Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Thomas Hoppe {*}

A Just Peace for Afghanistan?

The International Commitment from the Perspective of Peace Ethics


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2010, P. 181-185
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Are the ISAF troops and the large number of international development workers still able to achieve the essential goals at all, at which their commitment in Afghanistan was originally aimed? Even representatives of the major churches have in the meantime interfered in this broad debate. Can we continue as before supporting this commitment from the perspective of peace ethics?


Since the events in Kunduz in September 2009 the commitment of the international community in Afghanistan has in an unprecedented way become the focus of public attention. The bombing of two hijacked tankers on orders of a German commander, which in addition to the killing of a number of Taliban fighters also caused the death of a significant number of civilians, keeps currently a committee of inquiry of the German Bundestag busy. In the autumn of last year, this action had inter alia resulted in the resignation of the then Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung and the dismissal of the former Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan and of the Undersecretary in the Defense Ministry Peter Wichert.

Not only among experts and a growing number of politically responsible persons but also in large parts of the population, the attention was admittedly no longer exclusively focussed on the circumstances under which it near Kunduz came to the fatal order to go into action. On the contrary, now the question was much more fundamentally put whether the now more than eight years of commitment of members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who are under a UN mandate operating in the country, and the large number of international development workers, who are on behalf of their governments or as representatives of NGOs operating in Afghanistan, still provides sufficient prospects to achieve the key objectives at which their commitment was aimed (see this issue, 207 et seq.)

What mattered here was not only to eliminate the preconditions, so that - as before the attack in New York on 11 September 2001 - the terrorist network Al Qaeda was no longer able to use Afghanistan as an area where global attacks were prepared, and people were trained who were willing to execute them. On the contrary, in a country demoralized by war and civil war, fundamental measures of reconstruction and development should be made possible by inducing structural changes in politics, economy and society. It was necessary to create a public policy, where the protection against violence of all kinds, the establishment of the rule of law and the reliable protection of human rights for all groups of the population, especially women and children could be guaranteed.



There is increasingly doubt that these objectives are achieveable, particularly in view of a significant increase in violence in the country, which is due both to the resurgence of the Taliban and the militias rivaling with them, and which claims an increasing number of lives on all sides. In several countries that participate in the ISAF force, there are concrete plans for a withdrawal of their contingents in the foreseeable future. On 26 February this year the Bundestag admittedly gave its consent to a further extension of the German participation in this mission, but at the same time it became clear in the related parliamentary debate that, according to all probability, the development of the next months will decide how far this position in less than a year will be capable of winning a majority.


Ethical Criteria for Military Interventions

In the meantime even representatives of the major churches were able to make their voice partly repeatedly heard in this debate. Considering central statements of ecclesiastical policy documents on issues of peace ethics, the opinions so far available are, despite all the nuances in detail, linked by a clear skepticism about whether the development in Afghanistan could perhaps require a turning away from views that until now allowed to support the commitment. At its heart, this skepticism is on the one hand fed by the growing difficulties to be successful on the marked political fields of action, and on the other hand by the reasonable concern that the goal of controlling and minimizing the use of force and on that occasion especially to spare innocent people the devastating effects, could increasingly become unattainable by the inherent dynamism of the current conflict.

At the same time the positions of both churches clearly oppose the view that the mission in Afghanistan was already from the beginning lacking in legitimacy, because it was - at least where it went beyond a direct or short-term fight against terror - an illegal interference in the internal affairs of an other country, which mirrored neo-colonial thinking. This kind of argument, referring to cultural reasons [kulturrelativistisch], is currently found mainly at the right and left-wing fringe of the political spectrum, in which the Afghanistan debate takes place.

Already in their paper "A Just Peace" of September 2000 the German bishops had worked out certain ethical criteria with which international operations must comply. They are substantiated by the need to protect people "from foreign despotism and violence" (No. 150). In this context they demanded, "Every military intervention must be linked to a political perspective that aims for more than merely a restitution of the former status quo. It is not enough to surmount existing injustice. The aim must be to prevent it re-occurring in the long-term. This is generally only possible when the political framework conditions are altered. (...) Success in dealing with post-conflict situations also contributes towards the prevention of new tensions and their potential for escalation into new outbreaks of violence." (No. 159 f.) What has been achieved in this respect? What are the causes of the existing shortcomings? And what are the political options for action to overcome them?

First, it should be noted that the efforts, both of the international community and of a large number of non-state actors, to contribute to the consolidation of the living conditions in the country have reached a quite impressive extent. This is too often overlooked or at least too lowly assessed, due to the focusing on, partly even fixation about the military aspects of the commitment in Afghanistan.

The mere fact that it was possible to build thousands of schools has enabled several million children - more than a third of them girls - to use elementary education opportunities. More than three-quarters of the Afghan population could be opened the access to basic health services. Great efforts were made to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, especially in the fields of transportation and water supply. Today's Afghan constitution is based on key legal principles that are indispensable for the effective human rights protection, even though not a few passages of the text reflect the difficulties in harmonizing Western legal thinking with the traditions of an Islamic society based on tribal structures. In the military sector much was done in detail in order to improve the actual regional security situation - often a crucial condition for the success of civil projects.


Afghanistan is Still one of the Poorest Countries in the World

In contrast to these indisputable successes, however, there are in many places serious shortages and mismanagement, which affect all the aforementioned fields of action of the international mission. Up to this day it is difficult to develop a coherent overall strategy, because the participating nations think that the necessary tasks mean partly different things. It is largely uncontroversial that investing in the military field binds disproportionately much more resources than they are until now available for the civil reconstruction, although most of the tasks arising in Afghanistan have to be coped with in the civilian sector. Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world, particularly in rural areas there is often a precarious food situation.

By some compromises with the power- or clientele interests of local players the opportunities have been reduced that development projects could produce sustainable results.



In addition, problematic dependencies on the goodwill of such actors were created, who until recently are often responsible for many violent crimes.

The country-wide growing presence of Taliban fighters and other armed groups contributes to a steady reduction in public safety and the increase in fighting even in regions that were previously considered to be relatively pacified. Uninvolved civilians are increasingly becoming victims of this conflict, not only because of the manifold deficiencies e.g. in the use of unmanned aircraft (drones) by foreign armed forces, but also due to the strategy of the militia: they deliberately take into account the endangerment or death of civilians and try to blame the international troops for it.

Because of their numerical and equipment-related limitations ISAF contingents or Afghan armed forces come increasingly in situations where they can achieve little more than to protect themselves. They are only seldom able to keep the promise of protecting the Afghan population. This applies all the more if battles take place within or near built-up areas and perhaps the locals are used as human shields by the attacking militiamen.

One of the particularly problematical effects of this deterioration of the security situation is that the schooling of children and young people significantly declines, although especially it is of foremost importance regarding a long-term self-sustaining development in the country. The same applies to the decreasing willingness of medical personnel to work in rural areas.

Moreover, the diverse activities in the civilian sector suffer from a lack of coordination and coherence, not infrequently also from a usefull task coordination with the military side, which follows the principle of focusing on the respective "core competencies". That's why their effectiveness all in all remains, particularly in longer-term perspective, below the attainable level. The widespread corruption in the country significantly impedes the targeted use of the available resources. The drug problem is also unresolved. In spite of various provisional attempts, one hardly succeeded in reducing the production to such an extent that it lost its central influence over the economic structures especially in the rural areas. But the financial flows, which make the use of organized violence by various armed groups in Afghanistan fundable, can only in this way be reduced lastingly.

Obvious manipulations in the recent presidential election have further reduced the prestige and influence of the government in Kabul. Moreover, they contribute to the fact that the legitimacy of the mission of foreign troops and civilian workers in the country is questioned.

Not to be underestimated is the political influence of neighbouring countries on the development in Afghanistan: Only some of them - Russia, China, India, the Caucasus republics as the successor states of the former Soviet Union - are for a variety of reasons interested in a stabilization of the country. With regard to other countries there are considerable doubts as to whether an establishment of stable structures in Afghanistan would actually comply with their regional interests.


The Civil War of the Nineties is Still Recalled with Horror

In this situation it is a dangerous temptation more and more to take back the objective of the Afghanistan mission. Thus, the perspective for the withdrawal of foreign troops would admittedly seem more easily achievable, but at the price to accept in the end a situation the victims of which would be those people in the country who were left unprotected to their fate. The political rhetoric of recent weeks increasingly suggests that such an implicit revision of the concept of operations is in full swing.

The statement that one had to say goodbye to the idea of establishing a "perfect Western-style democracy" in Afghanistan is frequently perceived as an expression of new realism. What is regularly left open is the answer to the question to what extent one is prepared to make concessions on key issues such as ensuring public safety and a reliable protection of human rights for all parts of the population. In the worst case, the warlords who are active on the spot or from the neighbouring countries and are often rivalling with each other could essentially dictate the conditions under which the ending of the Afghanistan commitment would take place.

In this context it should be noted that especially older Afghans still recall with horror the huge extent of devastation and human suffering in the civil war after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the early nineties of the last century. It cannot be excluded that Afghanistan, due to the recurrence of such developments, becomes a so-called "failed state", which would again offer particularly appropriate developmental conditions to non-state groups of all kinds, including those of terrorist origin.

The actual failure of the Afghanistan mission would therefore be the loss of policy-making on the part of the players in the country who are co-operating in various spheres of activity with the representatives of the UN mission.



Its impact would go far beyond the specific context of this country; it would directly affect also the question of the prospects of success in continuing its work on an international responsibility to protect, to which the United Nations General Assembly has committed itself in September 2005. Thus, the lessons should be learned from humanitarian and political catastrophes of the recent past, as e.g. the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 or the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995, which found its continuation in the Kosovo war of 1999.

Although the commitment in Afghanistan was originally not substantiated by recourse to this concept, in its practical implementation, however, it contains several of the elements that must play a major role in any possible implementation of the responsibility to protect. Under a perspective of peace ethics such developments, as they currently happen in Afghanistan, must therefore worry us in a clearly different manner than they already do in the traditional analyses of foreign, security and alliance policy.

Both the decisions taken at the London Conference on Afghanistan earlier this year and the reformulation of the strategic military objectives, which are connected with the recent U.S. troop buildup, are looking for ways to protect the commitment there from a disastrous end. In the motion of the Federal Government, which was the basis of the parliamentary decision to extend the deployment for another year, there are already largely reflected those "lessons learned" which result from a view at the above-described shortcomings.

The discussion among relevant experts is determined by headwords such as "good governance", strengthening the fight against drug trafficking, an administrative reform that significantly reduces incentives to corruption and makes possible the report on the use of aid funds, an improved donor coordination in terms of participatory planning, implementation and control of the effects of completed projects.


The Situation must not be Assessed in view of an Early Departure Date

What presently is most important is that the international forces do not allow to be drawn into a hardly manageable spiral of violence escalation. This applies not only because of the consequences that a further intensification of combat operations would entail on the civilian population but also on the members of the ISAF contingents. According to most experts, it is also impossible for a variety of reasons in the classic sense militarily to defeat the carriers of the armed insurgency against the Kabul government. At best their field of action can be reduced to such an extent that they consider negotiations to be preferable to further fights.

For it one has of course to avoid that they get political signals from which they learn that they, if they are waiting for a long time, will be able to achieve their goals with some certainty even without such negotiations, and thus without their own entering into binding and enforceable agreements in a regulated political process which replaces the further pursuit of interests by means of force. This precarious effect seems to be not sufficiently considered there where the assessment of the current situation is solely focused on a possible early date of withdrawal of the foreign players.

Besides negotiations of the outlined kind, an intensification of civil construction work is necessary in areas that could be brought under the control of the Afghan government, so that the living conditions of the people there are noticeably and sustainably improved. One can only in this way succeed in significantly reducing the willingness of the local population - whether it is motivated by sympathy, fear or despair -, to cooperate with violent actors. It is necessary to break the vicious circle, in which due to the lack of public safety many civilian projects cannot be implemented and thus, in turn, the everyday oppressive living conditions and the lack of prospects continue. The forming of adequate police forces in the country who are able to create a reasonably reliable security structure is here of central importance. As you know, especially in this sector the commitment of the international community lags far behind the actual needs.

In the recruitment and training of Afghan police officers as also of the gradually growing Afghan army, it must be of essential importance to impart to them attitude patterns and skills which enable them to control violence and to respect basic human rights also under operating conditions. The same applies to the conditions under which cooperation between the members of the ISAF and the Afghan security forces is expected: If prisoners are foreseeably threatened by abuse and torture, they must not be extradited into such situations, and soldiers who refuse this must be sure that they will be politically and legally protected by the governments which have dispatched them.

Also ISAF has to ensure in its area that the obligation to respect and protect the human rights, which is an essential reason for the deployment, is not de facto disclaimed by the actual implementation of this mission. For with it the claim to legitimacy of one's own actions would lose its credibility at a crucial point. Also from the perspective of a gradual withdrawal of the international contingents from Afghanistan these aspects are of great importance, because there is still in the international community a broad consensus that functioning Afghan security forces are a key prerequisite for it.



Provided that we, not least with the help of neighbouring countries, succeed in stabilizing the seat of unrest at the Hindu Kush to such an extent that a self-sustainable development is possible, the commitment of the international community should nevertheless not end with the departure of their last armed units. The further support to the establishment and development of basic structures of statehood and the continuation of a targeted development co-operation will remain important tasks, which will also in the future require a fair contribution of Germany.

So the current situation in Afghanistan not least sharpens our awareness of the task profile that results in concrete terms from orienting towards the leading perspective of a just peace, in which the Christian churches are connected. They should not be tired of judging also in future the respective current policy by this standard, and also be willing to make their contribution where it can bring about a bit more of this peace.


    {*} Thomas Hoppe (born in 1956) is since 1998 professor of Catholic social ethics at the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg. He is a member of the German Commission Justitia et Pax, of the Research Group on the Universal Tasks of the Church and of the Working Group Europe of the German Bishops' Conference.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'