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Thorsten Hinz {*}

In the Identity Trap

Afghanistan at the Beginning of a Crucial Year


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2009, P. 83-86
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    2009 will be a crucial year for Afghanistan. It is the year in which a new U.S. president wants to set a new course for Afghanistan, and in which the Afghan people elect a new president. The international community of states should now at last allow a positive "Afghanization" and above all redeem its ambitious aid promises.


In his book "The Identity Trap. Why there is no War of Civilizations" the Indian Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen deplores the misconception and danger of categorizing people only according to their culture or religion (Munich 2007). In view of world-wide conflicts, supposedly triggered by cultural and religious differences, he urgently argues for a review and reorientation of the issue of identity and affiliation. He also demands a critical review of terms like globalization, fundamentalism and terrorism which have become common knowledge.

With regard to the current war in Afghanistan Sen's plea is an essential reminder that also helps to understand the events there better. The admonition coincides with the observations of Caritas International, the relief organization of the German Caritas, which gives humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan since the seventies.

One justifies the presence of the Western armed forces in Afghanistan by the terrorist threat which evidently appears in the activities of Al-Qaeda and Taliban. It is on the one hand this argument of terrorism and threat that led to the largest and most expensive deployment of the Bundeswehr outside of Germany: by now about 4500 soldiers and female soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan. The German and other governments involved in the ISAF mandate add the protection and security argument to the terrorism argument.

ISAF, i.e. "International Security Assistance Force", denotes the military mandate of resolution 1386 enacted by the UN Security Council in late 2001 after the fall of the Taliban in order to protect Karzai's transitional government. At that time the UN mandate included 5000 soldiers. After the defeat of the Taliban regime the interim government, which had been appointed in December 2001 on the Petersberg near Bonn, and the Afghan civilian population ought to be protected and accompanied on its way of a new beginning, reorganization and reconstruction. The growing escalation of events in today's Afghanistan makes it indispensable that we anew recall and critically review those two basic arguments.

In dealing with the terrorism resp. threat argument one quotes time and again the SPD politician Peter Struck



who as defence minister in the cabinet of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer had declared that the "German freedom had to be defended in the Hindu Kush". The presence of the Armed Forces was an important contribution to preventing future terrorist attacks in the Western world. Struck's argumentation, which caused surprise and consternation in wide circles, very clearly describes the position of the German Federal Government, then as now. The large majorities in the Bundestag, by which the Afghanistan mandates have been supported all the years, have to be understood in accordance with that.

In autumn 2008 the Bundestag voted again by a large majority for the extension of the three Armed Forces mandates (to continue the ISAF operation, to continue the participation in the terror measures under the heading "Operation Enduring Freedom" led by U.S. troops and to continue the Tornado operation). These majorities are, interestingly enough, inconsistent with the mood in the German population ascertained by numerous surveys, according to which the majority of Germans clearly opposes the commitment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan. This rejection is less fed by a critical attitude towards the threat argument; it rather comes from the concern that the Bundeswehr could get involved into an endless war that would claim countless victims.

There is no doubt that Al Qaeda is a highly dangerous terrorist network, which has, as can be proved, perpetrated terrible assassinations with numerous victims, especially among the civilian population all over the world. It is also true that Al Qaeda, which was led by Osama Bin Laden, could find shelter in Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban regime. It's true though that with the 11th September 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime the overall situation radically changed. Today Al Qaeda and other global terrorist networks are extremely mobile and flexible structures; they can strike everywhere. They are units which increasingly act without any connection to a hierarchy, which follow no specific command, and which can be formed under specific circumstances in any English or German small town; the London bomb attacks of 7 July 2005 were carried out by such assassins. Also the "Islamist Sauerland Group", uncovered in September 2007, reflects this quite different threat. It is a threat that does no longer need an Afghan or Pakistani back area.

In his numerous books and essays the journalist and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid explains how this "omnipotent threat", or more specific, the "global jihad" started with the collapse of the Soviet empire. At that time it was much easier to locate war and terrorism - which did not necessarily make easier the checking. Of course, also the electronic globalization is of great importance for the globally interlinked terror networks. The Internet offers countless options for virtually meeting, discussing and learning from each other. Designs for bombs and booby traps, appeals to attacks, assassination concepts circulate in large numbers and can relatively easily be found even by computer amateurs with appropriate language skills.

It is also undisputed that in highly conflict and crisis regions such as Kashmir, Palestine, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Colombia or Afghanistan asymmetrical terrorist structures much easier thrive and grow than in stable social and economic conditions.


The Taliban are a Regional, Highly Heterogeneous Movement

In the discussion about the terrorism argument it has after all to be pointed to the fact that the Taliban is a clear regional and quite heterogeneous movement, which is united by two things: First, a radically Sunni coined Islam, as it is taught in the madrassas in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, and secondly the goal to keep Afghanistan free from all foreign domination.

The Taliban groups have no global perspective, and are accordingly suited only to a very limited threat scenario in Western Europe or the USA. The terrorism argument seems therefore to be little suited in order to send German soldiers and female soldiers in a dangerous war with an uncertain outcome.

But the question of the backgrounds for the return of Taliban as a crucial power in today's Afghanistan requires also a critical examination of the second decisive argument for the presence of the West in the Hindu Kush, the protection and security argument, which serves to justify both, the military ISAF mandate and the civilian UNAMA mandate (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan).

The phenomenon of "Taliban" did not end with the Northern Alliance's victory in autumn 2001, which was massively supported by the U.S. forces. Taliban's current return and unfolding of power has an absurd effect on many Western observers, for just the Afghan people should still be very aware of the suffering from the years 1996 to 2001; words like burqa, Sharia or stoning stand for it. But then one oversees that just the disproportionate Western military actions undermine the Afghan people's sense of security, give them the feeling of being occupied, and make them susceptible to Taliban offers.

Here also the collective trauma of the Soviet occupation period (1979 to 1989) has a lasting effect.



The spiral of violence in the fights between ISAF/NATO and OEF units against Taliban and other insurgents, with which in the last eight years thousands of civilians lost their life, does one last thing. Many Afghans feel now back in times of war - a war in which they do not feel to be protected by those who were actually to protect them. They see NATO troops who have barricaded themselves in their camps and barracks and hardly allow contact yet with the civilian population. And finally, the population is confronted with a young, inexperienced Afghan army and police in which corruption, arbitrary violence and defectors are rampant.

The political scientist Astri Suhrke of the renowned independent Norwegian Chr. Michelsen Institute described last year how NATO, which is in charge of the ISAF mandate and considerably exercises it, had itself manoeuvred from the originally intended stabilization and protection role into a war, how a military "light footprint" became a "heavy foot-print", with now more than 50 000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan (A Contradictory Mission? NATO from Stabilization to Combat in: International Peacekeeping, 1.4.2008, 214-236). One of the decisive reasons for this she sees in the increasingly close interdependence of ISAF and OEF mandate.


The Credibility of the West is in Danger Increasingly to Erode

Even if politicians formally and with good reason point to the separation of the two mandates, from the perspective of the Afghan population this separation does no longer exist. People do no longer see any difference between operations in which "terrorists" are being hunted and in which they actually should be protected but have time and again the highest number of victims. Suhrke therefore urgently advises NATO in future to avoid major combat operations and offensives, if it does not want to forfeit the last vestiges of trust and hope in the civilian population. Above all large air attacks should be avoided.

In this context statements of high ranking U.S. military officers are fatal who increasingly openly demand a merger of ISAF and OEF mandate, and thus also undermine the actual protection and security mission of ISAF. When the German Tornado reconnaissance aircraft was to be deployed in Afghanistan it was no accident that one of the most critical questions was whether they would rather be of use to the OEF forces than to the ISAF troops.

Some European politicians and officers may be alarmed about the increasing hostility and rejection within the Afghan civilian population. As long as they at NATO level do not put through a return to the "light footprint" and insist on a strict enforcement of the protection and stabilization mission, the credibility of the West will more and more erode. But the fact that also the new U.S. government wants to reproduce the activities from Iraq to Afghanistan - through further massive troop increases and arrangements with local militia - gives little cause for hope. Especially since NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has already praised those plans and called upon the European NATO allies to take part.

But the protection mission can only be successfully fulfilled, if it has a clear Afghan perspective, if in the near future reliable Afghan army and above all police units exist in which the civilian population can put its trust.


Is War a Criterion for the Award of Civil Services?

In the ethnically and culturally highly complex Afghanistan such a perspective can only be realized with the countless local elites. A long and difficult process lies ahead, in which one is to fall back on culturally appropriate concepts such as Jirgas, the traditional meetings to clarify ethical and legal issues, and on other strategies of conflict resolution. This process must not be centralized and has to be carried out with greatest possible participation. It may rightly be questioned whether the international forces are in a position to proceed in such a finely tuned and coordinated way. The critical examination of the two key arguments to legitimize the Western presence in Afghanistan also allows a better understanding of the difficult conditions under which Caritas International and other Western aid organizations try to come up to their humanitarian mandate.

The Afghanistan conference in Paris in June 2008 had called together representatives from 90 countries and international organizations, in order to draw conclusions about the progress of reconstruction, development and stabilization. During the conference also the so-called Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) was introduced. In it the Afghan government has worked out a plan for the key areas of reconstruction until the year 2012. It is true though that until now the Afghan government has been little successful in achieving the objectives of rebuilding and developing the civilian sector through the National Solidarity Program (NSP) and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) in the interplay and with the support of UNAMA and the supporter states.

The vast majority of the population still lives in extreme poverty and has only limited prospects to escape the cycle of poverty and hardship.



In looking ahead at the Paris Afghanistan Conference together with the umbrella organization ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body For Afghan Relief) of the non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan Matt Waldman, the Afghanistan expert of the British aid organization Oxfam has published the study "Falling Short. Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan". The study passes a devastating judgment on the assistance provided so far: 100 million U.S. dollars in daily military costs for the U.S. forces compared to seven million U.S. dollars in daily civilian aid of all donors.

Only 40 percent of the 39 billion U.S. dollars, which the international community of states promised as aid for the years 2002 to 2011, has up to now been redeemed. Countries such as India, Spain or France fulfil only very slowly their promises. The Asian Development Bank too has up to now fulfilled only a third of its promises. In the years 2002 and 2003 the per capita aid for Afghanistan was 57 U.S. dollars per year. This contrasts, for example, with countries such as Bosnia or East Timor, where the annual per capita aid in the first two years of commitment had been 679 U.S. dollars or 233 U.S. dollars.

In the years 2007/2008 it turned out that the Afghan war provinces like Helmand, Zabul, Uruzgan and Nimroz received a per capita aid of around 200 U.S. dollars. But relatively peaceful provinces, on the other hand, which furthermore belong to the poorest in Afghanistan, such as Sari Pul, Daikundi or Takhar received only about 60 U.S. dollars per capita aid in those years. This fact caused the residents of those regions to ask rightly whether war was a criterion for the award of civil services.

In addition it remains alarming that in Afghanistan 4.5 million people are suffering from an extreme shortage of food and drinking water. One million small children and babies are undernourished and have, seen in a worldwide perspective, the worst chances to reach the fifth year of their life. Also in the eighth year of international aid to Afghanistan the childbirth and child mortality is one of the highest in the world. Nearly five million mostly involuntary returnees from the neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran do not know how they can make their daily living and how they can build economic prospects in a country with a destroyed infrastructure.


A Clear Priority to Building the Civil Society and to a Sustainable Development

In recent years the prevailing conditions for humanitarian aid have become increasingly difficult and very much politicized. Humanitarian assistance must time and again insist on its mandate and its independence and, as defined by Amartya Sen, fight against the identity traps that are deliberately or unintentionally set for it. It is, for example, alarming when on the part the Afghan civilian population aid agencies and NGOs are regarded as part of the Western military strategy.

In a position paper of 6 October 2008 the German aid organizations working in Afghanistan therefore consistently demand three things of the international community of states, if one does not want soon to fail in Afghanistan: First, in joint efforts the vicious circle of violence has to be broken and a realistic exit strategy for the military engagement has to be defined. Civilian and military mandates must not be mixed, which in consequence means that the "Provincial Reconstruction Team" (PRT) and the "Provincial Advisory Team (PAT) are to be dissolved.

Secondly, a clear priority of civil reconstruction and sustainable development must become visible financially as well as with the respective activities. Thirdly, all parties are to commit themselves to protect human rights and to encourage reconciliation. This means that the amnesty law is to be withdrawn, which was passed by the Karzai government and supported by the United States. Particularly the cooperation of NATO troops and Afghan government with former war criminals and current warlords cause high frustration within the Afghan civilian population.

These three main requests define a framework in which the humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan could thrive anew and could use its expertise and its proximity to the Afghan people for a better future. Successful humanitarian assistance and development cooperation recognized by the Afghan people are a contribution that all in all puts a better complexion on the reputation of the West.

2009 will be a crucial year for Afghanistan. It is the year in which the new American President Barack Obama wants to set a new course for Afghanistan and in which the Afghan people elect a new president. It is a year in which the international community of states at last should allow a positive "Afghanization" and in which the long announced change of strategy should lead to concrete activities in the areas of coordination, ownership, transparency, security and reconstruction. Afghanistan does no longer need more international troops but money and investment, patience and confidence, coordination and vision - in short, a concerted political will of all the major players. As long as these targets are not credibly got under way, nobody can take responsibility for sending Afghan asylum seekers and refugees back to Afghanistan.

After one of three failed British invasions of Afghanistan Theodor Fontane formulated a lyrical reminder that sounds most topical: "Those who are to listen do no longer hear / the whole army is destroyed / The expedition began with thirteen thousand / One soldier came home from Afghanistan."


    {*} Thorsten Hinz (born in 1965), doctor of philosophy and ethnologist is Afghanistan expert with Caritas International.


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