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The challenge in Afghanistan isn’t about resources but principles

by Wazhma Frogh, 23 September 2009

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The Guardian, 22 September 2009

Afghans can’t trust anyone

The challenge in Afghanistan is to hold a serious and consistent political stance on the Taliban. Inconsistency is creating chaos

by Wazhma Frogh

Not a day passes without representatives of the international community trying to save Afghanistan without bothering to step out of their fully secured buildings to actually meet ordinary Afghans, the people they are supposed to help. Phrases like "success", "our war", "winning hearts and minds" are used to describe the current chaotic situation. But the international community has contributed to this situation as much as "Taliban insurgents".

The self-styled experts on Afghanistan write books without ever stepping out of the comforts of their segregated neighbourhood. They formulate foreign policy, draft proposals and carry out experiments as if Afghanistan were an experimental laboratory for international diplomacy. But the country’s deteriorating situation is also their legacy and the legacy of world leaders who failed to understand Afghanistan.

Needless to say, the experiments are futile and bound to fail. Here is why. The experts don’t understand the country because they are separated from its people through security walls, multiple guards and the fact that they only converse with their fellow, self-styled experts, but not with Afghans.

This analysis is based on real-life experience and the realities that I, an Afghan woman, have encountered on the ground for many years. We have a proverb that says, "We learn how to be courteous when we meet those who are rude and disrespectful." The easiest way to learn from mistakes is to reverse them, but the world is taking longer than needed to reverse its mistakes in Afghanistan.

Although the list of mistakes is long and continues to grow, let’s start with the recent dilemma: the "AfPak" drama. The US government and its allies need to understand, and here I mean understand fully, that they are dealing with two different governments, two separate states and nations so different that they cannot be equated in a single mission. The differences are too pronounced to legitimise a one-size-fits-both solution.

This is not to speak of the fact that such an equation overrides the legitimacy and sovereignty of both nations, especially since sovereignty and legitimacy are critical to their survival at this point in history. It is true that the Taliban are a regional threat, but they need to be tackled through a cohesive but contextualised struggle by each country. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years but it is an established fact that in part they were a Pakistani creation, organised and funded by the Pakistani army and government. But today, both governments are put on the same scale when it comes to fighting against the former "rulers" and "puppets".

For the Pakistani government the Taliban represent only a backlash against what used to be their own creation. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban are far more than a backlash. They are a serious threat to the people and the government. This threat might be somewhat curbed by drone attacks in the border areas, but as recent incidents reveal, the Taliban cannot be prevented from blowing themselves up right outside the headquarters in Kabul where the international troops are based.

Millions of dollars have been poured into this "AfPak mission", paying the salaries of self-styled experts who are hardly able to set foot outside the safety and comfort of their castles. Ironically, the Afghanistan mission has hardly any Afghans in it, at least not the kind of Afghans who have lived through the critical times in this country and hence, by virtue of their experience and knowledge, are capable of formulating strategies within a chance of success.

This is everyone else’s war, not the Afghans’ war. Any other country in the world claims that this is their conflict, but not Afghans. That’s the heart of our misery. Afghans are being fought in their homes and expected not to lose their "hearts and minds". One of the reasons why the Taliban are making progress in Afghanistan is their ability to fight a successful propaganda war. But both local and international media outlets indirectly encourage the Taliban by publishing stories of Taliban success. For the Taliban, this is free, international publicity. Neither the international forces nor the Afghan government have come up with a media campaign to encourage the public to help them fight terrorism. In fact, neither the government nor the international community has ever held a clear stance regarding the Taliban. In 2001, Kabul was full of posters of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. He was wanted dead or alive and a bounty of $25m was placed on his head. Today, the same international community is calling Omar a "moderate" and is trying to persuade him to negotiate peace with Kabul.

The challenge in Afghanistan isn’t about resources but principles. It’s about holding a serious and consistent political stance regarding the Taliban. For example, the Afghan army’s lack of success in the fight against the Taliban is not so much the result of their inadequate salary or the number of troops but the lack of patriotic sentiment that is needed if the army is to win. The fact that the Afghan leadership itself is hesitant to clarify the exact nature of its relationship with the Taliban leaves the army unsettled: is the government against the Taliban or ready to negotiate with them? The recent elections were another example of how national security has become a mere political game for wannabe Afghan leaders. For example, one candidate said the Taliban were like her own brothers, her own sons. And yet, we have thousands of troops fighting the same sons and brothers. This inconsistent approach continues as Afghanistan’s elections are declared "fraudulent" and unacceptable even though the critics are also the ones who set the election day and called it "an achievement towards success in Afghanistan".

Afghans on the ground are confused; they no longer know who they are supposed to fight against. They fear that if they stop the Taliban from blowing up their village, the same Taliban might come back to power, installed as governors or ministers. Under such circumstances, standing up against the Taliban is just too risky.

But there’s nothing new in this inconsistent approach. In late 2001, during the Bonn agreement, Afghans were promised justice and that people accused of war crimes would be held to account. But those accused of war crimes are now leaders, openly and publicly supported by the very same international community that promised to take them to court. No wonder, then, that Afghans no longer know who is supposed to be their enemy, and who their friend.

(Wazhma Frogh is a gender and development specialist and human rights activist and recipient of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award Afghanistan)