Prolonging a Misbegotten Project (03 Apr 2009)

We are “determined to end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country”. This could have been a quote from remarks made this week in The Hague at a special conference on Afghanistan in which 72 countries participated, along with the United Nations. But the line is from a preamble to the Petersberg Accord signed on December 5th 2001 at the Petersberg conference site along the Rhine river.
It did not take long to become clear that the route chosen in Petersberg, paved with good intentions, led the Afghan people straight to hell. On the ground everything changed into its opposite. No conciliation, no peace, no stability, no human rights. Although the Taleban was pushed to the background for a while, the culprits behind the attacks in New York and Washington, which some months earlier had made several thousand victims, disappeared in the caves and tunnels of the Tora Bora mountain range that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have remained untraceable since then. The original aim of the American invasion, apprehending Osama bin Laden and his henchmen “dead or alive”, melted into the haze of the Central Asian underworld roughly at the same time the Petersberg conference offered its results.
Now, almost eight years later, the Taleban has re-emerged and the struggle continues in all its ferocity. President Obama’s team no longer uses the term ‘war on terrorism’, which might point to a recognition that this way of speaking produced a fata morgana, a delusion and no solutions. The previous American administration needed the misnomer for declaring a kind of emergency, enabling it to rescind essential civil liberties. The Americans themselves have, so it is now hoped, been delivered from all that. But the fate of the Afghan people has become only more dismal between Petersberg en The Hague.
At the Petersberg conference it was still Afghans who, in the presence of their country’s UN envoy, settled on how things ought to develop from thereon. There was a steering American hand in the background, to be sure. It prevented a return to power of the Afghan king so as to make room for Washington’s choice, Karzai, who was living in American exile. But judged by the public part of the conference one could still conclude that the clan leaders and warlords had had the last word.
How does The Hague compare to that? President Karzai has found himself this time in the midst of a censorious international community. The warlords at the Petersberg conference were permitted to congratulate themselves as “expressing their appreciation to the Afghan mujahideen who, over the years, have defended the independence, territorial integrity and national unity of the country and have played a major role in the struggle against terrorism and oppression, and whose sacrifice has now made them both heroes of jihad and champions of peace, stability and reconstruction of their beloved homeland, Afghanistan.” This week the gentlemen in question were being held responsible, for much of what has gone wrong, for the corruption, the violence, the drug trade and assorted criminality. Even more so than the Taleban who have returned to the front. The switch marks a new approach of hesitant attempts to start talks with the “moderate” Taleban, which appears to signal a recognition that only with the support of the adversary will any chance arise for improvement in this divided and ravaged country.
In any case, expectations must be adjusted after The Hague conference. While last year November one could hope for a 180 degree reversal in American foreign policy, it is now clear that the Obama team has merely chosen for a bit more, more of the same. The conference participants and the reporters shadowing them parrot each other. There will be more room for civil reconstruction, the military approach must not anymore be so much an exercise on its own.
The proud hosts in The Hague even heard Minister Clinton praise the Dutch contribution as a lesson for the rest, including the United States. The Dutch imagine that order and peace and quiet are spreading over ever more Afghan rural communities like an inkblot, in a resolute fight with the Taleban for the hearts and minds of the population. It may be expected that a good number of inkpots will be emptied to make the inkblot theory of The Netherlands reach its full fruition. Less kicked in doors, more respect for Afghan women during house searches, less cowboy behavior on the part of the apostles of peace. Good intentions galore. In that sense nothing has changed since the Petersberg conference.
When they talked with Americans and Europeans on the banks of the Rhine, some Afghans could perhaps still hope for an international effort to open a route to peace for their country. The vocabulary in use in The Hague can only have reminded them of the platitudes of the past years that have brought nothing but death, mutilation and dire misery.
It is the ‘arrogance of power’, a concept from the late stages of the war in Vietnam, that thwarts the Americans, and with them the international community. Lots of lip service is given to the condition that the survival of Afghanistan is a case for the Afghans themselves. At the same time the grip on the country of alien soldiers is only being strengthened.
Few have better put into words the danger of Western-American fundamentalism for Afghanistan than Anatol Lieven, that remarkable journalist and historian. In his book from 2004, America Wright or Wrong, An Anatomy of American Nationalism, he writes this about features of American nationalism: “They include the belief of the national security elite that its access to intelligence makes it supremely wise and well informed – despite repeated and catastrophic evidence to the contrary. The belief in the democratization of Afghanistan by the mujahideen reflected a messianism rooted in the American Creed but was accompanied by a total ignorance of Afghan history, society, tradition or reality in general.”
The hypothesis that populations of colonised territories were not yet ready for independence dates from the waning years of colonialism. More time was needed to prepare them for it. That hypothesis is now to a wearisome degree repeated when it comes to countries like Afghanistan, that have been disqualified as ‘failed states’.
President Obama and his team have not escaped from this heritage of looking at things. It is this erroneous frame of reference that seduced President Carter to arm the mujahideen even before the Russians had placed one foot on Afghan soil, and that brought President Reagan to support these mujahideen in a maximum way as champions for the cause of the “free West”. That backfired with its creation of militarised Islamic martyrs. The American response to that has intertwined American and European interests in an unholy Afghanistan mess, a misbegotten trend that The Hague promises to prolong.