a letter to the editor, with added comments from my brothers
Sahema Saberi writes (“I don’t accept the Taliban have changed”,CT Wednesday 25, p24) movingly of the plight of Afghan Hazaris under Taliban rule, prior to 2001 and now with Taliban rule resumed. She pleads for the Australian government to go beyond their current commitment accepting 3,000 refugees. I concur.
I too am reminded that prior to the US lead invasion the UN sponsored a gathering of all parties to discuss a peaceful settlement of the unstable conditions following the collapse of the Soviet backed government. This gathering on neutral ground over a week agreed on terms required for stable government. These guaranteed rights and protections for women, yet reserved a place in civil life for the Taliban, seen then as a fringe group, but not foreign, only one of the competing forces with substantial support in the community.
The formula of a lasting peace in the declaration from that commission remains valid. Logically its terms should have guided any outside intervention – be it civilian or military – that had the interests of the country and its people at its centre. The terms of settlement – worked out among Afghans for Afghans over the course of 5 days – were comprehensively ignored or reversed in the course of the military intervention that followed.
No one wanted the Taliban in charge, yet equally removing the Taliban by overwhelming force and replacing with a client government was no solution. If all the centres of power in a country can come together on basic rights guarantees, not least to life, twenty years ago, the people from whom they derive their power can find their way to such guarantees again, now freed of an intervention that was never going to serve the long term interests of the country.
Australians are implicated in this quest. It does not reflect well on us that we cannot see through the shallow justifications for our involvement in 2001-2021, and the shallow response to the consequences of its failure. We can afford to be generous, whether expressed through refugee policy,or in conspicuously rejecting colonial reflexiveness in our foreign and defence policies.
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Yes I agree with quite a lot of what you say. Yes, the American, NATO and Australian govts did a lot of harm. Terrible waste and bloodshed, probably achieving nothing.
I do wonder whether a better result might have been obtained if the Western countries were more wholehearted – as for instance they were in WW2 — determined to achieve both a military victory and to initiate a lasting political reconstruction. Who knows? The obvious counter to this is that the Allies never not have the sort of political or cultural affinity with the people of Afghanistan that they had with (say) Germany.
I was not aware of a UN-sponsored gathering of “all parties” in 2001. The way you describe it, I’d be sceptical that it would have pushed the Taliban to the margins. And in the light of the negotiations of the past two years, I’d be sceptical also about the stability of a “settlement – worked out among Afghans for Afghans over the course of 5 days”.
I believe also that the statement that the Taliban was “seen then [in 2001] as a fringe group” is incorrect. Of course to right-thinking people they are a fringe group (i.e. “extremists”) but I believe that in 2001 they were the dominant power in Afghanistan, no matter how rackety their mode of government or how small their popular support may have been.
I also wonder about this statement of yours. ”If all the centres of power in a country [could] come together on basic rights guarantees… twenty years ago, the people from whom they derive their power can find their way to such guarantees again…” To say that the ��centres of power” derive their power from “the people” surely is a constitutional fiction in line with those rather obscure “theories of sovereignty” some book reviewers talk about in the LRB. Surely in Afghanistan, where the “centres of power” are more pungently known as warlords, power grows out of the barrel of a gun?
re political reconstruction… your response is interesting, but I must take issue on this point
How wholehearted do you want to get? They did this in Iraq against a more tangible enemy who was not particularly popular. They (NATO) did this in the Balkans, where it may have made sense narrowly speaking in stopping the destruction of Sarajevo, ‘liberating’ Kosovo, and pinning the blame on the Serbs, bringing the ringleaders (justly) to book, but applying this to the tribal politics of Afghanistan, as if the external meddling had had no bearing on the emergence of an absolutist religious party, whose origins come from madrasses in Pakistan and whose rise to power was through being armed and trained to harass the russians.
Eventually and most of the time people finds ways to govern themselves if they do not become prey to geostrategic power plays over their territory. that leads to perpetual internecine wars. This applies to Afghans, and to Australians.
The government that the soviets backed survived for another two years after the russians withdrew, and were a modernising force to the country – no doubt creating the tension with traditonalists and seedbed for the rise of a nationalist/fundamentalist/reactionary resurgence built on anathematising the west, in fact the modern world. Before the Taliban the war lords managed a suspended stability in the countryside, descending down the road to Kabul each season, then withdrawing for the winter. Massoud had the charisma to govern the whole country, not just the large swathe of territory he commanded, and the skill to play off patrons. His death was a disaster for the country and a green light for Taliban takeover. Taliban will remain strong as long as the country is occupied; thereafter who knows?
I heard Massoud’s son may be stepping into his shoes. But do people want a civil war? The place is awash with military gear. I would think it is time to talk.
From: Mark Horn <email@example.com>
Sent: Wednesday, 25 August 2021 11:49 PM
Cc: ‘Nick Horn’ <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: FW: The Taliban in charge
You say “Eventually and most of the time people finds ways to govern themselves if they do not become prey to geostrategic power plays …” I think what you mean in Afghanistan is that the country people (at least the men) just want to get on with their time-honoured way of life, they do not care too much about newfangled stuff like the nation-state. Could you specify it like that? When you put it as baldly as you do it becomes a very big assertion. For instance, just when did it start to be true? 50 years ago? 500 years ago?
“But do people want a civil war?” I think if you asked the Taliban or any warlord such as Ahmed Massoud they might not admit it but their actions would say Yes, war is our element.
So you see I am not so much the optimist.
Subject: RE: FW: The Taliban in charge
From: Nick Horn <email@example.com>
To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>, <email@example.com>
Date: Friday, 27/08/2021 8:46 AM
Dear Mark and Stephen,
I sit somewhere in the middle. The mainstream reporting reflects a certain disingenuous surprise at the Taliban takeover – it’s been inevitable for years, just accelerated with the official policy of Western disengagement. There have been a pretty steady annual death toll (I think around 40,000) in fighting for some years. It may be a heavily qualified relief for many if the Taliban succeed in forming a civilian government. As Mark says, however, maybe continued civil war is inevitable (it never let up over the last 20 years anyway). It can’t be denied that the Taliban culture is devastating for women unprepared to adopt conservative values. It can’t be denied that the Taliban treated women brutally in their rise to power. But this is also a failure of traditional tribal and communal interests to resist
The blind spot of Western liberal values is a devaluation of what Stephen highlights as a traditional way of life and the obsession with nationhood at odds with communal and tribal forms of organisation (however martial these traditional forms may be, warlords and such, the failure of the Afghan national army to replace their influence is palpable).
A couple of remarks.
- Stephen’s reference to the terms of settlement over 5 days was – I think! – to a loya jirga, (literally “grand assembly”) in June-July 2002, a traditional meeting of the tribes (more than a parliament, hosted by Hamid Karzai after the Taliban were ousted (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loya_jirga). An inspiring reference point, but (as Scott Stephens points out in the podcast below) perhaps sowed the seeds of the current situation by excluding the Taliban itself. [We see a pale vestige of this structure in Constitutional Conventions, Bob Hawke’s National Economic Summit, Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit, and perhaps a complete travesty of it in the National Cabinet]
- As usual Radio National has been a conduit for some clarity & nuance. The conversation between Walid Ali, Scott Stephens and their guest Stephen Wurtheim on the latest episode of The Minefield is a case in point: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/theminefield/was-us-failure-in-afghanistan-inevitable/13513814
Walid Ali perhaps echoes Stephen’s views in noting that the mainstream reporting downplays or even gaslights anecdotal reports of relief (at least) by Afghans in the Taliban’s success. The Taliban promises (for many, if not most) perhaps not a conservative way of life that they (“ordinary” Afghans, but what makes them “ordinary”?) are ideologically committed, but simply a more ordered life in general. Stephen Wurtheim makes the perhaps obvious but telling point very simply right at the end of the podcast that there are two aspects to “Western” human rights (I am elaborating here of course):
- the sword – the combative championing of human rights principles (us vs them, good vs bad) – the Light on the Hill that US propaganda used to justify its imperial adventures in both Afghan and Iraq. This is anathema to fundamentally different cultures and societies such as the Afghans considered generally (not as a confected nation-state) and China (a very model of a modern nation-state!). “Western liberals” so-called do themselves no favours in donning the armour of principles such as the rule of law.
- the shield – respect for the other as our neighbour, the helping hand, refugee resettlement. On this topic the ABC TV Australian Story this week did stirling work reminding us of one of the great refugee rescues of the modern era, HMAS Melbourne’s saving 90 Vietnamese from drowning and the Australian Government’s willingness (pre-Tampa) to grant them permanent protection. I caught a glimpse from a promo of another show – the 20th anniversary of Tampa – John Howard’s weasely words about “we will decide who comes here” etc.. The complete anathema of this aspect of rights. I have to say that it sickens me that this virus has so taken over Australian policy. It is perhaps naïve of me, but I see this as contingent, not necessary – if Labour & Kim Beazley had had the nerve to take a stand on the Tampa they might have won that election and marginalised the policy of offshore detention.
What you say does add to understanding how we have come to think as we do about these otherwise repelling themes. I don’t pretend to a deep understanding of Afghan society, but I am more curious now. I was addressing really the absence of any coherence or depth in Australia’s diplomatic (warring) responses.
We have been saturated with the minutiae of US & UK political theatre where we could and should be closer to understanding the region. Central Asia will be important to Australia’s future one way or the other, and not as a free fire zone. We should ditch the civilising mission, as you say, it is a fantasy: we have done much more constructively by an unobtrusive presence, and comfortable co-existence in the region, where our advantages – a highly developed engineering and scientific culture; abundant resources, deep cultural roots if we were to respect them, traditions in law and democratic practice are appreciated, and reciprocated; but as well we are exposed through the weaknesses – cut off from mother load of anglophone centres a legacy of colonial deference over reliance on extraction – mineral and agricultural – producing an artificial prosperity, and a fractured sense of cultural plurality with large migrant contribution. We can benefit from associating with societies with great depth of identity – be it ethnic, cultural .or geographic.
Concerning the ‘commission’ I was in fact referring to something much more obscure – although it had something of the character of a loya jirga^. In the course of Johan Galtung’s Sydney conflict resolution workshop he gave examples from what he calls his ‘conflict work’, including the involvement of his Transcend team on commission from one of the UN agencies with then civil conflict ion Afghanistan: the major conflicts were intertribal, aka the war lords, with Taliban seen as a dangerous nuisance, rather than a serious contender..(I dont remember exactly how it was put, and I don’t have a date! but must have been sometime in the 90s).
Mum had heard about the workshop and thought to invite Galtung s a former colleague of Dad’s to LC during his stay in Sydney. This was not going to be possible but he did make time to see me before the workshop (He had been invited to Australia by a Buddhist community who hosted the workshop and managed his itinerary). I registered, and he did make time to talk to me privately at the start of the day. It must have been not long after Dad died.
This commission must have come after the collapse of the Kalq party government – undermined by the same muhjahideen that had been engaged to harass the soviet occupiers, easily motivated to drive out a modernising, liberal regime that educated women and allowed them a place in society outside the home, the country reverted to ‘;war lords’ competing over territory and making centralised government unworkable. Transcendence (5 people I think involved) went in with their conflict transformation skills.
Galtung is a showman, the workshop was a remarkable affair in itself – he commanded attenion of maybe 80 people for an entire day, then in his 70s. I recently ordered up the course book that goes with a one week version of conflict transformation training*. What had excited my interest, and which I raised in my brief private talk, was the reliance on dynamic systems to understand conflict (at all levels) rather than for instance, basic psychological insights of (psychiatrist) Marshall Rosenberg – a comparable charismatic figure whose non violent communication movement is similar in scope, and has now a large following.
Afghanistan was only one of world conflicts he referred to: some he had a hand in resolving, some, like the Middle East, he offered solutions to. I think it requires a foundation in mathematics to produce this degree of intellectual confidence (vanity?), completely free of ‘scientific’ reference. By its nature we don’t hear about the successes. Ah I hear your skepticism levels rising…
Anyway he received me warmly as coming from Robert and Audrey’s family, and was interested in my excursion into the genre (Mass Psychosis as a Total Phenomenon, my contribution to the 50th anniversary meeting of the Society for General Systems Research c 1979). I can’t imagine anyone else taking this seriously. I must hunt out a reference to the Afghanistan case study. .
^ I had the impression that the Kharzai loya jurga had failed , and may have been from the beginning window dressing for the fragile hold that Kharzai had on power but happy to be corrected.
* Johan Galtung,Transcend Transform, an Introduction to Conflict Work, Pluto Press, 2004