Good news from Afghanistan
Friday, October 7, marks the 10th anniversary of the US- and British-led armed intervention in Afghanistan, launched in the aftermath of 9/11. This week, research by two leading British aid agencies working in Afghanistan sheds important light on the uses of armed intervention on foreign soil, specifically on the need to hear the voices of those who tend to be utterly ignored in theatres of conflict – women.
Oxfam and Action Aid said 86% of the 1,000 Afghan women they interviewed were worried that an agreement with the Taliban could deal a blow to the gains made by women in recent years. Nearly three-quarters felt things had improved for women since 2001, and 37% feared the departure of international troops.
Here is a summary of this timely and important report.
It’s timely because it adds real, on-the-ground support for countries such as India who have been warning against a hurried troops withdrawal by America and Britain. The latest warning came last week from Hardeep Puri, New Delhi’s envoy to the United Nations and a man known for his plain speaking: “For peace, stability and security in Afghanistan, it is imperative that the ongoing transition must be linked to the ground realities rather than rigid timetables. This, the international community in its hurry to withdraw from a combat role in Afghanistan, will ignore at its own peril.”
There is a debate happening in Britain too, but it seems to be more about Britain – about the limits of liberal intervention – than about Afghanistan. Where this debate does deal with Afghanistan and Iraq it is to illustrate the failures of intervention. The obvious examples are Basra (Iraq) and Helmand (Afghanistan).
The debate has been informed in part by three recent books – ‘Losing Small Wars: British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan’ by Frank Ledwidge; ‘Can Intervention Work?’ by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus; and ‘The Art of Betrayal’, a study of the British secret service by the BBC’s excellent security correspondent Gordon Corera.
According to Ledwidge, a former senior military intelligence officer, Basra and Helmand were complete failures – the biggest British defeats since World War II and Malay. In Basra, the British decided to hand over control to Islamic fundamentalists and local warlords, with the result that today there are no Jews and Christians left there – all have fled. The Brits then left it to the Americans to sort out the mess.
When Ledwidge recently asked about returning to Basra to conduct further research, he was told he wouldn’t last half an hour on the streets of Basra.
It was the Basra debacle, he says, that led British generals to decide to try and make a fist of it in Helmand and wipe out Basra’s stain on their reputation. But in Helmand the British army today is portrayed by the militants as an imperial force.
Of the three authors, Rory Stewart is a man who can make you sit up with his passionately-espoused views against intervention. He has a formidable CV: an Oxford graduate, a former officer in the British army’s Black Watch regiment, former diplomat and now a Tory MP. Between 2000 and 2002, he walked nearly 10,000 km across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Nepal and India, and then wrote an award-winning book. So he must know a bit about the region.
Stewart points to the failure of the media to tell the bad news. “Everyone wants to believe the good news.” Generals, who apparently outnumber tanks in the top-heavy British army, have declared every year as the “decisive year” in Afghanistan since 2003. Stewart calls it “an incredible delusion.”
The problem is that this debate is taking place in the context of the Western troops pullout from Afghanistan. It is important not to confuse Ledwidge’s “small wars” with the bigger picture. Ten thousand American troops are set to return home by the end of the year and all 33,000 sent in the 2009 surge will be pulled out by September 2012, according to President Obama.
Handover to Afghan forces is set for 2014, by when the bulk of the remaining troops will have been withdrawn. Britain, the second largest contributor to Afghan force, has already started to withdraw troops and is expected to complete the process by 2015.
The chain of news about both the interventions – Iraq (done and dusted) and Afghanistan – is unremittingly bad, the latest being the attempt by Islamabad to flex its muscle and talk tough with Washington.
Which is why the report – the good news – from Action Aid and Oxfam is so important for all who care about building a stable and secure Afghanistan. Unfortunately, when it comes to listening to voices from conflict zones, those of armed militants tend to dominate, hammered home by brazen acts of terror such as the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani.