Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The problem with nation building in Afghanistan

NATO governments have tried to persuade themselves and us that their “mission” in Afghanistan is a benevolent project of “Nation Building” in which they prevent terrorists having a safe base and provide Afghans with “security” and protection against a new Taliban government. Neo-conservatives have also compared the invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq to the overthrow of the Nazis and of the militaristic regime in Japan, both of which were replaced with democracies.

The trouble is that the post World-War Two occupations of Japan and Germany were not nation building at all, because Japan and Germany had both been single states for decades with people who all saw themselves as German (for decades) and Japanese (for centuries). So the nations involved had actually been built long before World War Two even began, in some very bloody wars. There is no existing nation which most Afghans identify with as the group they primarily belong to.

Most Afghans do not see themselves as Afghan first, nor even Pashtun, Hazara, or Tajik. They identify with their own tribe in it’s own valley. This may well not be a sign of backwardness either, but a sign that the central government has never done much for people outside the main cities other than make war on them to try to get them to submit – and send police and soldiers many of whom abuse their power by stealing and worse.

US intelligence analysts say that the main enemy in Afghanistan is not the Taliban. The majority of people NATO forces are fighting are not motivated by religious fundamentalism, but are just local Afghans resisting the invasion of their territory by troops from elsewhere according to  these intelligence reports (1).

Recently leaked NATO documents include a revealing interview by NATO officers of a former Taliban fighter, who told them they he had been timber merchants who had first joined the Taliban after being held without trial or explanation by NATO forces. He also said a senior Taliban commander first joined after NATO destroyed his house (2).

Matthew Hoh, a former US marine who served in Iraq as a Captain and also worked as a civilian contractor for the Pentagon in Iraq and in the US embassy in Afghanistan during the current war there, says he initially believed it wasn’t Jihadim but nationalism that motivated most of those fighting the US in Afghanistan. He says he later realised it wasn’t nationalism, but what he calls “valley-ism”. He found that in most of Afghanistan people see themselves as part of the people living in the valley they live in, not any larger group or country. So the problem went beyond sending foreigners into Afghanistan or Hazara or Tajik Afghan troops into Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Any armed force not from the same valley is seen as an outside invasion which must be resisted according to tribal codes, just as Iraqis resisted invasion of Iraq as their country and just as Americans would resist any invasion of their country by foreign forces (3) – (4).

Other driving forces behind people joining those fighting NATO and Afghan government forces include killings of civilians by those forces. For instance a report by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found a strong link between civilian casualties caused by NATO forces in Afghanistan and the number of insurgent attacks on NATO forces in the areas where the casualties had been caused in the six weeks after them (5) – (6).

 (For more on civilian deaths caused by NATO forces (including US led Afghan militias and death squads on the El Salvador model) and by the Taliban in Afghanistan click here)

This shows that in Afghanistan as in other countries in the past actual nation building is not just a process of democratisation or rebuilding economy, state and society, like that in Germany, Japan or even Iraq. It has not been everyone coming together as equals as in Rosseau’s imagined “social contract”.

In every country it has been a process in which one group forces others to submit to them by force in bloody and oppressive campaigns of war and massacre, as English Kings, Queens and soldiers did in Scotland, Wales and Ireland over centuries to form the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’ and French kings did in the Albigensian Crusade in southern France and in campaigns of subjugation in Flanders, Brittany, Aquitaine, Brabant, Burgundy; as well as against the Hugenot Protestant rebels.

The same happened in Germany, which was only unified by a series of wars and getting small principalities so indebted to Prussia that it could buy them over under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in the 19th century.

In Japan there were centuries of bloody warfare over who would be ‘Shogun’ of the whole of Japan (after the previous inhabitants, the ‘Ainu’ had been largely wiped out).

The same happened in the US as European colonists attacked and massacred Indian tribes across America – and then Northern forces did much the same to Southerners in the American Civil War (which, despite being dressed up as being about “liberation” for black slaves in the South was accompanied by lynchings of black people in Northern cities when it was announced black soldiers would be recruited, segregation of military units by race and continuing lynchings and ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws in North and South long after the war was over.

After this process is over then the state indoctrinates generations of children from birth to think of themselves as all “British” or “American” or “Iraqi” and to think of their country as uniquely tolerant, progressive, benevolent and good. This indoctrination is generally quite successful.

I am not arguing that other nationalisms which call for separation from the then established state are necessarily more progressive or less brutal – the wars in the former Yugoslavia showed that every nationalism involved was harmful.

I am pointing out that actual nation building in every country in history has not been a benevolent process in which the majority were peacefully persuaded to become part of the state, but one of oppression and force in which those with more power and wealth imposed their will on others to gain even more power and wealth. There have often been some in the countries being absorbed by force who were in favour of the union – but usually just as many opposed to it and whose acquiescence was only gained by being attacked, fought, having many of their civilians massacred and their lands and property taken.

It would be nice to think that the war in Afghanistan was a unique case, but it’s not. The Karzai government and its police and military are as corrupt and brutal as all the other factions in Afghanistan.

Helping impose a strong central government’s authority across Afghanistan, if continued, will continue to be a process of creating new enemies by invading the territories of local tribes with forces from other tribes, other identity groups (Hazaras, Tajiks and others invading lands populated by Pashtuns) and foreigners invading Afghanistan and killing people who resist the invasion. It will continue to involve accidental killings and deliberate massacre of civilians, jail without trial on mere suspicion and torture, creating new enemies or “insurgents” in a process that could go on for decades.

We can try and persuade ourselves this is a benevolent process on the grounds that our government and military are surely basically good (when in fact they’re no better or worse than most others) ; and on the grounds that we are giving them the unity and peace we have (forgetting that centuries of war, oppression and massacre actually created unity by force – with the apparently “natural” unity which came after it only being achieved by a subtle life-long process of indoctrination over generations).

By invading the lands of Afghan tribes and killing them if they try to resist the invasion we are not promoting democracy, but it’s opposite. Once a relationship between government and people based on the people obeying or being killed is established it will take decades or centuries to reverse and democratise.

Democracy as a system of government only survives as long as people believe in it. That means it can only be promoted by persuasion and example. As soon as you try to force people to obey a central government who don’t recognise it as being their government at all – and do so by killing any who resist – you de-legitimise democracy and make it seem like hypocrisy. This will not make Afghans more moderate in their religion or nationalism any more than September 11th made most Americans more moderate in their views on foreign policy. In both cases it makes the majority more extreme, because  they are suffering extreme pain, mourning, anger and the desire for revenge.

If Afghans in the outlying regions of Afghanistan are to be persuaded to accept the authority of a central government then they should be persuaded by that government aiding them with infrastructure projects – clean water supplies, electricity, healthcare, education etc. Sending troops in instead not only won’t work, it’s backfired spectacularly.

Militarising aid and reconstruction projects has similarly back-fired according to many charities operating in Afghanistan, resulting in the Taliban and other insurgents seeing them as part of the occupying forces rather than as people bringing assistance with no strings attached. Despite much propaganda by certain governments most aid agencies said they had no problem in operating in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

It can’t be denied that most Afghans do not want the Taliban back in power in Kabul – and that Pakistan’s military and military intelligence have continued backing the Taliban so they can exclude Indian influence from Afghanistan and have “strategic depth” for guerrilla campaigns if India invades Pakistan.

That is unlikely to change once NATO forces leave Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military will try to get a Taliban government back in Kabul, as they did using military aid and tacit support from the US government in the 90s, also aided by Saudi money.

Our governments could however end all military aid and arms sales to Pakistan so that it can’t continue to pass these on to Taliban forces in Afghanistan, reducing Pakistan’s ability to fund the Taliban and forcing the Taliban to negotiate a coalition government deal with other Afghan factions – and they could increase funding for civilian infrastructure and aid projects in Afghanistan as a viable way for the Afghan central government to gain the support of people across Afghanistan. That could achieve what no “nation building” war ever will at a fraction of the cost in money and lives.

(1) = Boston Globe 09 October 2009 ‘Taliban not main Afghan enemy - Few militants driven by religion, reports say’,http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2009/10/09/most_insurgents_in_afghanistan_not_religiously_motivated_military_reports_say/

(2) = Times 28 Jul 2010 ‘‘He said they were scared of the Taleban leaders’ http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/asia/afghanistan/article2662453.ece?lightbox=false

(3) = Washington Post 27 Oct 2009 ‘U.S. official resigns over Afghan war’,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603394.html

(4) = Matthew Hoh’s resignation letter,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/hp/ssi/wpc/ResignationLetter.pdf?sid=ST2009102603447

(5) = NBER Working Paper No. 16152 Issued in July 2010 , Luke N. Condra, Joseph H. Felter, Radha K. Iyengar, Jacob N. Shapiro (2010) ‘The Effect of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq’,http://www.nber.org/papers/w16152

(6) = BBC News 24 July 2010 ‘US military curbs 'reduce' Afghan attacks in some areas’,


Brandi Rhoads said...

This was a wonderful, well-written post. Thank you so much. Your whole blog is refreshing.

calgacus said...

Thanks very much Brandi.