The Guardian, May 18, 2008
Western failure to grasp the reality of Afghanistan is exacting a terrible cost on the civilian population
The frustrating thing about Afghanistan is how easy it is to be proved right about what is going wrong.
In an article I wrote in 2003, when I was still working in the country, I argued that "good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law are not optional when it comes to rebuilding a country, but an intrinsic part of reconstruction." This week a UN expert made almost exactly the same point when he warned of "staggeringly high" complacency about civilians being killed by international troops and that foreign intelligence units may be carrying out death-squad type killings with impunity.
Professor Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions told a press conference in Kabul on Thursday that international forces have killed about 200 civilians in operations in the past four months, while Taliban and other rebels have killed around 300. Most of the deaths caused by the international troops have been due to their over-reliance on air strikes, but he also said that secret units controlled by foreign intelligence services have also killed civilians in anti-rebel operations; a reference to US special forces.
More than 12,000 people have died in violence since 2006, despite the presence of more than 55,000 foreign troops led by Nato and the US military and nearly 150,000 Afghan security forces.
The Guardian, May 18, 2008
Alston, from New York university, is an independent expert who reports to the UN human rights council in Geneva rather than the UN mission in Afghanistan. He was invited to the country by the government of Afghanistan to undertake a 12 day mission in relation to his mandate. He met a variety of government ministers and military commanders during his trip, but his request to meet the Taliban was rejected by the government. One of his recommendations is that future missions should include meetings with the Taliban to urge them to respect international human rights and humanitarian law.
His other recommendations will be familiar to those who have followed the steady deterioration of the situation in the country over the years. Police killings should be investigated, key figures in Afghanistan's government accused of human rights abuses and corruption must be put on trial. The culture of impunity amongst the country's warlords must be tackled.
Of course none of this is likely to happen, but the report sets down another marker against which the failure of the international community's efforts can be judged. In an excellent summary of what is going wrong and needs to be put right Daniel Korski, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that "the international community must hold the Afghan government and itself to commitments already agreed - such as the vetting process for governors, police chiefs and other senior officials." Nepotism and corruption must be rooted out and steps need to be taken to ensure that the next set of presidential and parliamentary elections are fair.
Korski also argues that "the UN must help the government re-launch outreach to the Taliban and other combatants" and that a peace deal will require a regional dimension. He says that the international community should be prepared to "hold the Afghan government's feet to the fire" to bring about a change of policy.
More than 12,000 people have died in violence since 2006, despite the presence of more than 55,000 foreign troops led by Nato and the US military and nearly 150,000 Afghan security forces. Overall, violence is still rising and military deaths in the first three months of this year were one-third higher than a year ago. As the Economist has noted, the Taliban's change of tactics away from conventional set-piece battles and towards roadside bombs and suicide attacks shows that they have learnt lessons from the insurgents in Iraq.
Five years ago I argued: "The concentration on the 'war on terror' and the attempt to defeat terrorist violence by military means have been a major cause of the current crisis and, paradoxically, helped create the conditions for the Taliban to rebuild support." This did not require any particular insight; as virtually everyone who has visited the country would say the same. The only thing that has changed is that the situation has got worse, year by year by year.
Unfortunately, a large section of opinion in Europe and North America seem to have completely deluded themselves about what is happening in the country and have spent the last five years smearing those of us who object to the policy of "staying the course" as cowards or appeasers. Look at what John Williams wrote here in September 2006 or Nick Cohen said here in November 2007 or Polly Toynbee said here in February of this year. If this is what passes as serious commentary in the mainstream British liberal media, then it is no wonder our decision-makers are so badly informed. The price of their myopia is being paid in innocent lives.
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