Afghanistan: graveyard of good intent.

Author:Daxner, Michael

Not long ago, in a remote Afghan village, a well was drilled by a civilian aid group in the heart of the marketplace in the center of town. The team leader had observed that there was no easy access to clean, potable water and undertook the project, assuming it would be welcomed by the residents, not to mention the village elders. It would, he reasoned, shorten the trip women and children would need to make as the old wells were far outside the village.

This largesse was not well received. Women complained that this goodwill gesture had deprived them of their traditional meeting place, where they could talk without being overheard by their husbands. It was not the only tale involving water--that most precious of Afghan commodities. In a brand new female student dormitory built by a European aid organization, I visited in Parwan province, not far from Kabul, the faucets were fixed so high up in the wall that the short Afghan women could not reach them at all.

Afghanistan today is a series of unanswered prayers--a succession of failures to listen to the people, while their traditional leaders speak of unsatisfied hopes and failed aspirations.

Today, eight years after allied forces "liberated" the nation from the vicious, tyrannical rule of the Taliban, this is the land of failed dreams.

The golden hour after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 was remarkable. I walked through the remnants of what had been downtown Kabul before the war. Parts of the city looked like the last remnants of Stalingrad, just a few chimneys left in a sea of debris. But it didn't feel like a war zone. I could inhale the sweet air of relief. I could flag down a taxi, or buy what I liked in the shops on Chicken Street and Flower Street. Most people were beaming. Ostentatious signs of liberation were seen not only in the offices of government and in the classrooms of the reopened universities, but also on the dusty, rubble-strewn streets. The many encounters I had with ordinary people were inspiring, and the mood was spreading across the country.

But as a United Nations officer in the Kosovo intervention after 2000 and a long-term observer of peacekeeping operations, I knew too well that it would only take a few months for liberation without liberty to descend slowly into a disgruntled impatience. There would be calls for foreign troops to leave the country, opposition from both traditionalists and fundamentalists, and the spirit of liberation would be replaced by the perception of occupation and humiliation. Sadly, I could see the storm clouds coming. In the haste to make war, Washington (and NATO) had obviously not thoroughly learned its lessons from previous interventions such as those in Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans.

The war in Afghanistan and the overflow into the wider Central Asian region will become the toughest test for the new foreign policy of President Barack Obama. After barely a half year in office, the president cannot be expected to provide any comprehensive and coherent strategy-nor can we expect an immediate shift in the fortunes of a war that has gone from bad to worse. But what we can see already from the Obama administration is disquieting. The focus on the security of America and its allies is too narrow, as it excludes Afghans and other people in the region from playing an active part in building a peaceful, functioning civic society.

Afghanistan has been the West's "good war," until now. In recent history, there has rarely been another intervention with so much institutional legitimacy and so little questioning of strategy and perspective as there has been with Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The immediate numbness and anger after 9/11 created its own logic. The "war on terror" overshadowed all rhetoric and good intentions. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion and rousting of the Taliban, the George W. Bush administration abused the trust of the Afghan people by using the first, halting steps of the new society for its own purposes, mainly to bolster the legitimacy of his 2004 reelection campaign.

The coordination of our strategies with the needs of the people in the region has been incomplete, false or, at best, superficial. Some strategies serve the people and the Afghan government, but many ongoing operations bypass both. Even our understanding of our enemies has been flawed. Only now can we see that the Taliban have been lumped together with Al Qaeda, and insurgents and terrorists have become synonymous. However, some Taliban depend on the masterminds of Al Qaeda for survival; many do not. Likewise, some insurgents are terrorists; many are not. These fundamental misunderstandings have, perhaps irrevocably, damaged the halting process of reconstruction.

Indeed, for allies of the United States, such as Canada or Germany, the reconstruction of the country has become "the unexpected war," a phrase coined by Janice Stein of Toronto's Munk Center. Washington's allies had constituencies quite willing to commit military forces to protect reconstruction efforts, but not to fight a war that has had little if any relation to rebuilding Afghanistan.

Security Pretexts

Though I understand the broad range of domestic and international priorities of the new Obama administration, I am concerned that there has been only a halfhearted gesture toward a new strategy for Afghanistan, and that Washington seems to be at risk of sinking into a new quagmire, as potentially devastating as Vietnam. President Obama has promised to change the entire approach towards stabilizing this region. In his first accounts before Congress and the public, he pledged a political rather than a military outcome for Afghanistan and the region. He then stressed very clearly that security will still be his absolute priority. "We are not in Afghanistan to control that country and to dictate its future," Obama said on March 27, "but to disrupt and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Yet only the day before, Obama once again mentioned "our security" in disclosing his plans for conducting the warfare and civil reconstruction of Afghanistan, noting that it shall never again serve as a "safe haven for terrorists." The implication is clear. If we take as valid the pretext that "our security" (meaning that of the United States and the West) is at stake, then we can assume that the safety and security of the Afghans is not the core strategy in the Central Asian theater--and never was.


My years of travel through the region and through a score of other post-conflict locales, from Bosnia to Kosovo to Guatemala, suggest to me that this self-serving focus may lead us down a troubled and dangerous path. We, the interveners, frankly care less about how renewed insurgent attacks may run rough-shod over the human rights of Afghans and the remarkable achievements of civil society since the intervention brought an end to the last Taliban regime than we do about the continued threat to our societies.

It is true that President Obama's new policy towards American engagement in the region is likely to lead to some constructive changes. Human rights, co-ordination between civil reconstruction and military protection, and a stronger voice for the Afghan civil society are among the new American goals. Early hints from the State Department's Policy Planning Staff and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are promising.

But what we have seen during the last three months...

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