President Obama’s review of the first year of his war strategy in Afghanistan is extraordinarily upbeat. “The momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years,” it says, “has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas… The surge… has reduced overall Taleban influence.”(*) For those of us living in Afghanistan, the assessment is fantastic, glossing over, for example, the shocking upsurge in violence in Kandahar this year, the utter failure to bring ‘good governance’ to Marjah, a district wrenched back from the Taleban with much media fan-fare at the start of the year, and the spread of the insurgency to the north and to non-Pashtun communities. The US belief that it is making progress is deeply worrying, says AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, because it is impossible to see how the current strategy can lead to peace or long term stability.
In a new report published by Chatham House, I and my co-author, Stephen Carter, look at the relationship between injustice and instability in Afghanistan. Even though there are many factors fuelling the insurgency (including safe havens in Pakistan and the drug economy), abuses by government or pro-government actors, often supported by the foreign military, as well as abusive actions by the foreign forces themselves have been key to mobilising support for the Taleban and to fostering deep alienation among the Afghan population. Such abuses include land-grabs, arbitrary detention, night raids and the political exclusion of tribal and factional rivals.
Looking back at 2001 and 2002, it is clear there was little stomach initially for jihad among the defeated former Taleban. Persecution – the use of private prisons, torture and arrest – however drove many back to fight. Anand Gopal in his masterly study of Kandahar’s Taleban counts eleven commanders who joined the fight only after being maltreated by Afghan and American forces.
Nine years on, little has changed. If in 2001, George Bush decided to arm factions who had war crimes records to defeat the Taleban and if, in 2002, the UN Secretary General, Lakhdar Brahimi, argued that (in reference to the deaths of hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war), accountability had to take ‘second place to peace and stability’ (transcript can be found here), those very same arguments are heard today. Take US justifications, for example, for working with Abdul Razeq, the border police commander of Spin Boldak. Razeq is a valued ally of both the Americans and the Palace, despite his record of stirring up enmity and insurrection, something which Nader Nadery, of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, ably describes:
“[Razeq] enjoys rule by his own law, whatever he wants – to kill people or arrest them, he has his own, illegal, personal detention facility. We have interviewed at least three people who were illegally detained in his prison. Eye-witnesses in Kandahar told the Commission that a guy had stolen something small and he shot him in the head in front of everyone. He is charging people illegal taxes. He causes a lot or injustices, he is a source of injustice and certainly he helps people, if not to support the Taleban, at least not to care.”
Abuses by the police, corruption in the judiciary, the impunity with which the powerful commit crime could all be blamed on the weakness of the Afghan state. Yet the government continues to actively undermine the rule of law: by granting presidential pardons to well-connected drug smugglers, rapists and Taleban commanders, neutering key anti-corruption bodies, passing the amnesty law for those who committed – and continue to commit – war crimes and continuing to support officials like Razeq who may be loyal, but who abuse the population.
In the last nine years, civilians who welcomed deployments of ISAF in the hope they would limit the power of local militias have watched as the foreigners have routinely allied themselves with Afghan strongmen at various levels, allowing them to consolidate their power through lucrative contracts for security and logistics or recognising those self-same same militias as ‘local police’. The foreigners are understandably seen as complicit in the crimes of their allies. Always the immediate attractions of force protection (of the foreign troops) or of allies who promise to be able to hunt down Taleban trump justice, but with horrible long-term consequences. Using night raids, maltreating prisoners and launching attacks to ‘protect civilians’ all cause anger and a sense of outrage. The issue may not be strict legality (or the lack thereof), but rather a perception of powerlessness and the arbitrary abuse of power. As Ladbury and CPAU concluded in theirresearch on what drives men to support the insurgency, what ‘links both the issue of air strikes and house searches is the feeling that the occupation has no legal limit and that Coalition forces are unaccountable to anyone’.
In every country, the sense of injustice has a visceral motivating power, but this is especially true in Afghanistan, where justice has historically been tied to state legitimacy and where there is ample precedent for armed resistance in the face of perceived wrongs. The Taleban have exploited the justice deficit to the full, using it in their propaganda to deride president Karzai and his foreign backers, and as often the only service the movement provides to civilians in areas under its control is in the form of Taleban courts. Despite the grievous record of Mullah Omar during the Emirate in ordering village burnings and massacres of civilians and the movement’s continuing abuses, including intimidation and assassination campaigns, the Taleban are still able to promote themselves as the providers of justice.
Principles of rule of law and human rights, of civil and political rights have been developed over the centuries to stop states becoming predatory. Sidelining them has allowed a predatory state to develop and thrive. The lack of a clear strategy to address injustice is almost equivalent to the lack of a strategy for the internal political aspects of the insurgency – the abandonment of arguably the single most important battlefield of the conflict to the Taleban. Until this is fixed, arguing over how many foreign troops to deploy and how best to fight the Taleban will remain absolutely pointless.
(*) For the quotes from the Obama review see here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020