WHO’S BEING NAÏVE IN AFGHANISTAN?

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 7 September 2009

by Jake Lynch

A famous scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mafia movie, The Godfather, sees Diane Keaton, as Kay, remonstrate with Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone about his career plans as he is groomed to take over the family business from his Don, the imperishable Marlon Brando.

Michael: My father’s no different than any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people, like a Senator, or a President.
Kay: Do you know how naïve you sound?
Michael: Why?
Kay: Senators and Presidents don’t have men killed!
Michael: Oh? Who’s being naïve now, Kay?

The exchange captures the sense of moral ambiguity that makes the organised crime story such a powerful recurrent motif in Hollywood and beyond, and it sprang to mind this week during a conference on Afghanistan, when the American journalist, Gretchen Peters, likened the “insurgents” in the country to a bunch of crime families carving up the action between them, as the Corleones and Barzinis did in the fictional New York of the 1940s, “only without the chianti and prosciutto”, as she put it.

The ‘Taliban’ are “guided by profit rather than ideology”, Peters averred, with their income from protection fees, and taxes on farmers and heroin refineries, now running at up to half a billion US dollars a year: several times the estimate of $70 million given out by the CIA. There is only any money in this game, of course, because drug users in rich countries want to stick the products into their veins (in The Godfather, it will be remembered, the Tattaglias were reviled for being the first crime family to deal in narcotics, in the 1930s). That thought, that we are simultaneously funding the insurgents and sending soldiers to fight them, is slightly chilling.

There is, in fact, only one group of people who are making even more money out of the opium trade in Afghanistan, and that’s the government. In the words of another speaker, Joel Hafvenstein, who spent two years as head of operations for USAID’s alternative livelihoods program in Helmand province, “the trafficker-state nexus is bigger and more important than the trafficker-insurgent nexus”.

And that’s even more chilling – the guys helping the local capo to run these rackets are the ones that are supposed to be our friends. Says Joel: “the appointment of officials”, at all levels of administration, “is determined by the willingness and ability of the office-holder to facilitate drug-trafficking”.

The conference was titled, ‘Catalysing the rule of law in Afghanistan’, a concept which was put forward, at least tentatively, as the latest of many attempts to define the ‘mission’ for the US and its allies, including Australia. A catalyst is a chemical element or compound which, when added to a mixture of others, triggers a reaction between them, whilst itself emerging unchanged. The metaphor fits well with the typical narrative for the conflict offered by people of the kind represented at the conference; organized, as it was, by the Law school at the University of New South Wales and the Australian government’s new Asia-Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence.

Aims and objectives

These are the intellectual, well-meaning classes of the international security and development community – knowledgeable, senior professionals from the military, the UN, aid organizations and the media. It never crosses their mind, in all probability, to indulge in what Michel Foucault called “the local cynicism of power”, but at the same time, as he says in the The History of Sexuality, “there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives”. So, these tend to be expressed in altruistic, as well as self-interested terms: “to keep our promises and to enjoy the credibility that comes with keeping our promises”, in the words of Whit Mason, a former CBS news reporter turned aid worker and academic, who introduced the event.

To this end, the rule of law is now emphasized above all other desiderata for the society ‘we’ want to bequeath to Afghanistan, and the rule of law is, said Professor William Maley, Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, “ultimately concerned with limiting the exercise of power”. He was one of several speakers to lament the unfortunate “messages” transmitted to the population at large by the Karzai government’s habit of shuffling officials caught profiteering from the poppy harvest, not into jail but to other positions of influence.

Michael Hartmann, Head of the Criminal Division for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, was still more candid: “impunity exists… people who have done bad things, and do bad things, get away with it, and that is what Afghanistan is about right now”. In a corrupt country, “the judiciary is perceived as the most corrupt institution”, he reflected, though, he also revealed, he’d been obliged to withdraw that comment and offer “a lawyer’s apology” after it cropped up at a meeting in Kabul, and led to him being personally threatened by the chief justice. The stated policy objective of troop-deploying countries, to neutralize a ‘terrorist threat’ emanating from Afghanistan, was also undermined by corruption: no attempt had been made, through the whole of 2008, to seize assets or prosecute anyone for terrorist financing.

Several speakers identified the source of such problems as the now infamous Bonn conference of donors, which matched ‘portfolios’ of responsibilities to particular countries. (The allocation of policing to the Germans, and criminal justice to Italy, required only the British to be put in charge of catering, the joke went, to complete the creation of ‘nightmare Europe’ in central Asia). The Italians, indeed, drafted a new criminal code which conflicted with the new Afghan constitution, for the very good reason that the expert in charge of drafting it had never been shown the document: when local officials protested, the internationals simply imposed the new code on pain of withholding aid monies.

That bullying and impunity came to characterize the new Afghanistan from an early stage should come as no surprise. Francesc Vendrell, until last year the European Union’s Special Envoy, recalled how the Loya Jirga in charge of drawing up the constitution was hijacked by warlords, who barged their way in uninvited and grabbed seats at the front. Votes were not by secret ballot, as had been the plan, but by show of hands: that’s how Afghanistan ended up being proclaimed an “Islamic republic”, Vendrell said, since such a suggestion was impossible to oppose publicly.

Because the so-called Northern Alliance was, by the time the donors met in Bonn, “in charge of two-thirds of the country”, he continued, “we were forced to give them the lion’s share of positions”, even though “most of them were responsible for the destruction of Kabul between 1992 and 1996, when their corruption and pillage opened the door to the Taliban”.

An elephant in the room

And this is the point: the US reacted to the 9/11 attacks by going for a quick military victory. The identity of the target was almost incidental: it soon became clear that most of the hijackers were Saudis, but Saudi citizens in the US at the time were mysteriously flown out – the only exception to the temporary grounding of air traffic, as the investigative journalist, Craig Unger has revealed – and Afghanistan found itself in the cross-hairs instead. To knock over the Taliban, hundreds of CIA agents flew in to re-activate their enemies, who gained the tactical advantage of air cover from their Americans and duly regained control of the capital.

Their leaders – the latterday Afghan equivalents of crime family bosses – are, in many cases, still in charge. Abdul Rashid Dostum was recently reappointed as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army, and Ismail Khan is the Minister of Energy. Should they, instead, be investigated for corruption, or put on trial for their past crimes? Dostum’s men fought alongside US Special Forces in 2001, and allegedly suffocated as many as 2,000 prisoners in container trucks following the Taliban surrender of Kunduz, an incident that has become known as the Dasht-i-Leili massacre. Even if prosecutions were feasible in such cases, the warlords might very well draw attention to the elephant in the room, one that generally passed unmentioned at the conference, but thrust its way back to the top of the agenda the day after it finished.

Nato bombers attacked two oil tankers that had been seized by Taliban fighters near the town of Omar Khel, in Kunduz province, killing at least 40 civilians in the process, according to local reports. Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, a press officer for the ‘Nato-led International Security Assistance Force’ (Isaf), said the aircraft spotted the hijacked lorries on a river bank. “After observing that only insurgents were in the area, the local Isaf commander ordered air strikes which destroyed the fuel trucks and killed a large number of insurgents… The strike was against insurgents. That’s who we believe was killed. But we are absolutely investigating [reports of civilian deaths]”.

Asked how pilots could know whether a crowd gathered around the truck included civilians or fighters, she said: “Based on information available at the scene, the commanders believed they were insurgents”. This is the US military doctrine of counter-insurgency, and it’s based on the historic American rejection of a standard of humanitarian protection in combat that is accepted by the vast majority of the international community: Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, from the Additional Protocols of 1977. “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians”, it says, “does not deprive the population of its civilian character”.

A conventional army, having equipped itself with unchallengeable military might, is not going to encounter enemies who want to go, as it were, toe-to-toe in the conflict arena: instead, they are bound to engage in asymmetrical warfare, melting in and out of the civilian population. The 160-odd countries that have adopted the Additional Protocols regard that as the lesser of two evils: the greater evil would be to wade in and attack regardless, or at least on no better evidence than a commander’s ‘belief’, formed in the heat of battle, that a crowd around a truck are probably bona fide enemy combatants.

“We have to practise what we preach”, Michael Hartmann told the conference, so perhaps the US should now come on board with majority opinion and sign up to Article 50. And perhaps it should turn over those “commanders” and their political bosses to the International Criminal Court to determine how they formed their “belief” and whether a reasonable person would accept it as a valid reason for carrying out the attack. Ah no, I was forgetting, sorry: the US has not joined the ICC either, having first signed the Rome Statute, which established the institution, then signalled that it would not take part after all. Then there are the safeguards for prisoners of war, set down elsewhere in the Conventions and set aside by the US to seize ‘enemy combatants’, lock them up for years without trial and ‘render’ them to third countries to be tortured.

The very nature of the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan is, in other words, inimical to the rule of law. The country is in need, to be sure, and another speaker at the conference, Dr Susanne Schmeidl of the Liaison Office in Afghanistan, showed how the raw material exists in layers of informal justice systems that are regarded, by many, as reliable ways to deal with everyday problems and conflicts. But the allies who entered its civil war on the side of one party against another cannot catalyse the rule of law because they are reagents, not catalysts. Their reaction, indeed, was a response to their own agendas.

The Gallup organization carried out an opinion poll in the days following the 9/11 attacks, asking an important question:

“In your opinion, once the identity of the terrorists is known, should the US government launch a military attack on the country or countries where the terrorists are based or should the US government seek to extradite the terrorists to stand trial?”  

Of the 33 countries where data was gathered, only three showed majority support for the military response, one of them being the US, but only by 54% to 46% (the others, showing larger majorities, were Israel and India). This was despite all the TV networks having already switched their graphics, for the studio background in their news bulletins, from ‘America under attack’ to ‘America strikes back’. It’s a sign, perhaps, of what President Eisenhower, in his farewell address in 1961, called the “unwarranted influence… of the military-industrial complex”; a concept updated, in recent times, by James Der Derian, as MIME-Net, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network.

In his book, Virtuous War, which is just out in its second edition, Der Derian chronicles the overlapping development of wars and war games in the post-Cold War era of hi-tech weaponry, revealing that Iraq ran computer simulations of the invasion of Kuwait using a program purchased from an American software company, and General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf spent endless hours in front of a computer screen, rehearsing battle scenarios in the Arabian sands, before finally launching Operation Desert Storm, to reverse it. “Was there a paradox here”, Der Derian wonders, “that the closer the war game was able to technically reproduce the reality of war, the greater the dangers that might arise from confusing one with the other?”

He shows how the military-industrial complex has been decentred in a world of what Manuel Castells was the first to call “networked capital”. The recourse to war, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, was programmed into systems and structures to the extent that sheer momentum made it the inevitable response, regardless of consequences or the advisability of considering and pursuing alternatives.

“Tactics which, becoming connected to one another, attracting and propagating one another, but finding their base and condition of support elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems”, Foucault goes on to explain. And, since the tactics and technology of US war-making are, in turn, programmed on the acceptability of civilian casualties, as a price worth paying to target ‘insurgent’ groups, the one thing it cannot deliver is the rule of law.

The good and clever people who gathered at the Sydney conference are not ‘to blame’ for this state of affairs: Der Derian’s musings recall the rest of that famous quote from Foucault, warning us that we will be deluding ourselves if we seek to identify power with “a headquarters that presides over its rationality”. But eight years of unfolding disaster in Afghanistan must tell us that something is fundamentally wrong. “Security is getting worse and worse”, Michael Hartmann testified.

If there are outsiders capable of catalysing positive change in such a place, they will have to be clearly dissociated from America’s war machine and from the military doctrine of  ‘interoperability’ with US forces, which shapes the strategic posture of countries like Australia. Der Derian reports from his visits as an invited observer to several ‘war games’, in such places as the Mojave Desert, in which the Army and Marines take on imaginary insurgent forces. The latter, he discovers, nearly always win.

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