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International Engagement

Guest Blog: ‘I have read about it…’ A day of Afghan concerns in Germany

Michael Daxner 10 min

In the run-up to the Bonn 2 conference, the debate on Afghanistan is flaring up again in Germany. But not only in Germany, there seem to be two Afghanistans that are discussed. Our guest author Michael Daxner* has looked at one day of this debate, with a conference and radio programme on 4 November, points at a number of delinks and argues that there is a – late – chance that previous errors still can be actively corrected and the relationship between interveners and the intervened be repaired.

On 5 December, a major conference on Afghanistan’s future will be held in Bonn (the website is already up here), the place, where 2001 the founding agreements for the Karzai state, for the intervention and for a decade of good intentions and questionable results were laid. The Germans are the hosts, but the Afghan government will chair the conference, selecting their own delegation and testing the sovereignty of the state in transition. A pre-conference forum of elected civil society figures on 2 and 3 December (with its own website, too, here) will allow both, the people to be given a symbolic voice, and the international community, foremost the Germans, to liaise with the real people of Afghanistan.
The little community that does not want to sacrifice the Afghan concerns to the Euro crisis hype, is humming with busy preparations. Two or three workshops, discussions, seminars, book presentations take place every week, the ever same community is recycling their opinions and ideas. There is nothing bad with that. It is better that people are concerned than indifferent or adversary to the topic. I do not complain about the superficiality of the debate, because it is really difficult to bridge the gap between experts, laypersons, and political decision makers. Each group of actors and agencies has its pundits, analysts and key figures. In a way, it is democratic public space at its best.

Why then am I disturbed? I have the feeling that we – I am a member of this community of Afghanosophers – are facing difficulties to simultaneously act and talk on at least two levels: the imaginary level of wishful thinking, where prayers are answered – peace will come to Afghanistan, and by the end of transition the country will continue to develop in the right sense; and the empirical level of the obvious contradictions, flaws, shortcomings, moral deficiencies and pragmatic follies among all actors, again ourselves included, that make a good outcome at least questionable if not unlikely. Today, 4 November 2011, exemplifies better than any theory on a scholar’s scrupulous self-observation, what I mean.

When I came home after a full day of debate in the German parliament, incidentally our public radio DSF started to transmit a feature on the exit-strategy of combat troops and the transition period (listen to an audio or download the German text here).** I jumped into listening, barely got off my coat. Good journalists, among them Christoph Reuter and AAN contributors, draw a picture that could not be more depressing: compared to what we have heard at the official event, the Western strategies don’t deserve this name. We learn about a multi-level absence of any consistent strategy both in the Afghan governance and the Western impact on the country. Targeted killing, compromises with cruel practices, cross-camp alliances and a ruthless violation of fundamental rights by special operations and official ISAF activities as well as by the ruling Afghan elites and their agents and of the Taleban are being reported. Young women complain their anxiety they might lose the little progress and accomplishments of recent development. Western military is violating exactly the same principles as the new Afghan Army and Police are trained by the same Western experts. We must realize that even a realistic perception of the situation from the outside may be too friendly and optimistic given the empirical accounts to incidents and regressive policies.

I shall come back to the radio feature. At this moment, the radio just turned off, I recall the conference that just had been staged by the Green Party in Berlin on 4 November, and aimed at some clarifications coming to the fore of the Bonn Conference in December 2011.

Jürgen Trittin, parliamentary speaker of the Green Party, opened his statement by saying: There are two Afghanistans: one is the imaginary Afghanistan, the construct of the people in Germany, the other one is the real one, the country of the Afghans. He is right. Both Afghan and Western panelists regretted the fundamental error of the West to let the people down after the retreat of the Soviet troops. Most of my Afghan friends share this view and hope that the West will never again let the Afghans down – for reasons of negligence, lack of empathy, or simply because there are no strong interests in this country’s fate.

The US Deputy Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Elizabeth Jones, and the British Ambassador Mark Sedwill, also a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, were the friendly representatives of the doctrine ‘Declare victory and rush out!’ at the conference. They tried to explain the ‘Fight, talk, build’ strategy, recently introduced by Secretary Clinton, and indeed, the military focus of many discussions of this kind was overarched by the problem who should talk to whom and who will not talk to whom. Karzai is not going to talk to the Taleban. The Taleban are not going to talk to Afghans, but only to the U.S. Karzai wants to talk directly to Pakistan. Pakistan is in the double bind of being flogged by the U.S. and recovering its damaged sovereignty. The Taleban became the enigmatic blank in the discussions; I would like to put the term in quotation marks: ‘The Taleban’. There has been a significant change in its meaning: while it stood for ‘the enemy’ for a long time, along with the attributes of terrorist and intransigent, they now have become the logical counterpart in peace-talks, the imaginary focus of hope. If anything can turn out better than expected, it will be a compromising Taleban agency. I want to call this an illusionary realpolitik; or a last resort in a debate that has gone out of control.

The German Special Representative, Michael Steiner, presented a slightly different position than his colleagues from the UK and US; he is more inclusive, and rather determined to put responsibility for inviting or not inviting representatives of the Taleban on the Afghan government, and not on the German hosts. A majority of panelists agreed that it was wrong to disinvite the Taleban in 2001 and to not invite them in 2011, irrespective of the fact that they probably would have turned down an invitation then and now.

Ms. Gulalai Nur Safi, MP, from Kabul, represented the voice of the Afghan people longing for peace and carefully avoiding any indication that the achievements and progress made until now would be sacrificed by compromising negotiations with those who would not recognize any of these accomplishments. The keyword in her statement, as later in Sima Samar’s, the head of the AIHRC, was women’s rights. But not only in the women’s presentations could it be heard that there was not so much difference in the behaviour and doctrines of many government representatives and the Taleban. Of course, it is not true that all of Karzai’s government is fundamentalist, corrupt and violent: But since the structures of impunity for some of the most terrible mujahedin leaders, now in highest positions, are as evident as the system of patronage for unlawful practices, generalisations are easily made. One of my irritations has been, as so often, that there was no time to differentiate and describe objective structural relations, as only research can and as politics should be aware of.
I like Steiner’s definition of the transition process also as correction of mistakes made earlier in the intervention. Will the major agencies in the transition period be able to do these corrections? And can we undo the memory of the errors and unforced mistakes*** the interveners have committed? Any attempt to work on this problem would make it easier for the Germans to terminate their (involuntary) discriminatory discourse against the backward and corrupt Afghans and enter a phase of respectful mutual criticism. (You can watch a video of the opening panel of this conference on Youtube here.)

Trittin raised one important aspect of Pakistan’s inclusion: he asked if the US really would go twin-track, pressing the Pakistani government to cooperate more closely and, at the same time, continue to use increased force by drones and undercover actions. The Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai presented a more differentiated and highly pessimistic picture of the Taleban and the relations between them and Afghan actors; pessimistic was also the tone Kai Eide, successor to Tom Koenigs as SRSG for UNAMA, offered to the audience. Those, who pledged for immediate ending combat actions, were pleased by his forecast that the ANSF never would reach the envisaged capacity by 2014 – and that it is still unclear who is going to pay afterwards.

The more thrilling aspects of the conference were presented in a rather inconspicuous way: the Istanbul conference got a wide variety of assessments – none so in-depth as Ruttig’s analysis in the recent AAN blog, but all of them pointing at one common denominator: without regional consensus about the value of a stable Afghanistan there will be no sustainable peace in the region and the country. Fine, but how to achieve this consensus, given the almost petrified mutual attitudes of distrust, enmity and adversity? And then, how will the ‘near neighbours’ of Afghanistan react to a strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US which is under negotiation? Transparency alone will not do it, if the Istanbul goal to guarantee Afghanistan’s full sovereignty is undercut by a bilateral exception. (Afghan voices that are critical against the U.S. hegemonial approach would prefer a NATO- or EU-born security scheme).

On the talks with the Taleban, it seems to be as simple as that: as long as the US have not formally set a format for negotiation, it would be impossible for anyone of their counterparts to go to Washington DC without running the risk of ending in Gitmo or worse. Therefore, Tom Koenigs brought up an issue that should not be underestimated, despite its rather vague chances: the UN Security Council should encourage the US to explicitly state their decidedness to get into negotiations and the Taleban should be brought into the same obligation. (In the end, this seems to be the only way to get a legitimate way towards a peace-conference – probably the least violent among all options that Maaß and Ruttig (read their analysis here) and I**** have sketched recently.)

I am sure there will be more extended proceedings and different assessments on this parliamentary hearing. I will change the level now and go into an analysis of my meta-observations. All of a sudden, experts and pundits shift the attention from the ‘radical-Islamic Taleban’ (a standing term in Germany) to the Haqqani Network. As mentioned earlier, the Taleban become the generic term for reconcilable adversaries who should have become included into peace talks much earlier, the Haqqanis are branded as the intransigent enemies and terrorists. This is not without plausibility on the system level, i.e. from the point of view that the new state must settle its statehood by also settling its conflicts with the political branch of the insurgents, (who are no longer terrorists), similar, say, to the Northern Ireland settlement. But it contradicts all empirical findings and observations on the micro-social level of the fragmented Afghan society. There are more actors of violence than Taleban, and there are numerous alliances that follow certain patterns, but cannot be harmonized into one grand strategy of peace-talks. And the inconsistent tactics of special operations, official ISAF, local militias and other security agencies towards the insurgents and the entrepreneurs of violence makes it highly improbable that the solutions on the local level will be the same as for the ‘state’ of Afghanistan. Self-determination on the level of villages and districts may be the most peaceful – or, let us be modest, the least violent – approach towards stability, but then, more often than not, it would work against a strengthening of the central government’s authority and statehood.

And here is it again, the uneasiness about the different Afghanistans in the debate. There is too much ‘state’ and too little ‘society’ in the discourse. This fact, together with the highly ambivalent role of the US, have been the subtexts in a conference that was a valuable effort to prepare the public and interested experts for the upcoming marathon of meetings, conferences and summits. It would be comfortable to allow another prognosis to gain ground: if things continue to develop as they do, it is not unlikely that by the days after 2014 nothing will have changed radically – things will go on as they do now. This comfort for those who don’t see themselves in a very active position is treacherous, though. First of all, the dynamics of violence and inconsistencies in the process of society building and state building are not making actors converge now, and this to happen is only likely under very specific circumstances, i.e. a successful transition policy; secondly, if the regional aspect is that important then the concentration on Afghanistan and the negligence towards its near neighbors are detrimental; thirdly, and this brings me back to my account of the radio report on cruelties, backlashes and losses in human rights and freedoms, we cannot declare victory without taking responsibility for what is happening through us and in our name in exactly the state that we expect to emancipate from our supervision.

These three assumptions are valid under all scenarios. If only a few contingent events should happen, what will be effect on any of them? What, if Karzai is being killed? What, if Pakistan is strengthening its deep impact policies? What, if the US get involved in belligerent action against Iran? What, if Russia increases its stakes as northern neighbour and thus affects precarious allies like Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan? What, if… Transition policies, even under the best Bonn auspices, will be very fragile and sensitive. This implicates that all action must start immediately in order to win enough time in order to be flexible and reversible and adaptable. The bureaucratic practices of official actors’ frames are discouraging such hopes, but let us see.

Near the end of the conference, during the public debate, a veteran peacenik demanded the immediate end of all combat operations. A few persons applauded, it was not an unusual intervention in such a debate. I asked the gentleman afterwards if he has been to Afghanistan. No, but I have read a lot, was his answer. The people of Afghanistan deserve better.

***

My reflection has something two-sided: it is directed to myself, trying to explain the problems of a scientist when he is going to communicate his observations and findings. And to the public who should be warned of traps of reading political texts. Trittin’s warning about the two Afghanistans has been timely. Never before, the so-called homeland discourse has been so impactful as in the run-up of the conferences. (Homeland discourse means the way people think and speak about political facts of the out-of-area-engagement of Germany in Afghanistan.) Everybody is tired of the commitment. The majority of Germans wants the troops to get out, with or without declaring victory. Of course, they do not think of the Afghans in the first place. But even if some of them do, they still hold that the absence of western military by itself would miraculously prepare a ground for the mutual ending of hostilities and violence. They do not see the chance in the period of transition to improve the conditions for a less violent starting point for the sovereign state to come after 2014. I think that the active correction of previous errors and the repair of a relationship between interveners and the intervened Afghans come late, but not too late. That is, why the concrete projects and programs for the next 24 months are so critically important.

* Michael Daxner is Professor of Sociology and University President emeritus (Oldenburg), Senior Research Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and Senior Fellow at the Berghof Conflict Research, and a former advisor to the Afghan Minister for Higher Education 2003-2005.

** Martin Gerner, Das Gift des Abzugs: Afghanistan auf dem Weg zu neuer Instabilität (Toxic exit: Afghanistan on the road towards new instability), broadcast on Deutschlandfunk (German Public Radio), 4 November 2011, 7.15-8.00 pm.

*** Some detailed results in our research on the German Homeland Discourse on Afghanistan reveals how constant and stubborn a denigrating attitude towards the Afghans is a subtext to many benevolent and well-intended activities and policies.

**** For this text (Michael Daxner: Afghanistan wird uns nicht verlassen.Kommune 5/2011, 20-29) go to this webpage and scroll down to the title of the article.)

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