Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Reading newspapers on an airplane (2)

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

After another longer stay in Kabul, reading newspapers on an airplane brings one back into the news mainstream – because, while in Afghanistan, you simply are overwhelmed by events there and develop some kind of tunnel vision. This time, it was particularly dreadful: with the series of political assassinations, both in northern and southern Afghanistan, the attack on the Kabul Interconti hotel and – largely unreported – the continuing wave of abductions of ordinary Afghans without any specific rank and position of which the criminals obviously think that they possess some money which can be extracted from them. Comments on the Oslo terrorist attacks and on parallels between Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan by AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig.

Dry water reservoir in Khak-e Jabbar, Kabul province. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).

Outbound from Kabul, the Oslo shock hit me with full force. Thinking about Norwegian friends and colleagues, soon disgust entered my feelings about those – as my favourite Berlin daily taz called it (here) – ‘(t)error experts’ who, after a few hours only, are ready to detect ‘Islamist terrorists’ behind the bomb attack and the mass shooting at the social democrat youth camp. (Journalists and editors who give in to the urge to be the first out with a theory no matter how thin the facts available are part of this approach, although the experts simply could say that it is too early to draw conclusions.) This phenomenon was widespread, also in quality media like the BBC and The Independent (see letters to the editor here) as well as in both main German TV networks, ARD and ZDF, only to mention those I came across.

A commentator in Süddeutsche Zeitung stated that ‘up to now, one did not want to or wasn’t able to imagine that – in contrast to the fundamentalists of Islam – a Christian fundamentalist from the West would gather the will, the concentration and the discipline to really go the whole way’ – from words to the deed, he means (read his opinion piece here).

How blue-eyed is this? The rhetorics of an ‘immigrants’ wave’ and an Islamic takeover that threaten Europe has long ago crossed the line between neonazi circles and mainstream politics. Not only right-wing populists who have been sitting in national parliaments across Europe for decades, first in Denmark, France and – yes – in Norway, and currently are trying the same in my country Germany have made it their trademark, but it has also permeated into mainstream party politics. Both, the ‘glut of asylum seekers’ and ‘Überfremdung’ (still looking for a good English translation of that terrible German word) are creations of mainstream politicians who tried to attract right wing votes (the justification: not to ‘cede’ those ‘arguments to the straight neonazis).

Home again, I found an old June issue of Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung about Germany’s two new ‘Islam-critical’ parties which call themselves ‘pro-civil rights’ and ‘anti-totalitarian’ – Die Freiheit (Freedom) and Pro-Germany. Leading members say they are concerned about a general ‘slide to the left’ and the ‘corrupt elites’ that owe their power to this as well as about journalists who are ‘informers against the will of the people’. They demand a complete stop of immigration and call everyone who does not agree with them the ‘real fascists’. One of them was quoted as saying that if ‘Islamicisation’ continued like currently, it might be ‘too late’ in ten years (read the full article here). That indeed sounds like Breivik’s ‘manifesto’, the theoretical justification of his terrorist actions.

Also, the claim that ‘the number of rightwing extremist criminal offenses is relatively low’, as in a Europol report quotes in the Huffington Post (seehere) is basically wrong. In Germany alone, between German reunification in October 1990 and end of 2009 there were 149 people killed by ‘right-wing extremist and racist’ violence, reports the renowned Amadeu Antonio Foundation that is named after one of the first victims, a Mocambican killed by a right-wing inspired youth mob in 1990 (see the full list here). In sum, that’s more than Breivik’s killing scoreboard. But it seems that our governments, police and intelligence service – and also many journalists – suffer from what some people here call ‘blindness on their right eyes’.

The second issue which hit me – and which hopefully would have covered the frontpages if it hadn’t been for Breivik – is the famine in Somalia. Most British newspapers I had on the plane advertised a campaign of UK charities to donate a day’s salary for Horn of Africa relief. That’s good, and I hope that many people respond. But I also hope that they notice a striking commentary in The Independent titled: ‘This famine is a failure of politics, not of generosity’ (don’t fail to read it here). Author Daniel Howden points out that almost the whole Horn of Africa suffers from another drought but that it is in areas of the sharpest military conflict that it has become an all-out famine.

But it were the following lines that really struck me:

‘Policy towards [post-Aidid] Somalia was governed by the logic that it no longer mattered what happened to Somalis as long as their suffering could be contained within their borders and radical elements could be neutralised.’

Just replace Somalia with Afghanistan, and you get an idea about how the international response to a possibly ongoing or even deepening crisis in Afghanistan likely will look like post-transition.

There are more (potential) parallels:

‘The ensuing occupation [after Ethiopia was encouraged by the US to invade Somalia six years ago] was catastrophic, spawning the extremist Shabab militia that is now understood to be the biggest obstacle to feeding starving Somalis. […]

[T]he [Somali government] has been a total failure. […] Six months ago [it] was told that donors would pull the plug on it unless the politicians could make some positive impact on the lives of their people. Instead, […] the Somali president and the parliamentary speaker engaged in another pointless power struggle. […]

The policy of containment in the face of the world’s most failed state has clearly not worked.’

I just hope that this last sentence doesn’t turn out to be prophetic for post-2014 Afghanistan. (A policy based on keeping ‘non-permanent’ bases or the right to use Afghan bases for strictly anti-terrorism means, to declare the combat mission over like in Iraq and keep out of inner-Afghan struggles as long as they do not fully get out of hand while hoping that the rest is sorted out by neighbouring countries sounds like some kind of containment, although not really like a realistic scenario to me.)

Another commentary from the same newspaper, by Patrick Cockburn (read it here) added another aspect of why intervention is facing failure:

‘Nato has joined one side in a civil war in Libya, just as it did earlier in Afghanistan’.

In Afghanistan, from there it was a straight line into a situation where the US (and not UN)-led ‘international community’ – I need to use parenthesis here – finds itself impossible to be the honest broker for peace but instead a party to war. This is the result of the West’s hubris, perceiving itself as omnipotent while lacking the unity, the means, mechanisms and the political will to tackle a conflict like the one in Afghanistan (or Somalia or Libya or Iraq or Congo or even Nagorno Karabach) head-on politically and comprehensively, i.e. based on the rule of law and political inclusivity, not based on picking allies and taking sides.

In Afghanistan, this chance was gambled away unnecessarily in late 2000 when the UN Security Council refused to treat the two sides of the Afghan civil (or better: factional) war equally and imposed a unilateral arms embargo against the Taleban – although both sides just had agreed to pursue a political (and more inclusive!) solution under UN mediation. Just imagine that this would have worked.


Kabul Taleban