasion)

I did then and have always supported the invasion of Afghanistan because I felt it would stabilise South Asia a bit more. And to the extent that it’s focused the attention of the Mujahadeen elsewhere and forced Pakistan to make more peace overtures with India – it has done. That’s my reasoning to support our presence there.

Even if the warlords take over – that would be better than the Taliban. Afghanistan has ALWAYS been a country dominated by local warlords. To think anything else was going to happen would be naive.

5. Sunny H. Good point. Many in the USA/UK has a completely unrealistic view of what could be achieved, especially many in DIFID/ Human Rights NGOs. The Pustun have always been armed and willing to kill in order to settle grievances . What is different about the Taliban is that they are a Wahabi/ Deobandi inspired movement which hopes to transcend tribal and clan differences; remove the Sufi and more tolerant local Islamic traditions and cultures;to impose a rigid religious dictatorshp. There is unlikley to be some formal peace negotiation as in 1918 o 1945. Instead , the Taliban can be defeated in battle and demoralised such that the great majority of Pushtun fighters no longer support their aims. Pushtuns will always be armed . What we do not want are Pushtun Taliban butchering teachers in front of their chilren and destroying schools and health clinics.

There is too massive a gap between the skills of the armed forces and DIFID.

If DIFID had ventured out of Kabul and taken some risks and developed water supplies, sewage systems, improved agriculture, built schools and health clinics plus trained locals; then the system would be far better. If DIFID is not prepared to take risks , then the UK needs to create an organsation similar to the US Corp of Engineers which has the will and capability to undertake construction projects in tough and hostile environments. The same could be said for Iraq and Bosnia. The UK Corp of Engineers could be recruited from British consulting and contractingengineers , many who have served in the armed forces and given the task of rebuilding infrastructure in war torn countries. The construction projects would enable locals to be trained on the job. Often there are plenty of local craftsmen with the skills. Cheap labour means that labour intensive methods can be used rather than importing expensive equipment. The locals would be paid , so it would put money into the economy without it being siphoned off by corrupt officials.

The aim would that after 2 years , the local would have the skills to build further ifrastructure projects and maintain the existing ones. The projects would have been designed with the locals and incountry to ensure they received what they wanted and complied with local cultural traditions. Local materials and designs would ensure the infrastructure could cope with extreme heat, rain, flooding, insects , sourcing materials for maintenance , units for the different sexes. The whole community would be involved in deciding upon priorities and the design of the infrastructure. Computers and printers would taken into the communities and the people could be shown 3 d images of the proposed designs. Costings would be undertaken on site, removing the ability of corrupt officials to steal funds. A community could be shown 3 d images of their new boreholes, irrigation systems, sewage systems, schools , health clinics, improved farming techniques which they had helped to design and agreed to build. The next day, after the decisions been made; work would be started; then what would the Taliban have to offer ?

Charlie 2: But that is exactly what the Provincial Reconstruction Teams were supposed to be!

It is easy enough for you to come up with some great theoretical solution to the problem, but you have to understand that your model is exactly what was supposed to happen. The last time I was in Afghanistan I was offered a job as Deputy Head of Rule of Law for the British in Helmand. I turned it down for a variety of reasons, but the main one was because I knew that it would be a waste of time. That model is not going to work in Afghanistan.

The one point that I agree with you on is that Afghanistan was not a humanitarian intervention or a state-building project – which is why I find all the debates which treat it as if it had been so bizzare. To take Sunny’s point, there is a perfectly respectable case to be made for the invasion of Afghanistan on ‘self-defence’ grounds (Article 51 of the UN Charter). But when Tony Blair and countless other politicians went on about state-building, women’s rights, democracy, etc. the reason that this caused so much anger amongst people who were working there is because this was not at all reflected by the on-the-ground realities.

The new model has redressed some of the previous deficiences: more money, more international troops and more international oversight. But it comes far too late, with all the corruption and misgovernment now institutionalised. Sending more international troops down south to kill more Taliban (and civilians) is completely counter-productive until you tackle the heart of the misgovernment in Kabul – and there are no signs that this is being done. To think that you can win ‘hearts and minds’ just by digging a few wells and building clinics is completely naive.

One final point to Charlie – I am happy to debate this with you but – unless you have actually worked in Afghanistan yourself – please don’t use expressions like ‘If DIFID had ventured out of Kabul and taken some risks’. I am sure that your heart is in the right place, but, given your rather slight understanding of the actual situation, you come off as a real wanker when you try to mock people for cowardice who are much braver than you.

This is an interesting debate. One (perhaps slight) point I’d like to make, as someone who broadly supports intervention in Afghanistan for the reasons given by Sunny and Leon: isn’t it true to say that the situation of women – in urban contexts at least – has been improved by the US/UK actions? Women now make up 27 per cent of the national parliament, for example – I’m guessing this is a significant advance on the situation in 2001.

I’m not saying that women in Afghanistan under Karzai have a good, or even acceptable, deal, because they plainly don’t (as the recent law de-recognising the offence of rape within marriage attests). But isn’t their situation now better than it was eight years ago?

As for the attitude of NGOs and DFID, here’s an extract from an Oxfam press release from April this year that details some of the difficulties facing NGOs in the region, particularly with regard to PRTs:

‘The military are blurring the distinction between aid workers and soldiers by doing extensive humanitarian and assistance work for counter-insurgency purposes, and by using unmarked white vehicles, which are conventionally only used by the UN and aid agencies. This undermines local perceptions of the independence and impartiality of aid agencies and therefore increases the risk to aid workers, and threatens to reduce the areas in which they can safely work.

The agencies also warn that the increasing distortion of humanitarian and development assistance for military aims could undermine long-term stability.

Agencies say that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), the military-led security and reconstruction teams, continue to receive massive amounts of funding: the annual PRT budget for the United States – over $200 million – exceeds the Afghan national budgets for health and education combined. The agencies recommend a phase-out of militarized aid and a substantial increase in development and humanitarian funding for civilian institutions and organizations.’

Ah, I see from Conor’s recent article in the Guardian that he’s in agreement with Oxfam on this one.

Thanks Rowan – yes – and you can see the link I put in that Guardian piece was to a couple of articles written five years ago saying almost exactly the same thing.

This was written in August 2004

“No one doubts that a desperately poor country such as Afghanistan needs humanitarian assistance; but many are asking whether the benefits that aid workers bring outweigh the price that they are being asked to pay. Hearing of the murder of friends and colleagues, of aid convoys being ambushed, premises rocketed and mortared, or of vehicles booby-trapped has led to growing anguish and anger. Over the past 12 months around 40 of my fellow aid workers have been murdered in Afghanistan. Virtually every humanitarian organisation has had its staff or offices threatened or attacked. I narrowly missed being caught up in an attack a few weeks before I left, and one of our Norwegian Refugee Council offices was bombed on the day I stepped down. Much of the country is now off-limits to humanitarian organisations, and in areas where we still operate, there are curfews and restrictions of movement.”

You can see that the criticisms we were making back then are almost word for word identical with Oxfam’s current complaints.

What is depressing is how little has changed. This was written in May of the same year:

And this in December of 2003

The point – that seems to need repeating – is that if the intervening western powers did want to, for example, improve the position of women in Afghan society then the intervention would need to have been done in an entirely different way.

The problem with the debate as it is being currently conducted is that it is not about the real Afghanistan that exists and the real intervention that took place, but about a completely illusory one in people’s imagination – probably as a result of projecting what happened in Iraq onto Afghanistan. So we have discussions which assume that Afghanistan was actually invaded by western troops, who marched into Kabul, ousted the Taliban and installed the government of their choice. That is pretty much what happened in Iraq and you can either support or oppose it on that basis, but it is nothing like what happened in Afghanistan, where the governance arrangements arose out of the Bonn process, which saw a series of deals and trade-offs with the Northern Alliance side conceding a set of, essentially cosmetic, things while consolidating their power on the fundamentals.

On women in the Afghan parliament – yes, but that is because of the quota. On girls going to school, well that is also true – outside of the south – and it should be seen as a positive development. Afghanistan is a conservative and deeply religious society, governed by Sharia and where 90% of women outside Kabul still use the Burka. The Taliban were extremists: forbidding women from leaving their homes on their own, ‘executing’ TVs and radios, etc. and most Afghans disagree with these policies. But many western commentators really don’t seem to understand the cultural specificity of the society that they opine about.

I see that I missed out a link

Incidentally, Rowan, you know that the UK did not criminalise rape in marriage until 1994 (in that year’s infamous Criminal Justice Bill)?

Thanks Conor – yes, I did know about the relatively recent criminalisation over here. By the way, are we any closer to having a clearer understanding of what is in the recent amendments Karzai made to the law?

For the slightly ignorant and hard-of-thinking (talking about myself here), could you provide a boiled-down version of what you think needs to happen to improve the situation (that is, to improve the day-to-day lot of all the people of Afghanistan, promote sustainable development and, if it’s simultaneously possible, reduce the risks to the NATO troops that are there)?

Are we talking about a massive injection of troops and money under international (UN?) auspices, decoupling development work from the military, withdrawing support from Karzai, making conciliatory approaches to the Pashtun and basically hunkering down for the very long run? Or something completely different?

Conor. What was required was rapid reconstruction and this would have meant working in dangerous conditions. So is the reconstruction to be undertaken by Royal Engineers or do DIFID use people who are prepared to work in war zones and risk taking casualties? It would appear projects must be completed while violence is still occuring because delays awaiting for a safe environment risks alienating Afghans.

Reconstruction via Kabul was always going to be bogged down in warlordism and corruption. If reconstruction was going to take occur it had to succeed despite the violence . The idea that the Northern Alliance would be interested in redevelopment of Pustun areas was naive in the extreme .

Reconstruction/development only succeeds when the local people are involved ; deciding on their priorities and how they would run the projects. My idea is to provide a few engineers/foremen/craftsmen with some appropriate equipment and supplies to work with and assist Afghans . What is important is for speedy construction of appropriate development ; a combination of the US Corp of Engineers/ Water Aid/ Forest Aid/Intermediate Development / REDR . For example use local materials and techniques to build single storey schools and clinics rather then design reinforced 2 storey structures overseas by peope who have never worked in the country. Many of the Pushtun have a high level of crafstmenship and are hard workers, having great pride in their skills, hence they are good at making weapons and construction in the Middle East.

The PRT are typical of much development since 1945; too much money chasing to expensive schemes which are too susceptible to corruption, delay through political conflict, overly technically complicated, often too late, in the wrong place, poorly constructed , especially for the local conditions and having been designed and constructed without using the input from local people. This is why such charities as Intermediate Technology, Water Aid, Forest Aid often work because the develop[ment involves adapting and improving local technology and skills.

Ending corruption in Kabul will take a long time because it means changing cultures. Timely and appropriate reconstruction could have done to persuade Pushtuns not to support the Taliban . I think there needs to an organisation which combines the abilities of the Royal Engineers using heavy equipmnt to undertake development projects in combat zones combined with the skills of IT/Water Aid/Forest Aid.

As Mao said ” Communist fighters swim in the sea of the people”. If that support dries up , the Taliban end up retreating to the mountains.

Charlie: in 2002/2003 there was literally no military presence (apart from special forces) outside Kabul and so we were all working in extremely dangerous conditions – which is why so many of my friends and colleagues were killed. Yes, some of these projects were (and are DfID) funded and yes security restrictions got tighter as the body count grew. Do you understand how offensive you are coming across as?

The PRT’s were exactly the drawing-board solution that you are suggesting – the problem was that they did not work in practice. This was not because they had too much money but because the basic strategy was wrong. Unless you have practical experience working there I find it very, very difficult to listen to statements such as

“Reconstruction via Kabul was always going to be bogged down in warlordism and corruption. If reconstruction was going to take occur it had to succeed despite the violence . The idea that the Northern Alliance would be interested in redevelopment of Pustun areas was naive in the extreme.”

The problem is actually the exact opposite. The PRTs are trying to do what you suggest (based on what seem to be some undergraduate cliches about aid delivery), but until you can strengthen the capacity of the central government in Kabul all of that micro-management by outsiders is a waste of time. To give just one example, I did an evaluation of the justice system reforms there last year, and no amount of training in international standards is going to make up for the fact that judges are corrupt because the government cannot afford to pay them proper salaries. To its credit DfID is actually giving the Afghan government some central budget support, but the Americans bypass the government completely and deliver everything via the PRTs and private contractors. It might sound as if it would work – but it has actually been a complete fiasco.

Also you have got things completely the wrong way around – it is not the failure to deliver aid to insecure areas that has alienated Afghans and thus boosted support for the Taliban (that really is a patronising view of how politics works). It has been the attempt to get aid into insecure areas using military means that has brought the upsurge in civilian casualties which has been the Taliban’s best recruitment sergeant. “Sorry about bombing your village and killing your kids, but we’ve just dug you a well and built you a school” has been the basic approach (while, of course, the government has no money to pay teachers salaries or to send engineers to repair the well’s pump when it breaks down!)

Rowan: I talk a bit about the alternatives in my Guardian article from last week and link to articles by Rory Stewart and Matt Waldman. The short answer is that there is no quick fixes -so I guess that means hunkering down. If you are interested I have also got a chapter in a book on UN peace-keeping that looks at the issues in a bit more detail.

My two specialist subjects iin Afghanistan are land rights and judicial reform and so that is what I concentrate on. In more general terms, I would say that what you basically need to do is build a state that most Afghans feel is worth defending. That means tackling corruption and impunity as the number one priority (the opposite of what Charlie thinks), and recognising that the south is essentially lost and so re-directing aid to where it can do some good (again the opposite of Charlie’s ‘strategy’). The Taliban can be contained easily enough and weakend through undercover operations, selective assassinations, recruitment of informers, etc. They are also wracked with their own internal divisions and factionalism.

I would say the main priority is to get a functioning professional police force – not the paramilitary militia the US wants to create – and an accessible justice system. You also need to build up national capacity of the civil service (pay them decent wages so that all the engineers and teachers who are currently working as drivers and cleaners for international organisations go back to their old jobs). The international troops should concentrate on peace-keeping in the areas that are secure (as the French, Italians and Germans have done) and adopt a fairly defensive posture to the Taliban-controlled areas.

The one thing which could change the situation dramatically is a military break-through by the Pakistan army in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Our head office was in Peshawar when I worked there and so I know a bit about the situation, but I have not been back for five years (I was probably the last civilian to drive through the Khyber pass without a military escort) and so I could not say how things are currently panning out.

15. Planeshift

“. You also need to build up national capacity of the civil service (pay them decent wages so that all the engineers and teachers who are currently working as drivers and cleaners for international organisations go back to their old jobs). ”

Yes but the afghan version of the taxpayers alliance won’t like that 😉

Thanks for the insight Conor, its very difficult to get decent commentary on afghanistan that doesn’t fall into tired cliches. A few questions:

1. To what extent could the Taliban be co-opted into reaching peace agreements that would end violence in the event that “compromise with the taliban to get british troops out” became a serious political goal of the British government?

2. Is it the case that the situation in Pakistan needs to be improved alongside Afghanistan and that the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan essentially have similar causes?

3. Is it really the case that Britain has, or can have, a significant role in shaping Afghanistan if we merely change policy – throw more troops and money at it etc – or is it the case that remaining in Afghanistan is an attempt to maintain delusions of being a serious world power, and the real ability to change things on the ground lies elsewhere.

16. Rowan Davies

Thanks Conor, that’s very interesting. I’ve seen the Swat operation described as a major breakthrough for Pakistan – not enough?

What do you think is driving Obama’s policy in Afghanistan – does it come down to not being able to publicly abandon the aim of ‘defeating Al-Qaeda’? I see that Holbrooke spoke back in March about setting standards for governance – did anything come of this?

Andrew Mitchell is on the record as being in favour of beefed-up UN peacekeeping – do you think an incoming Tory adminstration would move in this direction? Indeed, do you think there would be any appetite at the UN for it?

Sorry to fire questions at you; as planeshift says, it’s refreshing to talk to someone with in-depth knowledge.

Just to say – excellent points Conor.

I’m not saying that women in Afghanistan under Karzai have a good, or even acceptable, deal, because they plainly don’t (as the recent law de-recognising the offence of rape within marriage attests). But isn’t their situation now better than it was eight years ago?

Yes, I think marginally. But then I never bought any of the arguments by the ‘decent left’ or the Blairites that we were going into save Afghani women. That was never going to materialise. Much as we want the society to change – can’t actually go in and force people to change. The quota system is a good idea though. Nevertheless, from a feminist perspective that whole area is depressing.

Planeshift: the term ‘Taliban’ is a catch-all to cover all anti-government insurgents. The Taliban itself is also internally-divided between its Peshawar and Qattar based leadership. Also a lot of the violence is simply criminal. Once when I was in Jalalabad we came under artillery fire, which people assumed was the Taliban but turned out to be the former chief of police – who had been sacked the previous week – and was trying to make the point that he was essential to the city’s security. Similarly, the murder of my five MSF colleagues in the summer of 2004 was blamed on the Taliban, but was almost certainly related to in-fighting between supporters and opponents of Ismael Khan – the former Governor of Herat. On some occasions warlords fake security incidents in order to attract aid to their areas (working on the basis that some NATO/PRT commanders are as credulous as Charlie2). Someone recently told me that 80% of the violence is criminal rather than political – which sounds high to me, but gives a reasonable impression of the situation.

In terms of ‘bringing elements of the Taliban in’ the most frequently talked about figure is Hekmatyar – who is not Taliban but fights alongside them. He was a leading Mujahedin figure, heavily backed by Pakistan. He is very strong in the east and many government officials and commanders there are closely linked to his party. Like Dostum, Fahim, et al he is a war criminal, but given that they are in the government it is not hard to predict him getting in too. I know much less about the more recent generation of Taliban commanders.

I also really don’t know much about Pakistan and so can’t answer your second question. Clearly the Taliban was a creation of the ISI and they continue to have a big influence on it. Whether they could shut it down and how much support there is for the recent army offensive in the Swat I could not say. My general impression is that strengthening the liberal, democratic forces in Pakistan – and de-escalating tension with India – would be enormously helpful, but it seems to me to be a bit of a long-term task (and the US cross-border raids were enormously counter-productive).

On your third point, the UK is a bit-player, the US are the only ones that really matter. I think that DfID has played a largely constructive role as a donor – particularly as one of the few that provide the government with direct budget support. Obviously, troops are needed in the south (although, as I have said above they should adhere to extremely strict rules of engagement and forget all this crap about ‘taking the fight to the enemy’) and so Canada and the UK are helping out there.

Rowan: I think that Obama is a principled version of Tony Blair (ie he genuinely believes in liberal intervention). Perhaps Blair really believed it as well and all his speeches were about things that he wished to be true – even though they were not. His behaviour since leaving office does suggest that he was just an opportunist liar though.

Obama’s strategy is what should have been done, in my opinion, in 2002. Whether it is going to work seven years later is just one of those things that no one can really answer.

I am not sure if a Tory government would pursue a better foreign policy. Hague’s recent speech was quite good and they have some bright people like, Ed Llewellyn, in Cameron’s staff. Labour has never really had the same sort of gravitas on foreign policy as the Tories, which is probably why things went so disastrously wrong over Iraq. But, as above, it is really who is in charge in the US that counts.

19. Rowan Davies

Douglas Alexander was on the Today programme just now talking about all this (hey, I guess this website isn’t just thrown together after all! ;-)) He was talking about peace talks and drawing comparisons with Northern Ireland (although Today’s correspondent pointed out afterwards that for peace talks to be effective they have to include the Taliban big guns in Pakistan, which Karzai is opposing).

Alexander was also defending DFID’s funding split – which is something like 80/20 between the central Afghan government and Helmand – and saying that he has been trying to get the US to follow a similar strategy.

Interesting stuff. I do like Alexander. He will be a great loss to DFID when he gets washed away on the incoming Tory storm-tide, I think.

Yes – DfID are basically right on Afghanistan and they take flack from it from other ministries. I have only met Douglas once – at a Fabian debate this year – but his ‘big’ sister Wendy is a good friend from way back.

I met DA once – I felt fairly well-briefed before I met him and thoroughly stupid by the time he had finished talking. I think he’s very smart (or I’m very dim – always a possibility).

I see you have hatched some fresh crazies in the comments section on your Guardian piece today. It’s a shame that CiF is so bloody uncivilised. I’ve yet to see a constructive debate on there.

It’s good to know what our troops are really fighting for in Afghanistan:

“An Afghan bill allowing a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex has been published in the official gazette and become law.”

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