Afghan realities


9:23 pm - June 22nd 2010

by Conor Foley    


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I was not planning to write an opinion piece on Afghanistan for a few days, because I think that the more detailed arguments about where we go from here are actually more interesting than the usual general banalities.

But I would like to respond to a few of the points that David Osler makes in his cross-posted piece. Apologies that this will take the form of some para by para responses, which I realise can make articles seem a bit more aggressive than the author intends.

Dave writes:

Like most people on the left, I was opposed to the war on principle nine years ago, and I write on the assumption that the majority of the readers of this blog shared that stance; there may be some who thought then, or perhaps even think now, that the move was justified.

Which ‘war’ are you actually talking about here Dave?

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979. The conflict had killed over a million and displaced a third of the country’s population before 2001. In that year Afghans formed the second largest group of refugees in the world (after the Palestinians). Millions actually returned to their homes in the three years after the US-led intervention. Did Dave oppose that ‘on principle’ or consider it an example of mass ‘false consciousness’ on behalf of the returnees?

Afghanistan had also suffered two foreign invasions before 2001: the first by the Soviets, the second by a militia that was created, trained, armed and funded by the Pakistan Secret Services, called the Taliban. The latter were and are a fascist, fundamentalist group who believe that Pushtuns are a ‘master-race’ destined to rule over Afghanistan’s ‘lesser people’. As well as stripping women of their most basic rights (such as the right to work, or go to school, or resist marital rape and beatings, or even leave their homes unaccompanied) they carried out several acts of genocide, particularly against the Hazaras. They also invited Osama bin Laden into the country and he established its as Al Qaeda’s main base prior to the 9/11 attacks. All this happened – according to Dave – before ‘the war’ began.

Secondly, I would be genuinely interested to know how Dave thinks the US should have actually responded to the 9/11 attacks? If his argument is that the US should have (a) done nothing, then it is detached from political reality. If it is that (b) more should have been done to address the ‘root-causes’ of jihadi terrorism across the world then we are probably in agreement. But (b) does not remove the need to confront a decision over (a).

A far more useful criticism of the US response is not that they sent too much military force, but that they sent too little. There were 110 CIA and 316 US special forces in Afghanistan when Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance at the end of 2002. That was it. There were actually more regular Pakistani troops fighting in Kunduz alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda at the time. Afghanistan’s tragedy is that the US sub-contracted out its military campaign to the warlords who filled the resulting security vacuum.

In the next para Dave writes:

Those who continue to back the war effort, with either enthusiasm or reluctance, must furnish those that do not with a clear exposition of what good purpose can be served by the ongoing military presence. It is my experience that they struggle to do so.

This seems to be based on total ignorance about the debates which took place on this subject up until a couple of years ago. The total ISAF presence when I was living in Afghanistan in 2003 was 4,500. That meant about 1,000 soldiers on the street at any one time. Compare that to the 60,000 troops sent in to secure Bosnia-Herzegovina post-Dayton or the International Crisis Group’s recommendation that a minimum of 25,000 peacekeepers were needed to secure the country. I have not met any Afghan or anyone who has worked in Afghanistan who has ever ‘struggled’ to explain why more international troops were needed, nor who has not welcomed the decision by Obama to increase their number. So far the incrrease in troop numbers has been matched by tighter rules of engagement and a decreased reliance on airstrikes, which were responsible for so many civilian deaths in recent years. These are positive developments.

And

Finally, the very idea that it is possible to graft a liberal democracy onto an ethnically-splintered tribal society is manifestly preposterous.

Way to go on the demolition of straw men Dave!

There is a lot of serious discussion to be had about Afghanistan’s future, but in seven years of working in and on the country I have found an overwhelming consensus on the following points.

1. Support for the international military presence in opinion polls has been consistently shown to be between 60 and 80 percent amongst ordinary Afghans.

2. Support for the Taliban in the same polls is around 4 per cent, with over 80 percent of those polled expressing their total opposition to them.

3. The major concerns Afghans express about the future of their country are: violence and insecurity, lack of jobs and corruption and there is growing frustration with both the Karzai government and the international community (military, UN and donors) at their failure to tackle these issues.

By all means let’s have a debate about the failures of western policy to date and why British troops are risking their lives there. But let us debate the country that actually exists and the people who live in it.

Chillingly, Dave concludes:

And no, I am not under the illusion that their withdrawal would bring peace. One way or another, the violence will continue. The trouble is, Afghanistan is so badly broken that it is difficult to see what could possibly fix it.

There is no shortage of detailed policy discussions about how Afghanistan can, in fact, be ‘fixed’. Issues such as how and when to pursue peace talks with the insurgents, how to conduct the next parliamentary elections, how to build up a credible national army and police force, how to tackle corruption, how to harmonise its official and customary justice institutions all spring to mind. These are subjects that Afghans themselves discuss every day. There are lots of disagreements amongst my Afghan friends and colleagues about them, but that is normal in any society.

Surely Dave should acquaint himself with at least some of the details of these discussions before he consigns a country and its people to the fate of Somalia.

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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


The major concerns expressed about the future of their country are: violence and insecurity, lack of jobs and corruption

The same could be said by the populations of hundreds of third world (and many first and second world) countries.

The issue is how we can best address such concerns.

One response is to advocate intervention and the imposition of government by the grouping that best appeals to Western values (on a good day) or to Western interests (if we are to take a cynical perspective).

Another response is to say that the best outcome is most likely to be achieved by allowing them to work out the problems for themselves.

I would argue that the latter response is likely to be more fruitful and less costly for all concerned in the long term.

Good post Conor.

Secondly, I would be genuinely interested to know how Dave thinks the US should have actually responded to the 9/11 attacks? If his argument is that the US should have (a) done nothing, then it is detached from political reality. If it is that (b) more should have been done to address the ‘root-causes’ of jihadi terrorism across the world then we are probably in agreement. But (b) does not remove the need to confront a decision over (a).

Dunno about Dave but I would have gone with (c) The utilisation of Special Forces with as much intelligence behind them, armed to the teeth or as they need to be to take out the top tier of Al Q.While that operation was ongoing negotiate with the other tribal leaders as to what they need to defend themselves against the Taleban. Negotiate with Pakistan that they should move their sponsored ‘troops’ (if they are) out of Afghanistan and utilise sanctions if necessary.

But none of that happened. Now that there is a very large troop presence within Afghanistan the so-called international community has two options; they send in their troops to crush the Taleban or we all pull back and let the country have at it.

Will: that is basically what the US tried to do between October 2001 and late 2003. It was a disaster!

Most of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership escaped the initial operations because they were able to bribe their way out, and the Pakistan ISI reorganised and rearmed the former and provided them with logistic support to start off cross-border attacks again. Pakistani troops transported Taliban units to the border, set up field hospitals for their wounded and provided them with covering fire when they were retreating. This was an open secret when I was working there. At one point UNHCR suspended all cooperation with the Pakistan authorities after one of my colleagues, Bettina Goislard, was murdered in late 2003. The last time I was there, in the summer of 2008, a Taliban/ISI team blew up the Indian Embassy a couple of streets away from where I was staying killing over 100 people.

Bush strongly opposed deploying a proper international peace-keeping force and did all he could to appease Musharaf for exactly the reasons that you outline. He was dragged reluctantly towards greater engagement and nation-building by the State department and the military. But it all came too little and too late and now Obama is left picking up the pieces.

The irony is that you – and presumably much of the rest of the British left – seem to have decided that Bush was retrospectively right about all this, although the main reason that he did not want to commit forces at the time was that he was preparing to send them into Iraq. Why do you think his policy was so sage and far-sighted in one theatre yet so obviously disastrously stupid in the other?

I will try to sketch out the ‘Abdul Haq Option’ as it is sometimes known in a future piece.

I don’t think that Bush was right about, well, just about anything. What I do look at is way, way back, to – and even before – Reagan and his demolishing of anything not surreal.

Reagan armed many, and still to this day you have sect who took the training and are now using it against the US and any coalition forces within Afghanistan. It isn’t just a matter that all this kicked off in 2001 – it goes way further than that.

Al Q didn’t just spring to life and then bomb the US – there is a great path leading up to what we see today. Hindsight maybe 20:20 but stupidity on behalf of our ‘leaders’ shows how frigging blind they actually are!

Conor , the role of Pakistan is heavily influenced by the Pakistani’s Army view of India. While the Army can persuade many of the Pakistani people that it protect’s the nation from India , it will continue to obtain support. The Taleban was largely created by the ISI in order to control Afghanistan in order to obtain a supportive hinterland. In order to stop the Pakistani Amy portraying itself as the guardian of the nation, I think India will have to convince people that it is not a threat. Indian security forces behaving with more restraint in Kashmir will help to reduce the support for militant groups and the Pakistani Army.

Unless more of a role can be found for Pushtuns in Pakistan , instead of the country being run by Punjabis ( military/civil service ) and Sindhis ( large land owners and business owners – Butto and Sherif ) there will be discontent. It could be argued that the Pushtuns are like the Kurds ,a race with a language but no country. The lack of investment in Pushtun areas by the Pakistani goernment is a source of grievance. There has been conflict in Waziristan due to the lack of investment by the central government since 1948.

There is also the influence of Wahabi/ Salaafi version of Islam pushing out the more Sufi influenced version. The foundation of Sufi influenced madrassas providing a modern education, cricket, decent boarding conditions in order to compete with the Deobandi- Wahabi – Salaafi madrassas may greatly reduced the number of recruits to the Taleban.

The increasing more hardline Islamic influence on the Pakistani Army since the time of General Zia is also important. 30 years ago the officers of Pakistani Army was like those of British army of the 1930s . 30 or more years ago hardly Taleban would have had influence with the officer corp of the Pakistani army.

Investment in Pushtun areas according to the locals wishes by the government of Pakistan my do much to reduce support the Taleban.

Connor, what do you think of the opinion of the new conservative MP for Penrith in Cumbria, Rory Stewart’s views? He knows the country very well and says that NATO’s strategy is flawed.

He says that a small force should be left behind to only go after Al-Qada and that Afghans have to be left to their own devices somewhat, but instead of this short term intensive policy which can only go on for so long – and if you asked people in Britain if it is worth the lives of 300 more British soldiers I think the answer would be no – but that Afghanistan needs longer term, less ambitious aid (or something like that anyway).

I have found him convincing (and read his book about walking from Herat to Kabul).

http://www.google.co.uk/search?sourceid=ie7&q=rory+stewart+afghanistan&rls=com.microsoft:en-gb:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7GZAZ_en&redir_esc=&ei=SmEhTIiIC4uy0gSm9LHrDw

9. the a&e charge nurse

“Surely Dave should acquaint himself with at least some of the details of these discussions before he consigns a country and its people to the fate of Somalia”.

I’m sorry, Conor, that is disingenuous, DO cannot consign any country to anything.

Nobody is disputing that Afghanistan has a very difficult past, but it is one of many countries that has failed to learn from it’s mistakes – this, I believe, is ultimately the responsibility of it’s own people.

To my mind the entire region is alien to the kind of cultural sensibilities western democracies can take for granted (in the main).
I am not even convinced sending soldiers there will enhance our security in the long run, because the tendency to use religion as a vehicle for extreme violence, and oppression shows little sign of abating.

Similar conflicts, fueled by the same toxic combination (poverty, lack of education, dodgy political rhetoric, religious extremism, etc) play out time and time again in different parts of the world – these root causes show few signs of change.

In short, we cannot save the world – we (as in the UK) certainly cannot save Afghanistan – hell, it looks like we can’t even save certain parts of Hackney, according to one aspiring Labour leader?
http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/features/2010/06/21/diane-abbott-i-sent-my-son-to-private-school-so-he-wouldn-t-end-up-in-a-gang-115875-22347604/

10. Luis Enrique

The most striking thing, to me at least, is that a virtuous left-winger can hold views that are diametrically opposed (if those opinion polls are to be believed) to those of the very people he thinks he is motivated on behalf of. (I presume Dave would say he opposed the ‘war’ in Afghanistan out of concern for the Afghans).

11. FlyingRodent

…Support for the international military presence in opinion polls has been consistently shown to be between 60 and 80 percent amongst ordinary Afghans… Support for the Taliban in the same polls is around 4 per cent, with over 80 percent of those polled expressing their total opposition to them.

I can’t dispute your first-hand experience here Conor, and I’ve certainly seen the same polls, but I will say this – I’m unaware of any insurgent group stalemating a superpower with the support of only 4% of their population, ever, anywhere.

Perhaps there’s something different about Afghanistan, but insurgencies typically require huge amounts of civilian assistance to watch enemy forces’ troops and map out their patrols; for intelligence; to store and source weaponry and supplies, and a massive variety of other activities.

If local opposition to the Taliban is near-total – and I hope it is – why aren’t the Taliban’s senior leadership sitting in a Kabul dungeon? The US is offering gigantic rewards – surely half the country would be clamouring for the chance to hand them over to the US and UK troops? In fact, how can they maintain any kind of military force in the country – supplies of ammo and food, never mind everything else – if they have hardly any allies at all? It makes no sense and is, AFAICS, unprecedented.

12. the a&e charge nurse

“Support for the international military presence in opinion polls has been consistently shown to be between 60 and 80 percent amongst ordinary Afghans”.

Is this data contained in a series of surveys carried out by the ‘Asia Foundation’ in Afghanistan?
According to these investigators, “Findings indicate that 42% of Afghans think the country is headed in the right direction (compared to 38% in 2008, 42% in 2007, 44% in 2006, and 64% in 2004); while 29% feel it is moving in the wrong direction. The remaining 21% have mixed feelings”.
http://afghanistan.usaid.gov/en/Article.907.aspx

Of course ‘the right direction’ is a rather loaded term, depending in which direction your sympathies lie?

The survey respondents pointed to insecurity – attacks, violence, and terrorism – as the biggest problem facing the country, followed closely by unemployment, a poor economy, and corruption.

13. Luis Enrique

The survey respondents pointed to insecurity – attacks, violence, and terrorism – as the biggest problem facing the country, followed closely by unemployment, a poor economy, and corruption.

And would those things get better or worse if the international military presence upped and left? Perhaps the reported popular support for the international military presence reveals what Afghans think is the answer to that question.

14. FlyingRodent

@ Luis – And would those things get better or worse if the international military presence upped and left? They’d get much, much worse, I imagine.

Perhaps the reported popular support for the international military presence reveals what Afghans think is the answer to that question.

Poll after poll shows a clear majority of Afghans want us to stay and fight the Taliban. The problem here is, who are the Taliban? To read Conor’s post, you’d think we were talking about a small subset of political and religious freaks fighting the first successful insurgency in history which carries little or no popular support.

This may well be the case, but I’m strongly suspicious that we’re fooling ourselves here. The US in particular have absolute air supremacy and can hold any piece of Afghan ground they plant their flag in, yet the Taliban are still fighting hard after almost a decade, supposedly without any supplies or support? It makes no sense at all.

All I can do is point to this map of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan for soldiers and aid workers… http://tinyurl.com/2vg9omc …And ask readers to compare it to this map of Afghanistan’s demographic make-up, by ethnicity… http://tinyurl.com/3982g59

Those maps say that anywhere Pashtuns are in a majority, our armed forces can’t maintain control. I see no reason not to conclude that we’re talking about a war between US and UK armed forces and the Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. If history is any guide, then there’ll be an aggressive Taliban insurgency for as long as there are Pashtuns there, and let’s be clear – we can say with almost 100% certainty that the Pashtuns are going to be there in a hundred years. All the Taliban need to do is maintain the ability to fight until we leave, be that in five years or fifty, and then they’ve won.

If I’m right here – and again, I hope I’ve got the wrong end of the stick – then the only technique that can win this type of war is genocide. I don’t think we’re ready to countenance that quite yet.

15. Luis Enrique

FR,

What you write looks sensible to me – I wasn’t trying to argue against that, I’d interpreted a&e as saying those polls numbers he cites somehow contradict the idea of popular support for foreign troops.

The most obvious possibility to me is that those polsters who find 4% support aren’t getting into the Taliban control areas to ask their questions. I don’t know about the Taliban having no supplies or support … I thought they were flush with drug money and enjoyed support from various outsiders (Pakistan, other um, “radicals”) but I’m unhappy writing these words because they’re based on just loose impressions from newspapers, no more.

If the Taliban does just equal Pashtun, then does it matter what proportion of the Pashtun believe the “destined to rule over Afghan’s less races” stuff … if it’s only a minority, than doesn’t that raise the hope of negotiating with sensible Pashtuns and marginalizing the nutters? (This is the sort of badly informed speculative stuff I try to avoid)

16. the a&e charge nurse
17. the a&e charge nurse

[15] no, not contradicting LE – clearly security is one of the key issues for the Afghani’s.

I am just looking through the survey linked to at [16] – not fully digested by any means but I haven’t found a bit yet which specifically cites the level of support for the occupying coalition (not that I’m disputing Conor’s figures).

18. Luis Enrique

oh sorry a&e, mis-read you.

19. FlyingRodent

The most obvious possibility to me is that those polsters who find 4% support aren’t getting into the Taliban control areas to ask their questions.

I think it’s at least possible. Another theory might be that a lot of people aren’t inclined to admit to dodgy political views when prompted by a stranger. Still, I think it’s clear that whatever support the Taliban do have, it’s very much minority support. Unfortunately, minority support is usually more than enough for a committed guerilla group to thrive.

I don’t know about the Taliban having no supplies or support … I thought they were flush with drug money.

They are, as far as I know. It takes more than cash, though – any military force needs feeding and resupplying, and with US predator drones, spy planes and satellites etc. watching most of the country, I wonder how they’re getting resupplied with weapons, food and ammo. Are there guerrillas charging around feeding hard cash to units in the field? That speaks to a scary level of organisation, if so.

If not, it’s possible that the T soldiers are just “living off the land”, i.e. extracting food and medicine from civilians at gunpoint, but this brings me back to the question of alienation – if the Taliban are oppressing and exploiting the Pashtuns, why aren’t the Pashtuns quietly feeding enough information to the Brits and the US to allow our armies to wipe out large numbers of them?

Two possibilities – either the people are too terrified of the Taliban to try it and have no confidence that the US & UK are staying for the long haul (not impossible) or they are actively working against western forces. Neither option is very encouraging, especially since we’ve been fighting an explicitly counter-insurgent war for the last 18 months or so. In those conflicts, you traditionally gauge your success or failure by the extent to which the enemy’s support base is willing to come over to your side.

does it matter what proportion of the Pashtun believe the “destined to rule over Afghan’s less races” stuff … if it’s only a minority, than doesn’t that raise the hope of negotiating with sensible Pashtuns and marginalizing the nutters?

We can hope, I suppose. Negotiation with and western backing of a less crazy faction is the only positive way left to end this, AFAICS… But even that means yet more war for Afghanistan, with us supplying the “moderate” government against the nutters. See also the Irish civil war, for an idea of how that might go, then remember we’re talking Afghanistan here.

Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter how nasty the Taliban are – if we can’t rub them out, we can’t beat them, and that’s that. The North Vietnamese were a particularly horrible bunch, but I don’t think another ten years of war would’ve convinced them to pack it in and take up cricket instead.

The most obvious possibility to me is that those polsters who find 4% support aren’t getting into the Taliban control areas to ask their questions.

Perhaps people who are engaged in or support an ongoing armed insurgency aren’t too keen on broadcasting that fact? Similarly:

I have not met any Afghan or anyone who has worked in Afghanistan who has ever ‘struggled’ to explain why more international troops were needed

Perhaps not… Or perhaps you have, and they didn’t want you to know. Or perhaps your sample isn’t representative? I’m mean, they’re obviously out there, or there wouldn’t be anybody fighting on the other side.

“[how] the US should have actually responded to the 9/11 attacks?”

Well I think a clearer recognition of the major foreign policy errors (to express it kindly) that led to 9-11 wouldn’t have gone amiss. In a similar sense a clearer analysis of the problem would have lead to a more realistic strategy.

In a nutshell, as you have alluded to, the issue here isn’t afghanistan, it is Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – both countries for which it would be suicidal to deal with militarily. So if we are going to discuss strategy here, it makes no sense to continue to ignore this.

Conar, I’d be interested to know your opinion on this article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2010/04/the_weird_world_of_waziristan.html – Curtis is basically arguing that Al Q and the Taliban are actually very different organisations ideologically speaking.

I think Conor’s post is right on the money.

Afghanistan is merely the latest in a long list of examples of “difficult” issues that the West has spectacularly failed to address, not because they are necessarily insoluble, but because they lacked the political will, intelligence/understanding about the complex situations, and willingness to spend the time and money to bring about a rational outcome.

The decision to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 was, in my view, eminently reasonable. The aim of building a democratic, stable country was surely laudible. The problem is not the initial decision or the professed aim…. it’s the execution. Many more troops were required..and not just from the USA and UK.

We now have a situation where we have lost over 300 British service personnel and spent £11 billion for a decidedly shaky outcome. It’s trite to say that this was inevitable: it wasn’t. If a fraction of the guns and trasure expended on the barmy Iraq adventure had been devoted to Afghanistan, we wouldn’t face the current poor outcome there.

The issue is, why does it seem so difficult for the international community, or even more narrowly “the West” to deliver rational outcomes from such situations? Whether we are talking about Afghanistan, Somalia, Burma, Zimbabwe, Central Africa, Sudan, Bosnia, Kossovo… the probelms don’t go away, but neither does it seem that we learn any lessons.

Dave Osler’s approach is a dialogue of despair. The people of Afghanistan (Sudan/Bosnia/etc.. delete as appropriate) deserve better. The families of the dead deserve better. We deserve better.

Abandoning the Afghans to the tender mercies of an ethnic/religious free for all isn’t just wrong, it’s contemptable.

Pagar

I don’t think anyone addressed your suggestion, but yes, ideally countries with problems should be helped to deal with those problems themselves.

However

Afghanistan was fairly unique in that its government was so intrinsically tied to al qaeda activities that it’s problems were made into America’s and thus Nato’s problems.

And having thus been drawn into those problems, it is hardly responsible to walk away having made ourselves a little safer and say “your problem, you fix it!”

24. the a&e charge nurse

[23] “it is hardly responsible to walk away having made ourselves a little safer and say “your problem, you fix it!”

But definitions of ‘problem’ and ‘fix’ vary wildly in accordance with the ambitions of different factions (other powers in the region, local people, religious groups, the west, etc, etc).

A quick glance at the Wiki page tells us that Afghanistan is a country tormented by it’s own complex and violent past.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan

24

But the message from those there seems to be that some problems are pretty close to universal if not universal. Obviously a small faction wants all girls expelled from schools. And another faction (maybe with some cross-over) wants to be free to grow and export heroin on the black market. But fairly widespread desires include a rebuilt infrastructure, economic development, security from terrorist and paramilitary activity, and so on.

So washing our hands of complexity should not really be an option for a progressive left in a rich part of the world.

26. FlyingRodent

I do love that Margin is ticking people off for “washing our hands of complexity” while insisting that we must stay in Afghanistan because the Taliban are evil.

Well, no doubt – the point here is not “Are the Taliban a bunch of horrible shits determined to make everyone’s life a living hell?”. If it was, Margin and Galen would be scoring baskets with every sentence. Sadly, almost every argument they’re deploying was also made re: Vietnam, and look what happened there.

The appropriate question is “Can we win?”. If the answer to that is “No,” then the consequences of not winning don’t matter at all. If it can’t be done, it can’t be done, and that’s that.

Damon: yes I know Rory and agree with much of what he says – particularly his view that the insurgency will not be beaten militarily. I disagree with him, though, on the number of international troops that I think are needed to stabilise areas that are currently under nominal government control.

On the opinion polls. I think that they probably do under-estimate support for the Taliban, but not by much. They really were hated in my experience.

The anti-government insurgency is actually much broader than the Taliban, though and includes groups like Hezbe Islami and the Haqqani network, The Taliban is itself also divided into warring factions, particularly between the Peshawar and Quetta leadership. There is also a huge amount of criminal violence in Afghanistan with groups using the Taliban’s name as a flag of convenience.

The US strategy of paying off different militias really has rebounded in this respect, because by building them up they have weakened the central government’s authority, but if they turn the money tap off they know these groups will go over to the insurgency side. I was in Jalalabad once when we came under mortar fire, which the Taliban claimed, but which were actually launched by the former chief of police in the city who had just been sacked by the Governor. The murder of my MSF colleagues in Herat in 2004 was a similar incident.

On why more of the Taliban leadership aren’t in prison, well it is basically because they are in Pakistan and protected by the ISI.

Generally, though, I think a lot of FR’s points are right. Support for the insurgency is confined to a minority of the population – even in the Pashtun areas – but it is a significant minority and ways are going to need to be found to accomodate them. The ICG did a good report on ‘Pastun alienation’ several years back and most of its points still stand.

@26 FlyingRodent

I’m not sure the analogy with Vietnam really holds.. tho no doubt there are some similarities. There were plenty of Americans who argued that the reason they didn’t win, was that they didn’t go in hard enough, or were let down by the pinlo liberals at home and the media. I never found that a particularly convincing analysis..at it’s worst it shades into the same kind of argument used by the German nationalist right after WW1 to the effect that they didn’t lose the war, they were stabbed in the back.

As for the “can we win” argument, the technical answer has to be yes, but is not in itself that revealing. The real questions are: do we have the political will to see it through, are we prepared for continued loss of life and expense, and do the dangers of walking away and washing our hands outweigh those costs.

Do we want to see a free, democratic and stable Afghanistan, or a hopeless lawless failed state, further destabilising it’s none too stable nuclear neighbour Pakistan, and that bastion of mentalism Iran?

Thinking that “not winning” somehow has no consequences is short sighted in the extreme.

The appropriate question is can we afford NOT to win.

I do love that Margin is ticking people off for “washing our hands of complexity” while insisting that we must stay in Afghanistan because the Taliban are evil.

Well, no doubt – the point here is not “Are the Taliban a bunch of horrible shits determined to make everyone’s life a living hell?”. If it was, Margin and Galen would be scoring baskets with every sentence.

Well, if we want to acknowledge the actual complexities, then we should probably also note that referring to anybody not on “our side” as “Taliban” is a gross over-simplification, and that many of those who are ostensibly on “our side” are only there because of tactical considerations. In fact, it might be a good idea to acknowledge that there are very rarely only two sides in such conflicts, and that we’re actually dealing with an extremely complex political environment with constantly shifting parameters. Oh, and there are doubtless those who are currently considered “Taliban” that are less “evil” than some who are fighting against them…

As for the “can we win” argument, the technical answer has to be yes

If by “win” you mean “kill everybody in the entire country”, then sure…

The real questions are: do we have the political will to see it through, are we prepared for continued loss of life

Whose life are you talking about? We seem perfectly prepared to accept the endless loss of Afghan life… OK, I’ll admit that we don’t seem to have sufficient “will” to nuke the entire bunch of ungrateful bastards into oblivion… If only they’d appreciate the sacrifices we’re making for them!

Dunc,

I somehow doubt the equation underlying your assumption of us withdrawing = less loss of Afghan life is correct. I think without us, the loss of life would be higher, more arbitary and perhaps exported (how would Pakistan cope with the Taliban if they had a strong base in Afghanistan for example).

You kind of miss Galen10’s point – that withdrawal does not stop the conflict and certainly does not contain it within Afghanistan.

@29 Dunc

“If by “win” you mean “kill everybody in the entire country”, then sure…”

Strange that you use the first part of your post to call for a nuanced view of the various parties involved…and then come out with this! If you don’t see that there are multiple possible outcomes between the 2 poles of walking away, and killing the entire populace, it’s probably not worth trying to convince you.

Loss of life is loss of life… whether it’s a raw recruit in the UK forces, humanitarian aid workers, or innocent Afghan civilians. Your assertion that I (or any right thinking person) is happy to accept an endles loss of Afghan life isn’t true, and does nothing to bolster your argument. You think that unilateral withdrawal would lead to peace, to zero fatalities amongst Afghan civilians?

I’m sure many Afghans are appreciative of the efforts made on their behalf. That’s not to say they might not wish foreign troops weren’t there, or be angry about civilians being killed in NATO air strikes… but I doubt many share the appetite for a swift withdrawal of coalition forces.

I somehow doubt the equation underlying your assumption of us withdrawing = less loss of Afghan life is correct.

That’s not actually the equation underlying my argument at all. The principle underlying my argument is that it’s not our place to decide which Afghans should live and which should die. We should not the the executioners, and we should not be picking sides in somebody else’s civil war. Especially not considering that we have a history of changing sides every decade or so…

Yes, people will continue to die. Maybe more, maybe less – no one can tell. But at least it won’t be us killing them.

If you don’t see that there are multiple possible outcomes between the 2 poles of walking away, and killing the entire populace, it’s probably not worth trying to convince you.

I see plenty of possible outcomes. I’m just not sure what you mean by “winning”.

Loss of life is loss of life… whether it’s a raw recruit in the UK forces, humanitarian aid workers, or innocent Afghan civilians.

You missed a pretty fucking significant group there – the people we’re actually fighting. Do they not count as people?

You think that unilateral withdrawal would lead to peace, to zero fatalities amongst Afghan civilians?

No. But I don’t think that having a couple of major foreign powers with a long history of fucking the entire region backwards involved in what is basically a civil war is a good recipe for resolving the conflict. It never has been anywhere else in the world.

Meant to add, in my first para: The reason I made the “kill everybody” comment is that that is the one and only outcome we could actually guarantee through military action.

@34 Dunc

“Meant to add, in my first para: The reason I made the “kill everybody” comment is that that is the one and only outcome we could actually guarantee through military action.”

Errrmmm… no it isn’t. It’s a facile simplification, which does nothing to advance your point.

It’s a facile simplification

…says the commenter who wrote “Do we want to see a free, democratic and stable Afghanistan, or a hopeless lawless failed state, further destabilising it’s none too stable nuclear neighbour Pakistan, and that bastion of mentalism Iran?”

Look guys it’s simple – do we want freedom or tyranny? Are we good or are we bad?

@33 Dunc

By winning, I meant in general terms ensuring a stable, democratic Afghanistan, free of Taliban insurgency, and not ruled by a bunch of islamic fascists. I don’t buy the argument that it isn’t possible – people probably said much the same about Germany and Japan post WW2, and post Soviet eastern Europe.

Of course the people we are fighting count as people.. I’m not going to shed tears over the enemy, any more than I would over those who fought for the Nazi’s or the Serbs in Bosnia etc, etc…. Perhaps that makes me a bad person, but there you go.

As for the “mired in a civil war” and “careful we’ll be seen as nasty imperialist” arguments… both are frankly pretty weak. We invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks, ousted an odious bunch of Islamic fascists… and then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The shortcomings of the subsequent occupation don’t obviate the need for the initial war, or the possible postive outcome.

@36 Larry

It’s less of a simplification than the original posting…. if you have anything positive to contribute, by all means do so…. or of course you can sit on the sidelines and throw rocks in lieu of reasoned argument…

It’s less of a simplification than the original posting….

Is it? I imagine every single person here would agree that what we we’d like to see is a “a stable, democratic Afghanistan, free of Taliban insurgency”. But unless you’ve a plan of how to achieve that – or even any reason to suppose that it is possible to achieve that – you’re not contributing to the debate, you’re just pumping out hot air.

@32 Dunc

So we should just leave them to it? It’s just the same “realist” theory that has bedevilled international relations for decades. Let’s just leave these strange people who live in a far away country of which we know nothing to their uncivilised ways. Neville Chamberlain would no doubt agree with you heartily.

Nobody is saying it’s an easy situation, but throwing our hands up in the air and saying to hell with it, it’s too difficult just isn’t going to cut it. You don’t negotiate with the likes of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.. you confront them and defeat them.

Dunc To put the issue of civilian deaths in perspective. I don’t know the overall death toll in Afghanistan for last year, but the figure for 2007 was around 7,700 which breaks down as follows: 1,019 Afghan policemen; 4,478 militants; 1,980 civilians and 232 foreign soldiers. I would guess that quite a few of those classified as ‘insurgents’ were actually civilians.

It is estimated that around 2,500 civilians were killed in 2009 and that was by far the highest number in recent years. Around 1,600 of these were killed by anti-government insurgents (the Taliban and allies) while just under 600 were killed by NATO (mainly due to mistaken airstrikes). Given the general upward trend in the death rate, I would assume that the total number of deaths for last year was somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000.

Now compare that to Brazil – where I live. Every year around 40,000 people die in homicides. The death rate is highest in the cities, like Rio de Janeiro, where 4,000 people are murdered every year. The police alone kill around 1,000 suspected criminals in the city every year. A large number of these deaths are carried out execution style.

We define Afghanistan as a war and Brazil as merely a violent society. But in both cases most people just get used to the violence and get on with their lives.

@39 Larry

If you have pre-decided that it isn’t possible to establish democracy, why? Do you think the Afghans are somehow incapable? I happen to think it is quite possible… perhaps very difficult, but hardly outwith the ken of man.

As for a plan of how to achieve it…it certainly wouldn’t involve pulling out and leaving them to it… but there again, it wouldn’t have involved doing a lot of the things we have done since the invasion, like invading Iraq. There are no doubt a plethora of plans… I doubt my personal one is to the point…which is that abandoning the people in Afghanistan to their fate isn’t the right response to a difficult situation.

By winning, I meant in general terms ensuring a stable, democratic Afghanistan, free of Taliban insurgency, and not ruled by a bunch of islamic fascists.

And we’re going to do this by propping up a different bunch of incredibly corrupt non-democratic Islamic fascists and blowing up random weddings with flying killbots?

I don’t buy the argument that it isn’t possible

I’m not saying it isn’t possible under any circumstances, I’m saying it’s not possible through military action by outside agents, and especially not when the outside agents are the US and the UK. We fucked them. We’ve been fucking them for over a hundred years. We cannot restore their virginity by continuing to fuck them, only harder.

people probably said much the same about Germany and Japan post WW2, and post Soviet eastern Europe.

Neither of which bear even a passing resemblance to the situation in Afghanistan.

So we should just leave them to it?

Yes.

It’s just the same “realist” theory that has bedevilled international relations for decades.

No, it’s not. In fact, it has never been tried in modern history. Not by us anyway.

How can I take Conor Foley seriously as an authority on Afghanistan and the Taliban when he claims the latter “invited Osama bin Laden into the country”? Um, er, get your facts right Conor. The Northern Alliance, in the form of warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, invited Bin Laden to take refuge in Afghanistan after he was expelled from Sudan in May 1996. At this stage, the Taliban had not yet taken Kabul or formed a government.

He also says that to argue the United States had no right to attack Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks is to be “detached from political reality”. Perhaps, but some of us care more about international law and human rights than Kissingerian or Rumsfeldian “political reality”.

45. Charlie 2

Conor. The problem with countries like Afghanistan are the inter family/clan/tribe conflicts where everyone is armed will often result in many deaths. Therefore a peaceful non-violent society is not possible. However, a return to the level of violence close to those pre 1979 may be possible. More thought needs to be given to the type of army and police Afghanistan needs. Due to the endemic violence , I expect some sort of national para- military type police, similar to the CRS of France will needed to be formed plus a local town /regional police force who understand the local family/clan conflicts . The question is whether a competent and relatively corrupt free national and local police force can be recruited and trained.The USA paying the wages of the Afghan Army and Police at a level sufficiently high to minimise corruption and attract decent recruits may be required, probably 2-3 times the average wage.

46. FlyingRodent

You know, having laid out the extremely serious political and military problems facing our armed forces in Afghanistan as briefly as I can at 14 and 19, I’m not inclined to reiterate the case to those who ignored it completely the first time. If your answer to those arguments is Can we afford not to win? or But the Taliban are evil, you are missing some glaring, possibly fatal problems in our Afghan mission.

I’ll put it like this, though – if either Obama or Cameron could click his fingers and instantly delete our occupation of Afghanistan from history, do you think they would do it?

If you answered “No,” you’re not paying enough attention to what’s going on in Afghanistan, the US or the UK.

Do you think the Afghans are somehow incapable?

Yeah that’s right, I’m an anti-Afghan racist, and so’s everyone else who disgagrees with your wildly unconvincing fantasy. So far all I’ve got from you is that you’re enormously optimistic about the prospects for imminent peace and freedom, cannot explain why, and think that anyone who disagrees is Neville Chamberlain.

No I haven’t decided that it’s totally impossible for a peaceful democracy to take root in Afghanistan. But you should acknowledge that neither the history of that country nor the current scenario make that seem a probable development in the medium term. I believe – as you do – that the situation for the Afghan people is better now, with us over there taking on the Taliban and supporting the government, than an immediate withdrawal. But – news-flash! – an immediate withdrawal isn’t actually on the cards politically in either the UK or the US.

What is on the cards is trying to figure out a longer term strategy, in terms of *realistically achievable goals*. Perhaps trying to figure out some sort of second-best scenario from the democratic paradise you seem to believe is just around the corner. Or are we literally going to be there fighting an anti-insurgent war for ever and ever? Even if we have the stomach for that, I wouldn’t have thought it was a very stable scenario either.

Perhaps, but some of us care more about international law and human rights than Kissingerian or Rumsfeldian “political reality”.

Under international law Mehdi, the US had the right to attack Afghanistan.

Medhi: I would love to hear you justify your apparent belief that the US decision to take military action in response to 9/11 was a violation of international law. Please, be my guest, spell out for us what legal principle was violated?

Your argument that it was the Northern Alliance rather than the Taliban who invited Osama Bin Laden to establish a base in Afghanistan also betrays a total lack of understanding about the country’s history and politics.

OBL fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s with Hekmatyar’s group, which has fought alongside the Taliban for most of the last nine years, but now seems poised to go over to the government side. Sayaff was also allied to this group during the 1980s, and during the civil war he carried out one of the most notorious massacres of the Hazaras in Kabul.

OBL returned to Afghanistan in May 1996 and flew into Jalalabad, where he set up his first base. It was close to where I was later to establish my own office in 2003 and I used to drive past it regularly. Jalalabad was at the time under the control of the Taliban, whose forces took Kabul that September. OBL’s links with the Taliban at this time are very well documented.

Much of the Taliban’s advance was achieved because local militia commanders surrendered or joined its forces. This was often based on factual manouvers and betrayals and so to argue that just because Sayaff ended up opposed to the Taliban by 2001 (he was in fact one of the first commanders that the CIA put on its payroll) does not mean that he was necessarily hostile to them in the mid-1990s. Remember that Karzai was also initially allied to the Taliban at around this time.

I have heard it claimed that Sayaff issued the invitation to OBL to return to Afghanistan. I have also heard it claimed that he helped Al Qaeda kill General Massoud by setting up the bogus interview. In the general swirl of rumours that float around, I would say that both fall into the ‘plausible but unproven’ category.

However, trying to make out that it was not the Taliban but the Northern Alliance who invited OBL to set up a base in the country is – to put it politely – a rather bizarre statement. The contacts between OBL and Mullah Omar are a matter or public record and the Taliban themselves often referrred to the Pashtunwalia code of hospitality to argue that they could not hand him over to the Americans as he was an invited guest.

OBL bankrolled the Taliban regime, built infra-structure projects for them and committed his Al Qaeda forces to fight alongside them. OBL’s support proved vital in the Taliban’s victory in Mazar-i-Sharif and Al Qaeda participated actively in the genocide of several thousand Hazaras which followed.

I am absolutely amazed that a serious journalist such as yourself could be unaware of all of this.

If you want to expand on the theory that you appear to be promoting – again, please go right ahead, it will be entertaining if nothing else. If the actual point of your statement was just to set up an ad hominem attack ‘How can I take Conor Foley seriously as an authority on Afghanistan and the Taliban when he claims . . . .’ then I would suggest that you go and play with your toys elsewhere.

Harry’s Place seems about your level Medhi.

Let me take this opportunity to correct the spelling of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s surname. I was writing about him from memory (a fairly deeply ingrained memory because his activities over the last few years are so notorious), but just did a couple of reference checks to see if I could find the date on which it would be legitimate to call him a ‘Northern Alliance warlord’.

I could not find one, but it is generally agreed that the Northern Alliance did not come into existence until after the Taliban took Kabul, when a group of previously disparate and feuding warlords formed an alliance of convenience against a common foe.

On that basis, I really don’t understand what point Medhi Hassan can even think he is making. As he says, OBL came to Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul and the Northern Alliance did not exist at the time. How can a non-existent group, therefore, have issued him with an invitation?

& indeed Mehdi!

There are no doubt a plethora of plans… I doubt my personal one is to the point…which is that abandoning the people in Afghanistan to their fate isn’t the right response to a difficult situation.

How and why would forces that do this create a liberal democracy with people who do this?

Is there consistent implementation of international law around the world? Doesn’t appear to be.

Was there an alternative to the US intervening in a Civil War on the side of the Northern Alliance? Well yes, 911 could have been treated as a criminal investigation with sanctions/interventions directed at training camps had the regime not followed through with their offer of co-operation. Could this approach have been any less successful in achieving the stated goals of capturing OBL and undermining AQ than the 9 years of war? Clearly not.

And how exactly is a credible public opinion survey undertaken in a land with limited literacy, no functioning telephone network for home calls, multiple languages and supposedly with large parts controlled by insurgents?

The poll figures seem at odds with the election results. If taken at face value then 66% want either a full islamic state or one man dictatorship. Good work.

Have the participating NATO states collated detailed and reliable casualty figures for public consumption? Not that I am aware of.

Is the NGO presence largely corrupt? Yes given first hand reports Iv’e heard from Oxford based aid workers.

Does the lower rate of deaths compared to Brazil provide some kind of moral excuse for the terror inflicted on Afghanistan by the US?

Conor your years of excuses for this disaster just don’t add up. Will we be hearing the same old arguments next year?

@ Gallen10

We invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks

Oh really?

How many Afghans were involved in 9/11?

How many Afghan international terrorists can you name?

If OBL was rumoured to be holed up in Paisley would it be legitimate to invade Scotland?

The decision to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 was, in my view, eminently reasonable. The aim of building a democratic, stable country was surely laudible.

That smacks of cultural imperialism to me. Let’s teach them to play cricket too.

(Actually they do……..rather well)

Pagar – you might want to read Conor Foley’s post above in response to Mehdi. Just asking how many Afghanis were involved in 9/11 betrays a deep lack of understanding on who was behind the Taliban and how they were helping terrorist groups (not just against the US, but also India).

@ Sunny

I did.

And I accept OBL’s links with elements in Afghanistan but as a justification for invasion, we might as well retaliate for 7/7 by nuking Leeds.

9/11 was Saudi based.

Why have we not invaded Saudi Arabia?

Pagar: I take your point about why Afghanistan and not Saudi Arabia (or Germany), but I am not sure how far it is worth pursuing. Unless you want to go into conspiracy theories (which I am sure you don’t) it is widely accepted that Al Qaeda did carry out 9/11 and was headquartered in Afghanistan at the time. As we all know, some within the Bush administration were arguing for an attack on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and so I think we have to accept that powerful countries like the USA take military action for a variety of motives.

For what it is worth, I think that the US went into Afghanistan very reluctantly and half-heartedly precisely because they had no strategic interest in the country and that explains a lot of what went wrong subsequently.

As we all know, some within the Bush administration were arguing for an attack on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11

Agreed, but we all know that AQ had no base or support in Iraq. Of course that changed post invasion. Was that a win?

I think that the US went into Afghanistan very reluctantly and half-heartedly precisely because they had no strategic interest in the country

Agreed also. And the UK even less so. But that is why our continued military presence is such a travesty.

You seem to believe, Conor, that the Afghan war is possible to win and, if that were the case, it could possibly be justified on a number of fronts. I defer to your obvious knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the conflict but, without any clear objective, how will we know when we are victorious?

When we look back on this in 50 years time what is the possible upside?

The rationale will seem more absurd than the that for the wars in South East Asia fifty years ago and the deaths of the participants will seem more futile.

And that is why I feel sick when I see a coffin paraded through Wootton Bassett.

Pagar: I share some of your doubts (blogging is a medium that lends itself to assertions of dogmatic certainty rather than worried and agonised nuance) and I have had the same feelings myself on hearing of the deaths of friends in the country. I will probably be going back there myself later this year and the question of ‘what are we doing there’ is something I have had to talk about with my own family.

But there is a flipside. For most Afghans life has improved enormously since the removal of the Taliban. The insurgency is growing, but it is still relatively isolated and most people really do get on with their lives for most of the time. I think the process of state-building is a slow one and you measure its success through the durability and effectiveness of the institutions constructed.

I have long argued against those who think that the Taliban can (or are being) ‘defeated’, but I still think that a decent state can be constructed in the country.

Conor – calm down! (“Harry’s Place seems about your level Medhi”??)

On the subject of the Northern Alliance, you’re right to say that the Northern Alliance didn’t *formally* come into existence until late 2006, after the Taliban took Kabul, but I was, of course, referring to its constituent elements on the anti-Taliban side which later *became* the Northern Alliance (how would you refer to them??). Pedantry aside, you are 100 per cent wrong to echo the pro-war propaganda claim that the Taliban “invited” Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid, the authority on these issues, writes on page 133 of his book “Taliban” (2001):

“In May 1996 Bin Laden travelled back to Afghanistan, arriving in Jalalabad in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants….Here he lived under the protection of the Jalalabad Shura until the conquest of Kabul and Jalalabad by the Taliban in September 1996.”

Rashid adds that Bin Laden only struck up “a friendship with Mullah Omar” in 1997 when “he moved to Kandahar and came under the protection of the Taliban”.

So, Conor, I defer to your greater, on-the-ground knowledge of Afghanistan, and we’ll have to agree to disagree about the rights and wrongs of this futile war, but will you take this opportunity withdraw your factually inaccurate claim re Bin Laden and the (non-existent) Taliban “invitation”?

61. Charlie 2

60. Mehdi Hasan. To whom did the Jalalabad Shura support? Would OLB have flown to an area where he would obtain no support or protection?

Conor and Sunny – I mentioned “international law” in a broader context about the need to acknowledge and accept its existence and its limits instead of simply deferring, Kissinger-style, to what Conor uncritically referred to as “political reality”.

But since you ask about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and international law, no, I don’t think the invasion was legal, legitimate or justified. How can it be justified to attack one of the poorest countries on earth for the crimes of a terrorist group allegedly hiding out on its territory? Is Cuba allowed to attack the United States in response for terrorist attacks carried out inside Cuba by anti-Castro activists living in Florida? And as we now know that the Taliban tried to offer up Bin Laden to Pakistan and others for a “neutral” trial, why did the United States not show any interest in a diplomatic alternative and instead despatch the bombers?

As Marjorie Cohn, president of the US National Lawyers Guild and a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, wrote at the time:

“The invasion of Afghanistan was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter because the attacks on September 11 were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the United States. In fact, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11, or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign. The necessity for self-defense must be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly.

Bush’s justification for attacking Afghanistan was that it was harboring Osama bin Laden and training terrorists. Iranians could have made the same argument to attack the United States after they overthrew the vicious Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and he was given safe haven in the United States. The people in Latin American countries whose dictators were trained in torture techniques at the School of the Americas could likewise have attacked the torture training facility in Ft. Benning, Georgia under that specious rationale.”

And if, after all these years, and all the various revelations from insiders, etc, you guys believe the Bush administration was acting back in 2001 on the basis of international law, you’re more naive than I assumed. It was, ironically, Donald Rumsfeld who, in the discussions after the 9/11 attacks, pointed out that international law only allows force to prevent imminent attacks and not for retribution, to which Bush yelled, in response: “No. I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” [See “Against all Enemies” by Richard Clarke]

Charlie 2 – Conor can correct me but the Jalalabad Shura had nothing to do with the Taliban prior to the fall of Jalalabad. Right, bored of all this now. I’m off to play with my toys…

Hi Mehdi,

I’m usually a fan of what you write, so I just had a quick check to see if the comments under your name were being left by someone who was trying to make you look bad. You started your “contribution” to this thread by claiming that Conor shouldn’t be taken seriously as an expert on Afghanistan, followed up by claiming to defer to his superior knowledge but demanding that he withdraws one of his points.

If it is an imposter leaving these comments under your name, then drop us a line and we’ll delete them. If it isn’t, then just to note that your arguments would be much more persuasive if you didn’t kick off with ad hominems against other liberal-lefties.

But since you ask about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and international law, no, I don’t think the invasion was legal, legitimate or justified. How can it be justified to attack one of the poorest countries on earth for the crimes of a terrorist group allegedly hiding out on its territory?

Justified quite simply. The Taliban were also trying to goad India into a war with Pakistan… hence their relentless attacks on Indian soil (one even on the Indian parliament) to get something going.

Honestly, your goddamn Parliament is attacked by terrorists – don’t you think India would have been justified in invading Afghanistan then?

Or how about after the Mumbai attacks? You think India has no right then?

I’m not some jingoistic Indian RSS lackey, but the fact is that the Taliban were looking to destabilise the entire sub-continent.

If the US hadn’t launched, sooner or later India would have. And frankly, that would have been a lot more horrific for everyone involved.

Mehdi: let us start with ‘pedantry’ shall we?

You launced into an ad hominem attack on me by asserting that it was the Northern Alliance and not the Taliban who invited OBL to Afghanistan (and my assertion that it was the Taliban who considered OBL to be their invited guest showed that nothing else I wrote about the country could be taken seriously).

If that was a substantial claim then the history books would need to be re-written. However, if your only point is that the invitation came from Sayyaf who was to subsequently ally himself with the Northern Alliance, well so what? The Taliban emerged as a new polticial and military force in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s that challenged the established warlords (with a great deal of help from the ISI). Different Pushtun political factions allied with them and against originally – Hamid Karzai comes to mind – and it was not until the fall of Kabul that the main non-Pushtun warlords decided to set aside their differences and form a common front.

Your assertion that the Northern Alliance did not ‘fomally’ come into existence until after the fall of Kabul and that you were ‘, of course, referring to its constituent elements on the anti-Taliban side which later *became* the Northern Alliance’ also betrays a gulf of ignorance about that entity’s formation.

There was a civil war going on in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s in which the various Mojahedin factions were reducing the country to rubble and murdering, raping and terrorising its people. Alliances between different political factions were constantly being formed and broken.

Sayyaf was one of the most notorious of these warlords and – as previously stated – his forces had carried ou appalling masacres. He was most closely aligned to Hekmatyar’s group during the 1980s (which is how he knew OBL) and, as stated above, Hekmatyar has been in on-off alliances with the Taliban for many years. In fact it was a decision by the ISI that Hekmatyar was no longer a credible partner that led them to create the Taliban. I don’t know whether Sayyaf was in alliance with the Taliban or not in May 1996 when OBL arrived in Afghanistan. I do not conclusively know whether or not Sayyaf issued the invitation (although I have no grounds for doubting this). But your claim that it was the Northern Alliance and not the Taliban who invited OBL to Afghanistan is one of the most bizzare statements that I have ever heard.

This exchange is getting more and more bizarre and tedious by the hour. So I promise, dear liberal friends on Liberal Conspiracy, that this is my last post on the subject.

So just to quickly respond to Sunny and poor Conor:

1) Sunny – sorry, where on earth did India come into this? Whether or not India had a right to retaliate against an attack on its parliament (are you talking about 2001? That was the Pakistani-backed Jasih and Lashkar, not the Afghan Taliban, so I have no idea what you’re referring to) is irrelevant to our discussion of how legitimate the US bombing of Afghanistan was in October 2001, after terror attacks on 9/11 carried out by men from the Gulf and Egypt. The idea that the Taliban (rather than their ISI sponsors) were looking to “destabilise” the entire subcontinent is a laughable statement.

2) Conor – the dictionary definition of “ad hominem” is: “Appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason”. I didn’t call you ugly or stupid or fat, I said I can’t take you seriously as a commentator on Afghanistan (and I apologize if I hurt your feelings, as I seem to have!) when you claim, against all available evidence, that the Taliban “invited” Bin Laden into Afghanistan. You have yet to withdraw, retract or correct this false claim. Instead, you now assert that all you said was that the Taliban “considered OBL to be their invited guest”. Sorry, that’s not what you wrote [above]. You said: “They also invited Osama bin Laden into the country”. This, as you now seem to implicitly acknowledge, but won’t openly say, is incorrect (as Ahmed Rashid and others have noted).

Btw, on a side note, if my original comment questioning your facts is an “ad hominem” attack on you, then what would you call your entire post [above] – attacking and critiquing Dave Osler – in which you conclude: “Surely Dave should acquaint himself with at least some of the details of these discussions before he consigns a country and its people to the fate of Somalia.” Ad hominem perhaps?

Goodbye.

Good idea to run away with your toys Mehdi: when you’re in a hole stop digging.

But let’s do international law on your way out.

In your first post you stated that ‘some of us care more about international law and human rights than Kissingerian or Rumsfeldian “political reality”.’ Well, indeed, as do I, which is why I asked you a very specific question what legal principle was violated by the US resort to military action.

In your reply you state that you ‘don’t think the invasion was legal, legitimate or justified’ because:
a) Afghanistan is very poor
b) it was merely an ‘allegation’ that there was a terrorist group based on its territory
c) the Taliban tried to offer up Bin Laden to Pakistan and others for a “neutral” trial
d) the United States not show any interest in a diplomatic alternative and instead despatch the bombers

Your first point is irrelevant, your second point is manifestly unture, your third point is extremely debatable and your last point is also untrue.

The US did pursue a twin-track approach of diplomacy and military preparedness very successfully. Within days of the attack it had lodged an Article 51 notification with the UN. It had also persuaded the UNSC to adopt a Chapter VII resolution (which can be used to authorise military action) against the Taliban if they did not hand over OBL.

The use of Article 51 as justification for the attack is indeed controversial from a legal perspective. However, no one has challenged this either through the UN’s decision-making bodies or through the International Court of Justice. Since the ‘right of self-defence’ is a part of customary law, the US’s invokation of Article 51 removed their need to obtain explicit security council support for their actions, but the wording of the resolution that was passed was certainly consistent with military action. NATO also invoked a similar clause within its own Charter when pledging to support the US actions. All of the above is in marked contrast to what happened prior to the invasion of Iraq.

You will always be able to find legal scholars who will argue contrary positions – particularly in the field of international law. However, the overwhelming balance of legal opinion remains that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, but the US intervention in Afghanistan was not.

I mentioned “international law” in a broader context about the need to acknowledge and accept its existence and its limits instead of simply deferring, Kissinger-style, to what Conor uncritically referred to as “political reality”.

69. Luis Enrique

Mehdi,

Suppose you are correct, and that the truth of the matter is that rather than “the Taliban” having invited OBL, the invitation came from an individual that may or may not have been allied with the Taliban at the time, and then some while afterward OBL and the Taliban become pals.

So, if you’re right, Conor made a factual error, that he may not have made if he’d read that passage from that book you quote and taken it to be the gospel truth. Or something.

And this is your basis for saying he cannot be taken seriously as a commentator on Afghanistan? Good grief! As if that would negate all his self-evident experience of that country. That may not quite fit with the dictionary definition of ad hominen, but it’s certainly unpleasant, unwarranted and personal claim. I tell you what, if anybody ever catches you getting something like that wrong, would you concede that you cannot be taken seriously as a commentator and resign from your jobs as a serious commentator?

sorry, where on earth did India come into this? Whether or not India had a right to retaliate against an attack on its parliament (are you talking about 2001? That was the Pakistani-backed Jasih and Lashkar, not the Afghan Taliban, so I have no idea what you’re referring to

Mehdi – these people were trained in Afghanistan. Are you saying there’s no link between the funding and support the Taliban got, and the support these groups got? India would have either invaded Pakistan or Afghanistan. Take your pick.

What Conor said above – the idea that the invasion of Afghanistan was “illegal” is frankly bollocks. You can argue it was morally wrong, but it wasn’t illegal.

I tell you what, if anybody ever catches you getting something like that wrong, would you concede that you cannot be taken seriously as a commentator and resign from your jobs as a serious commentator?

I doubt it. The New Statesman is hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to factually correct statements. Recently they stated that anyone aspiring for Government should make sure to read Galbraith’s The Great Crash, so as to learn about US policies in the Great Depression.

The Great Crash is, of course, a book entirely devoted to the stock market crash of 1929, and doesn’t mention the Depression at all.

And since I had not seen your last post, let me just briefly reply to it:

Conor – the dictionary definition of “ad hominem” is: “Appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason”. I didn’t call you ugly or stupid or fat, I said I can’t take you seriously as a commentator on Afghanistan (and I apologize if I hurt your feelings, as I seem to have!) when you claim, against all available evidence, that the Taliban “invited” Bin Laden into Afghanistan. You have yet to withdraw, retract or correct this false claim. Instead, you now assert that all you said was that the Taliban “considered OBL to be their invited guest”. Sorry, that’s not what you wrote [above]. You said: “They also invited Osama bin Laden into the country”. This, as you now seem to implicitly acknowledge, but won’t openly say, is incorrect (as Ahmed Rashid and others have noted).

1. No you did not ‘hurt my feelings’. You aroused my interest about your own knowledge of Afghanistan when you claimed that it was the Northern Alliance who invited OBL to Afghanistan. This claim would require a complete re-writing of the history books if it were true, but it is not is it? (it is OK Mehdi I am not going to demand you ‘retract your words’ this is a debate not an interrogation!).

2. You say that I claimed ‘against all available evidence, that the Taliban “invited” Bin Laden into Afghanistan.’ What evidence would that be? You have quoted a passage from Rashid which simply says that OBL came to Jalalabad with is entourage in May 1996. It does not say who invited him. I am not disputing your assertion that the original invitation came from Sayyaf – simply because I do not know – but that does not in any way retract from my original point that OBL came to Afghanistan and lived under the Taliban’s patronage as their invited guest. We can go around this point, pedantically, as many times as you want, but what point are you trying to prove here?

3. On your point about ad hominem attacks, well let me try to be more charitable about the tone of your original comment. I have noticed that many commenters often personalise things by implying that the person they are debating with is stupid, or ill-informed about their subject matter. It is precisely for that reason that I started my original article by saying:

“I would like to respond to a few of the points that David Osler makes in his cross-posted piece. Apologies that this will take the form of some para by para responses, which I realise can make articles seem a bit more aggressive than the author intends.”

I then set out my political objections to Dave’s argument. I concluded the article be responding directly to his statement that it was ‘difficult to see what could possibly fix’ Afghanistan. I don’t think that is an ad hominem attack because I was addressing a gap in his knowledge that he had admitted.

Mehdi: your first comment here had the howler of a statement that it was the Northern Alliance who invited OBL to Afghanistan and the assertion that the US intervention was illegal. I have replied extensively to both of those comments. I am quite happy to carry on this discussion if you want, but I think that you will find you do better if you drop the patronishing tone and use a little less sarcasm.

74. Luis Enrique

Conor, you are condemned out of your own mouth!

you wrote “[The Taliban] invited Osama bin Laden into the country” whereas the truth, as you have now admitted, is that “OBL came to Afghanistan and lived under the Taliban’s patronage as their invited guest” and, as Mehdi has revealed, the actual invitation might have come from somebody else. And that somebody was: The Northern Alliance. Even a child knows this.

You’re patently a fantasist. Your original assertion is one of the most bizarre statements that I have EVER read. You are an utter buffoon, I can’t believe I ever took you seriously. I feel dirty.

I feel the same. I will go and hose myself down right now.

Hilarious. Glad to see you’ve all learned sarcasm and developed thicker skins. Delighted to have helped.

(Jeez, the delicate flowers on Liberal Conspiracy. SO SO SORRY to have offended so many by pointing out a flaw or two in the pro-war argument above. Back to the toys…)

77. Luis Enrique

I was thinking more of this

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG0L86DRuC8

79. margin4error

flying rodent

I didn’t say we must stay in afghanistan because the taleban are evil. I didn’t even mention the taleban. Why would you make that up?

I said we went in because the country’s problems became our problems on the 11th of September 2001 because their government was so closely entwined with al qaeda.

And I said that having achieved our aims of expelling that government, it was hardly fair to the people of Afghanistan to walk away and leave them to the aftermath of that.

I didn’t say we could create a western style democracy there, or a western style rich economy. In fact I said we couldn’t. But people there deserve for us to at least try to establish some sort of security, order and infrastructure with which they can build a better state for themselves.

I said it was complicated. I agree many factions have different ambitions. And they use many varied means of achieving them. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to resolve them and achieve near universal desires for economic development and stability.

Pretending that everyone who thinks we need to stay there does so because of simplistic reasons to do with terrorism on western streets is obnoxious. It assumes that people do not arrive at a different position to you through humanitarian concern.

And that’s entirely unfair.

The Staggers has got form on ill-advised comment re:9/11 etc. After all, in its leader the week after the attacks is pretty much blamed US voters for the 9/11 attacks (they had it coming cos they elected Bush, see). For which it later apologised, but it seems Hasan is following that noble tradititon of placing one’s hands over one’s ears and screaming “NAH NAH you’re WRONG waaaaah”. Good to see journalism (sic) living up to its reputation.

81. MoreMediaNonsense

A small point – so what if the Northern Alliance had invited OBL in ? They weren’t harbouring him when the US attacked the Taliban post 9/11. What difference would it make who made the invitation card (or whatever it was) post 9/11?

Hasan’s point is typical of anti-Western obsessives who always want to reduce everything to some conspiracy where everything bad has its “root cause” in the US and its allies bad behaviour. They love looking back and saying “oh but we supported bad govt X 30 years ago” as if governments and alliances never change. And of course if we did previously support bad govt X its even more important now that we change our behaviour and oppose it.

Who knows why Mehdi was so insistent on the point. My guess is it was probably more to score a point than anything else.

The logic of his argument is an astounding one, though, if you think it through. US policy in the Reagan years was to support the Mojahedin, which they did via the ISI, who sent most of the aid to Hekmatyar’s group (at a time when OBL and Sayyaf were fighting with him). I think it is a reasonable point to make that this turned out to have been a very mistaken policy.

The US then basically lost interest in Afghanistan through the 1990s – except around 1998 when there were some discussions about laying a pipeline across the country and when Iran mobilised its military in response to the massacre of its diplomats by the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif. The US explicitly came to the defence of the Taliban against Iran and implicitly backed the Taliban in concluding that the only way a pipeline could have been built was if there was a strong enough central government in the country to restore order. So, if the US had a position at all towards Afghanistan in the late 1990s it was an objectively pro-Taliban one.

Prior to 9/11 the most powerful backer of the Northern Alliance was Iran – basically because it is a Shia country and the Taliban’s ultra-Pashtun nationalism (which can accurately be characterised as fascism) most visibly demonstrated itself through a psychotic hatred of the Hazaras. The Northern Alliance was also backed by Russia, China, Uzbekistan and (to a lesser extent) Tajikistan, none of which would be regarded as natural allies of the US.

But the Taliban’s external sponsors were Pakistan and (to a lesser extent) Saudia Arabia, who were and are close allies of the US. Had the Taliban not provided a haven to Al Qaeda after OBL was driven out of Sudan – under US pressure – then there is every reason to think that the US would have remained neutral or broadly sympathetic to the regime. Of course its human rights record (repeated acts of genocide) and treatment of women caused some unneasiness in the Clinton administration, but this was trumped by real politic considerations – and particular US antipathy towards Iran.

Mehdi’s assertion that it was the Northern Alliance and not the Taliban who brought OBL to Afghanistan therefore necessitates re-writing the entire recent history of the region and in a way in which all subsequent political developments make no sense whatsoever.

I would not write him off as an ‘anti-western obsessive’, but, on this issue at least, he has shown himself to be completely politically illiterate.

83. MoreMediaNonsense

Basically he’s defending the Taliban by any means necessary including obfuscating the fact the Taliban harboured OBL with garbage about “invitations”.

See eg :

“And as we now know that the Taliban tried to offer up Bin Laden to Pakistan and others for a “neutral” trial, ”

“The idea that the Taliban (rather than their ISI sponsors) were looking to “destabilise” the entire subcontinent is a laughable statement.”

Wonder if Mehdi thinks we in the West are morally superior to the Taliban (a la Martin Amis) ?

What do you reckon ?

84. MoreMediaNonsense

Anyway I’ve no time for Hasan at all and am glad he’s shown himself up here in what was (even apart from him) an interesting debate.

85. Charlie 2

I think you will find that very few non ISI personnel ever went into Afghanistan in 1979-1989. ISI insisted that it was the only intelligence organisation to enter the country and all aid/support had to be funnelled through it : British and American activity largely stopped at the border.

One of Sandy Gall’s cameramen went to Hekmatyar’s camp in the mid to late 80s and discovered them shouting ” Anti- Soviet slogans as as to Death to America ” which was a great surprise. Consequently, there was a rise in anti-western sentiment amongst certain Pashtun goups from the end of the 80s, which is a result of Saudi/ Wahabi/Salaafi involvment and was capitalised upon by the Taleban and ISI. The decline of Sufi and rise of Salaafi influence is part of the problem. While in Pakistan, most of the religious education for the Afghan refugees was largely Salaafi in outlook due to the extensive Saudi financial support. The Pakistani lorry drivers who travelled to Central Asia urged their government to support the Taleban as they reduced violence. The lorry drivers have a significant political clout in Pakistan.

Many of the OBL supporters/ Salaafis view the Hazaras( speak Dari) as apostates.
Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance was a Tajik and spoke Dari a dialect of Farsi. The idea of Massoud inviting OBL back to Afghanistan seems far fetched.

Mehdi may be wrong, and indeed may be a belligerant idiot, but that doesn’t make him an “anti-Western obsessive” who is “defending the Taliban by any means necessary”.

I suggest you take that slanderous shit back to harry’s place

87. Coventrian

A couple of quibbles.

Conor writes, ‘Afghanistan had also suffered two foreign invasions before 2001: the first by the Soviets, the second by a militia that was created, trained, armed and funded by the Pakistan Secret Services, called the Taliban. The latter were and are a fascist, fundamentalist group who believe that Pushtuns are a ‘master-race’ destined to rule over Afghanistan’s ‘lesser people’. ‘

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taliban#Explanation_of_ideology

‘Taliban have been described as both anti-nationalist and Pushtun nationalist. According to journalist Ahmed Rashid, at least in the first years of their rule, they adopted Deobandi and Islamist anti-nationalist beliefs and opposed “tribal and feudal structures,” eliminating traditional tribal or feudal leaders from leadership roles.’

and as Orwell wrote,

http://orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc

‘It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.’

The problem with the misuse of the term ‘fascist’ (e.g. ‘Islamofascism’) is that every conflict is framed as a rerun of WW2 and every enemy of the West becomes the new Hitler. (Nasser, Idi Amin, Saddam, Noriega, Milosevic, Bin Ladem, etc. etc.)

There are lots of unpleasant people in the world. Calling them all ‘fascists’ just removes the last vestige of meaning from the term (and dilutes the accurate label for the BNP) and closes down debate.

As for Conor’s support of the invasion of Afghanistan, liberals like him think they can pick and choose which wars they support (Kosovo, Afghanistan) and which they oppose (Iraq). The problem is that they are all the same war.

Coventarian: you have obviously not read my views on Kosovo!

89. Coventrian

Conor, I know you were against the Kosovo intervention. I was talking about liberals like you, most of which were all for bombing Belgrade and calling Milosevic the new Hitler.

It is typical of such liberals that their concern for those they seek to liberate by bombing doesn’t last much longer than the campaign. Kosovo Albanians are ruled over by gangsters, now face 50% unemployment and still can’t get regular electricity. They will care even less about Afghans after the inevitable retreat.


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