School poisonings and other psychological sicknesses
As a child, I often imagined I would die in front of my family or class mates and they would express their love to me and grieve over my dead body. This thought gave me a lot of satisfaction and even though I never really wished to be dead, just thinking I could be close to death assured me that I was loved and cared for.
By Tim Foxley
Summary: The Taliban release 8 Turkish prisoners. Their intention is unclear – short-term hearts and minds effort, incoherent command and control or longer-term confidence building for talks?
The Taliban announced last week that they had released four of the eight Turkish civilians that they captured on 22 April when a Turkish transport helicopter crash landed in a Taliban area. This was the Taliban statement:
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan released 4 out of the 8 Turkish prisoners showing its good will, human and Islamic sympathy and regard for the Muslim Turkish Nation who were apprehended sometime ago by Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate. The remaining 4 persons will also be released in the near future. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan anticipates that the Turkish government will reciprocally express its good will and will take such measures which will consequently result in bringing the Afghan and Turkish Muslim masses close to each other and amplification of the devout brotherhood between them.
On Wednesday the 15th the Taliban apparently released the other four Turks. The Russian, Kyrgyz and Afghan who were captured at the same time appear to remain in Taliban hands.
In March this year, the Taliban released a Turkish engineer:
Afghan Taliban on Saturday released Turkish technician Sertac Dikilitas thanks to efforts made by the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT). 30-year-old Sertac Dikilitas was abducted by Taliban on January 9, 2011 while on his way to Kabul from Jalalabad. Sources said that Dikilitas was brought safely to the Turkish Embassy in Kabul on Saturday and he was expected to arrive in Turkey on Sunday. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday phoned Sertac Dikilitas’ mother Nursel Dikilitas and gave the Dikilitas Family the good news on the release of Sertac Dikilitas.
Analysis and Outlook
Prisoner treatment and exchange can form the base of some major confidence building measures. But it is always a little difficult to understand what messages the Talban are trying to send out in their deeds and words, perhaps betraying uncertainty or dispute within the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership and its command and control over constituent groups inside Afghanistan. It is clearly of some encouragement to the international community that the Taliban understand, at some level at least, the value of humane treatment for at least some of their prisoners. But their approach is erratic and inconsistent. In 2007 they executed two captive South Korean missionaries. Captured Afghan soldiers and police cannot be assured of the more humane treatment often accorded to western captives. In December 2011 a British soldier was captured, tortured and executed.
In the broader picture, the Taliban take the treatment and fate of their own prisoners very seriously – whether in US bases such as Guantanamo or Bagram, or Afghan sites such as Pol-e Charki prison. They regularly appeal to international humanitarian organisations.
They have made numerous statements to this effect:
“The Islamic Emirate channeled the voice of the oppressed prisoners in Guantanamo to the world and the media two months earlier who had taken up a hunger strike to protest the desecration of the Holy Quran by the American barbaric guards…”
24 March 2013
“It has now been forty days since inmates in the notorious Guantanamo prison commenced their strikes. The strikes started in protest of desecration of the Holy Quran and abuse of prisoners by the American wardens. The demands of the inmates have not been yet been answered and neither has the media or the humanitarian organizations inquired about their plight despite the continuation of barbaric and inhumane treatment of the prisoners. The Islamic Emirate strongly urges all human right organizations and media outlets spread awareness about the plight of the destitute inmates in accordance with their due obligation. Inhumane treatment of prisoners is crime against humanity which should never be overlooked and neither should its perpetrators be helped in its cover up.”
21 November 2012
“Officials of Kabul administration have sentenced to death a number of inmates from Pul-e-Charkhi prison and have been carrying executions for the past two days now. We have obtained credible reports that some political prisoners of Islamic Emirate have also been added to the mentioned list, who in reality are not criminal prisoners but prisoners of war.
Since executing war prisoners is an action contradicting every civil law therefore the Islamic Emirate is gravely disturbed and regarding it urges the United Nations, Islamic Conference, International Red Cross and every other international human right organization to prevent this action of the Kabul administration because, may Allah forbid, if such a plan was in the works then as representatives of human rights, they should not remain neutral and immediately assist in its prevention.
If the mentioned plan was to materialize where our war prisoners are executed then it will surely carry with it a heavy repercussion for the lawmakers, courts and other related circles of the Kabul administration whereby no side will have the right to object and point fingers at us. To end, we call on all the media outlets to also fulfill their roles and dissipate the call of the innocence of the oppressed prisoners from the country’s prisons.”
They have also launched numerous military assaults against prison establishments to secure the release of fellow Taliban:
3 April 2013
Suicide bombers disguised as Afghan soldiers stormed a courthouse Wednesday in a failed bid to free more than a dozen Taliban prisoners in western Afghanistan, officials said. At least 44 civilians and nine attackers were reported killed in the fighting.
8 June 2012
Many escape from Afghan prison after Taliban attack. At least 14 prisoners, including insurgents, are still at large after militants attacked a jail in the Afghan province of Sar-e Pol, officials say. Three inmates were killed and 28 injured in gun battles between prison guards and Taliban fighters late on Thursday night. About 30 prisoners fled but officials say they have recaptured 16. There have been several high-profile Afghan jail-breaks in recent years, raising questions about security.
24 April 2011
Taliban fighters escape in mass Afghan prison break
Taliban insurgents dug a 1,050-foot (320-metre) tunnel underground and into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents have claimed.
My sense is that this could well be an attempt by the Taliban to reach out in some way as part of a building of confidence in the context of talks. If so, the message is, as ever, significantly obscured by their continual official language (and actions) of violence. A more limited goal might be to alleviate the recent negative publicity the Taliban are acquiring – IED strikes against civilians remain a problem for the Taliban “hearts and minds” efforts and a recent attack by the Taliban against a courthouse in Farah which killed 50 and injured 100, mostly civilians.
The Taliban appear to recognise that they are struggling with some aspects of their PR campaign – as demonstrated by the vitriol they direct via their website to those who report upon their violations – the UN, Human Rights Watch and the world in general. There may even be a deeper, unspoken, recognition that they are clearly not attracting the levels of support that the anti-Soviet Jihad could lay claim to. Official statements frequently rail against “media trickeries” of the Western press. They may calculate that a prisoner release is an easy “quick win”, a little dose of positive press for a change. Releasing Turkish fellow Muslims makes sense if the goal is a limited publicity push (a Russian, Kyrgyz and Afghan remain unreleased). The Turkish engagement in Afghanistan since 2001 has been relatively uncontroversial: neither provocative, bloody or pushy. This makes it easier than dealing with, say, the UK or US. But if their ambitions were broader, they could perhaps rapidly seize the media initiative – and even some high ground for talks into the bargain – by unilaterally releasing the US military prisoner, Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in June 2009. But it works both ways – if confidence building is to be achieved, the Afghan government would need to demonstrate that it is genuinely trying to improve what, by most accounts, are some pretty brutal regimes and conditions in its prisons.
By Tim Foxley
Summary: Mark Duffield’s talk at DIIS bemoans the slow loss of “ground truth” in humanitarian operations and introduces new thinking and concerns over the role new technology (e.g. GPS, Geospatial technology, computer-based mapping, satellite…) is playing in increasing the distance between aid workers and the realities of those in need of aid.
Mark Duffield, Emeritus Professor of Development Politics at Bristol University, has provided much provocative analysis and critique on the evolution and current issues surrounding the application of development aid by (predominantly) Western nations operating in failed state areas of the (predominantly Third) world. In his “Development, Security and Unending War”, he looked at the macro-level; the post-colonial concepts behind, and the diverse applications of, development aid across large parts of the world. I took his ideas and those of Peter Uvin to look at the militarisation of development in Afghanistan.
At DIIS he gave a talk about what he described as the rise of “cyber-management” in humanitarian affairs. He said that this was a new area that he had started to look at and was just developing his ideas. He sketched out the notion that aid workers were increasingly confined (or confining themselves) to protected compounds and making greater use of high tech tools to map, understand and solve humanitarian problems, such as a refugee crisis. He suggested that “Remote Management” was in part due to the desire to reduce exposure to risk and leads to an increasing the number of layers of local intermediaries between the humanitarian worker and those in need of aid. International managers of humanitarian aid were increasingly based outside the country of concern and working through locally recruited staff and other intermediaries. The result is an increasing dependence on technology over “ground truth”.
Geo Spatial information: The concept for collection, information extraction, storage, dissemination, and exploitation of geodetic, geomagnetic, imagery (both commercial and national source), gravimetric, aeronautical, topographic, hydrographic, littoral, cultural, and toponymic data accurately referenced to a precise location on the earth’s surface. These data are used for military planning, training, and operations including navigation, mission planning, mission rehearsal, modeling, simulation and precise targeting. Geospatial information provides the basic framework for battlespace visualization. It is information produced by multiple sources to common interoperable data standards. It may be presented in the form of printed maps, charts, and publications; in digital simulation and modeling databases; in photographic form; or in the form of digitized maps and charts or attributed centerline data. Geospatial services include tools that enable users to access and manipulate data, and also includes instruction, training, laboratory support, and guidance for the use of geospatial data. Also called GI&S.
Duffield presented the idea of “resilience” – the ability of Third World communities to be self-maintaining and self-repairing in a crisis – as a “neo-liberal business plan”.
Duffield noted the increasing emergence of military technology into the public domain. It was becoming easier, with the Web 2.0 revolution, for organisations to cheaply access technology that was developed in the end of WWII and during the Cold War by the military – particularly satellite imagery:
- 1993 saw military GPS systems opened up to the civil sector
- 1994, Bill Clinton declassified much military imagery (with DOD retaining “shutter control”)
- Late 1990s – UNHCR started to use satellite imagery to look at refugee camps
- 2001 – US military agreement with civilian sector
But humanitarian sector lacked funding and expertise to take full advantage of Geo-Spatial Technology (GST). Duffield is concerned that people in a humanitarian crisis are now being reduced to the role of an environmental problem – technology now mapping the nearness of water, firewood, viable transport routes, etc. Refugee camps and refugees are now part of the environment and human beings as biological organisms.
IDPs part of the environment
He noted, as an example, Darfur, which was increasingly dangerous for aid workers, with a volatile IDP population. GST was reducing the need for ground truth in areas that were too dangerous. Duffield’s major concern was that this new technology was normalising the absence of ground truth – it was becoming increasingly acceptable. In this way, GST was simultaneously “solving” the problem of remoteness by providing an alternative solution but also reinforcing remoteness.
There is therefore a tension here – GST is clearly helpful – it helps international organisations predict IDP patterns, identify suitable sites for refugee camps, routes in and out, resources to aid and assist (water, firewood…). The vision midway through the first decade of the 21st century was of increasing command and control centralisation – now perhaps this is giving way to decentralised control. Google Earth emerged in 2005 and is a viable planning tool for most humanitarian planning needs (UNHCR collaborated with Google Earth Outreach – Darfur was the biggest visualisation project thus far). The public are now able to access information as well – but does it really give people a genuine “intuitive understanding” of what is happening on the ground?
“Face to Face” is being replaced by “Face to Screen”
There is a “cyber-optimism” being pushed by technological experts (Silicon valley expertise that does not understand humanitarian issues and sees the state as absent) that it is possible to create self-managing, self-organising aid efforts at the local level. “Big Data” was now a major part of the Military/Industrial/Academic complex. But the “cyber business plan” was now having to deal with a data deluge – information was getting “younger” – the humanitarian community and the general public are now able to access near-real time information – paralleling the military desire for and efforts towards “Total Battle Space Awareness”. There is a growing assumption that “face to face” is equal to “face to screen”.
Technology is now promising immediate and nuanced information to assist policy decisions for humanitarian aid – but the humanitarian community needs to think carefully before buying into it.
Anders Ladekarl (Sec Gen for Danish Red Cross) was the discussant and made the following observations:
- These tools have thus far been under-utilised
- Loss of innocence with the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad
- Will it really make traditional humanitarian work redundant? GST might improve the way we do things
- Syria is now the most prominent example of remote humanitarianism
Questions, Answers and Discussion
How to distinguish between civilian and military data is difficult
Duffield: “Post Language cultures” – with these new technologies we are moving into an environment where move and more issues are primarily visualised – we are losing the value of language. Neo-liberalism is aiming for the Third World to be totally self-repairing
An NGO representative noted: we are using remote management because we have to, as a last resort before closing down a relief operation as too dangerous.
Duffield was asked – what is your point? Should NGOs be using this technology or not? I suggested to him that the technology is already here, like it or not – it might be instructive to look at the positive and negative experiences of the military – given they have had the lead in this field – to extract lessons. Duffield said he was not a Luddite (i.e. resistant to technology) but suggested there were alternatives. He drew parallels with the period of colonial rule, where political officers lived in the country for years, learnt the language and understood the culture. He contrasted this with the modern aid worker, who did a six month tour and was required to have PR and IT skills but not language. Six month tours are not sufficient.
Duffield is interested in the history of camouflage – camouflage techniques got better in response to improvements in aerial photo reconnaissance. In this modern GST environment it is possible for people to hide (terrorists?) or get lost (refugees?) in “data exhaust” – in cities people can disappear into the data environment if GST is relied upon.
One comment suggested that surely the hope and object of the humanitarian aid effort was not to have to still be there in five years and therefore language skills were not so necessary. Duffield replied that the aid “industry” (I am pretty sure that was the word he used) needs to acknowledge that it is in these countries for the long haul and start learning languages.
Very interestingly, he cited an example of an Afghan NGO working in Afghanistan for civilians and military alike. He said that the Afghan NGO confessed they preferred working with the military because the civilian NGO was much too interested in finding the data that fitted their narrative!
Duffield: “I am exercised by these issues of remoteness”.
By Tim Foxley
Summary: More evidence of poorly planned, un-sustainable and wasteful international reconstruction activity in Afghanistan
I have documented a few examples of where the construction, development and aid have been spent poorly in Afghanistan over the 12 years since 2001. In essence, money has been thrown into the country with apparently little understanding of the longer-term sustainability of such projects, which include, roads, schools and, now, hospitals. Although such projects look good and feel good, after international attention moves on, the projects start to look precarious – too expensive, not suited to the needs of local Afghans, high maintenance costs or no planning for maintenance requirements, and corruption and contractors both skimming off huge chunks of the value of the project.
I mentioned Canadian overall efforts in southern Afghanistan here (“All the projects have failed. None of them have been successful,”)
A new report has arrived from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – who
“…provides independent and objective oversight of more than $89.5 billion provided to implement reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. SIGAR’s core value of excellence, independence, and integrity guide its audits, investigations, and inspections.”
SIGAR is becoming adapt at spotting the longer-term problems with reconstruction work – has now focused on the construction by USAID of two hospitals. Their website is worth a look. The report, sub-headed: “Health Services in Afghanistan: Two New USAID-Funded Hospitals May Not Be Sustainable and Existing Hospitals Are Facing Shortages in Some Key Medical Positions”, looks damning:
Gardez in Paktiya province and Khair Khot in Paktika province—currently being built with USAID funds. USAID’s $18.5 million investment in these new hospitals may not be the most economical and practical use of these funds. First, USAID did not fully assess MOPH’s ability to operate and maintain these new facilities once completed. Second, construction began on the new hospitals about 1 year before USAID coordinated the final design plans with MOPH. USAID’s late coordination resulted in the construction of facilities that are larger—Gardez hospital is 12 times larger than the facility being replaced—than can be sustained, and increased estimated operating costs for the new facilities that are disproportionate to current costs…
…maintenance costs could be over five times more than the annual operating costs for the hospitals they are replacing…neither USAID nor MOPH has committed to provide funding to cover the additional operating costs of the new hospitals. SIGAR also found that some provincial hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages for certain key medical positions. Specifically, four of the five provincial hospitals that SIGAR reviewed to determine whether they met medical staffing standards reported persistent vacancies, some lasting several years…”
Analysis and Outlook
The Time article that carried the hospital story plausibly suggests a major cause of the problem. In the last 10 years, in the context of Afghanistan and Iraq, USAID had a 30% staff cut combined with a massive increased allocation of funding for development. The result was that money had to be spent via contractors with little oversight applied. Doubtless more of these stories will continue to emerge. Over 12 years there ought to have been plenty of opportunity for lessons to be identified, learnt and applied. I can’t help worrying about the Afghan army which is expected to carry the burden of holding the state together for the next decade – how much of the billions invested there have been thrown in without real thought to sustainability in the long-term?
By Tim Foxley
Summary: AAN report on the possibility of unpleasant insurgent leader Hekmatyar running in the 2014 Afghan elections – change of heart or cynical repositioning?
All credit to the excellent Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul for having noted and written about the possibility of warlord and insurgent leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his faction of Hezb-e Islami, running in the Afghan 2014 elections. It is something I hadn’t picked up on, but is potentially quite significant and certainly very interesting. I shall have a read and a think…
In a dramatic change of mind, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently announced that his Hezb-e Islami will participate in next year’s election to ‘defeat the enemy’ in the political arena, too. With this statement, he is relinquishing his original position that foreign troops must leave the country prior to any political accommodation between his party and the Afghan government. AAN’s researcher Borhan Osman has talked to Hezbis from Hekmatyar’s party and its splinter groups to learn why this shift in Hekmatyar’s approach has arisen now and what it means for the military and political landscape ahead of the upcoming election. He concludes that Hekmatyar, whose faction has been weakened both militarily and politically over the past twelve years, has no viable option but to gather the scattered former loyalists he once condemned for ‘surrendering to the Americans’ in order to lead them into the election. If Hekmatyar really were to stage a return to non-violent politics, it is in fact highly likely that this would unify the different groups and politicians who were once part of the original Hezb-e Islami. (With additional reporting by Thomas Ruttig.)
My own very brief thoughts: Hekmatyar is a nasty piece of work (and a former Prime Minister), responsible for much of the destruction of Kabul – many war crimes potentially to be laid at his door (I think the Americans still have him down as a terrorist and narrowly missed blasting him with a Hellfire rocket in 2002). He and his group have undertaken many attacks against Afghan and ISAF forces. Hekmatyar has been playing the system very carefully – judging what steps he needs to take to keep one step ahead of a drone strike – promising unending jihad and also hinting at the potential for talks. If he is now calculating that the ballot box is the best way to maximise his chances, it is most likely because he recognises his weak (and weakening) efforts at being an insurgency leader are not bringing him the power and influence that he believes he should have had all along. It is less likely to be because he has had a change of mind and now believes free and fair elections are the way ahead for a bright new Afghan future. Do. Not. Trust. Him.
My other, even less digested, thought, is whether this means anything for the Taliban. It would be nice to think that they might also now follow the lead of HIG and at least be considering some form of ballot box route. But the Taliban remain a powerful and credible insurgency force. Unlike Hezb-e Islami, which has, as AAN notes, a foot in the Afghan government anyway, Mullah Omar has remained true to his commitments thus far and rejects the “puppet” state. It will be interesting to see if the Taliban make any comment.
By Tim Foxley
Summary: Many reports highlight the problems of the Afghan army. Underwritten with Western support, it is perhaps unwise to assume the ANSF is doomed, but it should lose its obsession with high-tech weapons until it really understands what it needs and can afford. The ANSF needs better combat support skills above all, but the real risk to the ANSF is more likely to come from less readily identifiable issues of loyalty and political control.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network highlighted an article by the Wall Street Journal about the problems of the Afghan Army, as it struggles to prepare itself to be able to take on the not-inconsiderable burden of providing for the security of Afghanistan. The article makes some points regarding particular problems, which I would summarise thus:
- The ANSF feel they do not have sufficient high-tech weapons
- The ANSF suffers from poor planning, logistics, communications and coordination
- The ANSF struggle to fight in difficult terrain against guerrilla forces
Analysis and Outlook
I don’t get the feeling that high-tech weapons are the answer, despite the Afghan government’s obsession with them.
“Top Afghan officials have long complained that the U.S. and its allies failed to provide Kabul with enough high-end weaponry to tackle the insurgency. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Washington earlier this year, he arrived with a wish list of military equipment. The recent fighting in the north could help bolster their argument that Kabul needs more warplanes, better artillery and sophisticated surveillance equipment before the coalition is no longer around to call on for support.”
In fact, if anything, low tech seems to be better for the ANSF, given the undeniable low quality of its recruits. I think this is a very misleading distraction from the fact that the ANSF needs, above anything else, to focus on training in all the elements that support combat (ie logistics, command and control, communications, intelligence, medical, planning). I think it is an unhelpful distraction for several reasons:
1. Karzai is a little “overboard” on proving Afghan sovereignty these days. Hi-tech stuff that you can parade around of the “Victory Day” of your choice simplistically and artificially boosts your national confidence
2. Perhaps this is evidence of the “culture of dependency”
3. Perhaps this is evidence of what Thomas Barfield, a highly-recommendable cultural and political historian of Afghanistan, described as the attempt to gain favour, funding or resources by threatening collapse.
4. There is quite macho “war of words” with Pakistan on-going, including border skirmishes – do we really need more weapons floating around the border?
5. I don’t think the Afghan government really knows what it wants for its armed forces, but it is prepared to ask for everything, perhaps with little thought about the future (ie paying for it and all future training and maintenance costs). And many members of the international community will be quite happy to provide whatever weapons Afghanistan wants, perhaps at an initially low cost, particularly if they know that the international community is probably funding it in some way
High tech equipment is for people qualified and trained in its use – in particular how to maintain it. Once you buy in to high tech stuff, you also have to buy in to very long logistics trails of equally hi-tech spares and maintenance packages from which ever nation you are dependent upon. Afghanistan needs an army that maintains, trains, sustains and understands itself first, before asking for bigger and more expensive stuff. I struggle to see that the ANSF and air force will be any better at avoiding civilian casualties than Western troops if they are given the capability to deliver higher payloads. Come back for the high tech stuff in ten years – if they need it (and once they have done a proper defence plan).
But I am not quite sure that the ANSF is doomed – which seems to be the general thrust of the media reports. If your benchmark of quality and capability is measured by a short timeframe and in comparison to Western forces, the ANSF will be found lacking, of course. But surely this force is better placed than Najibullah’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) army that the Soviets left him with in the late 1980s. I don’t have the best sense of DRA capabilities, but, from what I have read, it seems morale was low, equipment poor, low tech and poorly maintained, with high desertion rates. But it held out – after some early wobbles in confidence – against a much larger and more motivated jihad than anything the Taliban are able to generate. My understanding is that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that caused the demise of the DRA, when the millions of dollars worth of food, salaries and equipment simply stopped coming from Moscow.
Isn’t it fair to work on the assumption that Western funding, training and support will probably not collapse spectacularly in the way that the Soviet empire did – even if NATO nations are now counting the pennies much more closely? And we will probably expect to see something like 10,000 Western troops remain in Afghanistan for some years to come, which will provide some credible bracing against collapse.
I am starting to think that the insurgency against the Taliban, although painful, could be manageable for the ANSF, as long as its loyalty and political control remain viable and intact. And this is an area much less focused upon.
By Tim Foxley
Summary: With meaningful dialogue with the Taliban still looking remote, perhaps it is time to question some of the main assumptions…
There has been much debate and comment, supported by very little information, on the subject of dialogue with the Taliban. The talks still appear to be going nowhere – lack of clarity on most issues appear likely to blight the prospects – who is talking, on whose behalf, for what agenda, etc…
It strikes me that there are a few assumptions being made by the media, by governments and even by very prominent regional experts, which it might be worth questioning. I would really welcome any thoughts…
Assumption 1: Why do we assume that a political settlement has to be achieved by 2014?
The deadline is artificial, based on Western desire to get the hell out. If anything, the race for settlement before the end of 2014 highlights two very big, fat, unhelpful negatives:
1. US desire to create something that resembles a settlement in order to declare “victory”. A Bush-ian “mission accomplished” gesture that will almost guarantee a lack of longevity.
2. It confirms, almost by definition, that the Afghan government left behind will be too weak to organise a political solution – or even hold together – all by itself.
Assumption 2: Why do we assume that imposing humiliating talk pre-conditions upon the Taliban, to the effect that, amongst others, they must denounce Al Qaeda, renounce violence and recognise the current constitution, is likely to get the Taliban to the negotiating table?
Shame is surely not a reliable or constructive emotion to rely upon when it comes to delicate peace talks, particularly when it is not really clear to anyone except the ISAF media team that the Taliban have actually been defeated. NATO is the one pulling out and is no longer trumpeting “failure is not an option”. Incidentally, the “avoid humiliating your opponent” motif is something that the Taliban would also do well to pay close attention to…
Assumption 3: Why should we assume that a myriad of local, regional and international actors must all be involved in any settlement and all agree at the same time?
I am thinking of warlords, Afghan government, political factions, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian States, India, China, ISAF, NATO, United States, NGOs, UN, etc. Ahmed Rashid said recently it was encouraging that the Taliban were now also talking to the former Northern Alliance. Why should we think that multiple separate dialogues are a good idea? Trying to get multiple actors to align themselves into the correct permutation might take years. I have much sympathy for Karzai’s complaint that structures parallel to the Afghan government are greatly undermining government prospects. Is there any way it might be possible to press for the exclusion of all except Afghans and a very small team of neutral, recognised international mediation experts? So we have the Afghan government talking to the Taliban with a handful of neutral experts in the room to facilitate. Why is it a good thing that the Taliban are talking to the US (and openly stating that they talk to the US because the Afghan government is a puppet) and not the Afghan government? How is this “Afghan-led”? Isn’t the international community merely confirming that the Afghan government is not legitimate?
Assumption 4: Why should we assume that a political settlement has to be achieved at all?
Or, at any rate, within the next ten years. The conflict is complex and intractable. Perhaps Galtung’s concept of “negative peace”, i.e. an absence of conflict, should be the more minimal goal to be aspired to for the time being? Maybe an absence of fighting might be enough for the first few years, to enable society to rebuild and humanitarian development to take place. Let tempers cool and time heal things a little, before we address decisions about governments, constitutions, balance of power etc. which could be (should be?) postponed on the grounds of too painful, too difficult, too likely to re-trigger conflict. Let’s leave that difficult bit for a decade. Perhaps it would be better if fighting were allowed to die down gradually, amidst various local truces and an absence of western “infidels” to fight. No one has to admit defeat but, after 5, 10 years (or whatever) the incentives for violence have been significantly reduced after significant injections of international economic assistance and efforts to develop the political components of the Taliban.