“It seems that the U.S. and NATO cannot imagine any other options for getting out of Afghanistan other than to kill their way out or buy their way out,” Fabrizio Foschini, who is with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, tells me.
Under Petraeus, the U.S. tried the strategy of killing their way out, with the night raids being a prime example of this approach, he explains. “They’ve killed a lot of people, some innocent, some guilty. It has not made for good public relations with Afghans. And the insurgency did not collapse; in fact, the kill or capture operations are often cited as a major grievance, especially among people in rural communities in the south. These tactics are a huge factor in the increased grassroots support for the insurgency. The U.S. may have temporarily weakened the command and control functions of the Taliban. But they cannot kill all the insurgents.”
Now, he says, the U.S. is trying the other approach: to buy their way out, as exemplified by a new program in rural areas called Afghanistan Local Police, or ALP. “The U.S. is creating community-based groups designed to increase security on the ground, while at the same time using the program to persuade Taliban members and other disaffected persons to change sides and support the government. But the ALP often behave like militias. Rural communities are reporting rapes, killings, extortion and other crimes by the ALP. And,” Fabrizio declares, “without U.S. forces, the Afghanistan government might not be able to control the ALP.”
The Afghanistan Communist government tried the exact same thing in the late 1980s, he explains; arming locals in an attempt to dilute ideological opposition, the government ended up creating militias. Three years after initiating the program, the government ran out of money with which to pay the local armed groups it had built and funded. No longer getting paid, these local militias joined with the Mujahideen and destroyed the country in a violent civil war that caused untold numbers of deaths. The war lords holding power in the government today are beneficiaries of that program, and Fabrizio worries that history is repeating itself.
“If you take people who are active against the state, give them official authority without proper vetting or training—all that does is increase their power. The communities assess these groups differently from the military,” Fabrizio adds drily.
Reconciliation and Transitional Justice
The key buzz words in Afghanistan related to peace are “reconciliation” and “transitional justice.” The ALF program is seen by the U.S. as part of “reconciliation,” that is, persuading insurgents to change sides. Transitional justice means creating mechanisms to address past human rights violations.
In Afghanistan, these two concepts are often diametrically opposed.
A human rights worker explains the dilemma. “Justice and peace are linked,” he says. “You cannot have a stable peace without justice.” He then points out that the Taliban have committed massacres and that everyone in the country—including him—has lost family members and been victimized in other ways by the Taliban. “If the Taliban join the government,” he says, “how can the Afghan people support it?” And yet “reconciliation” seems to be heading in that direction.
When I ask another analyst about justice and reconciliation, he says flatly about both, “There is none. These are all pretexts to spend money. It’s all fake.” This is something I have heard from several people—that the $50 million the U.S. spent on the big “Peace Jirga” last summer was another giant rip-off.
This analyst sees the various international players–especially Pakistan, Iran, India, and the U.S.—as much more important than the Taliban in determining the outcome of the war. “They are fighting each other in Afghanistan. For example, Iran is providing guns and training to the Taliban to foil the U.S. Meanwhile, Pakistan sees the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as counter to its interests, particularly since India provides support to a Baluch minority in southwest Afghanistan and Pakistan views this as a cover for Indian activities in support of Baluch rebels inside Pakistan. So, Pakistan supports the Taliban as a way to counter Indian influence. The Taliban are puppets, tools. Those playing the game are sitting outside. So, how can a peace conference reach a settlement if it includes only Afghans? The war is not about a few local Taliban fighters. Unless you involve all the international stakeholders and resolve the issues among them, you will not achieve any kind of peace.”
And “transitional justice”? A human rights group that is trying to gather information on past massacres worries about personal safety and desperately tries to maintain a low profile. With the massacres having been perpetuated by current government ministers and police commanders, it is remarkable that employees of this organization have so far escaped major retribution—a staff member was, in fact, arrested because of his work to uncover the truth about one massacre, but the organization was able to get him freed. Transitional justice is a nice concept, but in Afghanistan, that is all it is.
What About Women?
Women, of course, constitute half the population of Afghanistan. Their oppression under the Taliban government was used by the Bush administration as a way to garner sympathy and support for the war. At first, women seemed to have benefitted from the invasion. In Kabul, anyway, following the overthrow of the Taliban, women could leave the house without being accompanied by a male family member, work outside the home, and go to school. In the rest of the country, though, very little changed for women.
“Reconciliation” is viewed with alarm among women in Kabul; they worry that the limited human rights they now have will be taken from them if the Taliban joins the government. In fact, the Taliban has set three preconditions that the government must agree to prior to any discussions taking place:
- Women must not be allowed to go to school;
- Women must not be allowed to go out of the house unless accompanied by a man; and
- All foreign troops must leave the country.
Women I spoke with in Kabul emphasized that support for the basic human rights of women on the part of the Afghan government is extremely shallow. A high proportion of both the legislators and the ministers are former war lords and Mujahideen, and their views on women differ very little from those of the Taliban. One women’s advocate told me that Afghan government leaders say they support human rights for women only because of the desire to continue the flow of international money. As soon as the money dries up, the “support” for women will disappear.
Reconciliation at What Price?
The killing of Osama bin Laden has brought with it stronger calls from the U.S. government for talks with the Taliban and for “reconciliation.” But the people of Afghanistan that I have spoken with are worried that they will be sold out once again in this process, and that the peace they long for will be purchased at the price of justice. If that proves to be the case, how shameful for the U.S. and how tragic for the people of this benighted land.