“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.
President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.
“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for,…dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.
Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The United States did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.
You could argue (and I would) that luring the US military into the quagmire of a long guerilla war in Afghanistan that would drive millions of Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda was precisely what Osama bin Laden was hoping to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. The United States simply fell into the strategic trap that he laid.
Even so, and despite all the rapidly changing reasons for “staying the course” in Afghanistan that Washington deployed in later years, the original and abiding motive in Washington was the perception, accurate or not, that who rules Afghanistan is a matter of great importance for the national security of the United States.
Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular US official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year US military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?
As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.
Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.
In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.
Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.
There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.
It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.
Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.
Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Karzai’s…States”)
20 November 2013
Bad Times in Libya
By Gwynne Dyer
A little over two years after the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organisations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule they get shot.
That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of the “Libyan Shield Brigade”.
It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used heavy machine-guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.
In between, there have been some eighty assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.
Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day last summer to only 200,000 bpd. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month – including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.
That’s the bad news in Libya, but it all follows logically from the nature of the five-month war that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011. It was not the militias that defeated him; it was NATO’s air power, which relentlessly bombed his troops and strong-points. But since the Western countries, haunted by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, had no wish to put troops on the ground, it was the militias who collected the victory.
The militias now have 225,000 members in a country of only 5 million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40 percent unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.
What government there was at the centre has now largely disintegrated. There was a reasonably free election in 2012, but most of those elected represented tribal, ethnic or regional interests, and they have now mostly withdrawn from the national Congress in disgust, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant influence in the government even though it lacks broad support in the country. So the disintegration continues.
The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80 percent of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Prime Minister Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the (oil) terminals (in Cyrenaica) will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to – but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.
Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After forty-two years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job.
You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Prime Minister Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia”.
Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to cooperation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns. And there is a kind of civil society emerging in Libya now: those crowds of protesters that the militias massacred were actually evidence that it exists.
It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralised and federalised one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“That’s…victory”; and “What…continues”)
1 July 2013
Afghanistan: The Quest for a “Decent Interval”
By Gwynne Dyer
History does not exactly repeat itself: the final outcome of the American intervention in Afghanistan will not be the same as the end result in Vietnam. But the negotiations between the United States and its Taliban enemy that are lurching into motion in Qatar as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanstan next year are eerily similar to the “Paris peace talks” that paved the way for the US military withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973.
In his Briefing Notes for a secret 1971 meeting in Beijing with Chinese government officials, Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to US president Richard Nixon, wrote in the margin: “We are ready to withdraw all of our forces [from South Vietnam] by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future….We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.”
The phrase got out, and it stuck: the whole point of the exercise by 1971, from the US point of view, was to get out of the Vietnamese war without admitting defeat. North Vietnam could collect its victory in the end, but it must allow a “decent interval” to pass so that Washington could distance itself from blame for the ultimate collapse of its local Vietnamese allies.
Direct American-Taliban peace talks are now on the menu for much the same reason. The Obama administration realises that the intervention in Afghanistan has been a ghastly failure, but it needs some semblance of success, however transitory, to console the families of the 4,000 American dead in the war, and to save America’s face internationally.
Just as in the Vietnam case, the fighting will continue while the diplomats are talking. Just as in Vietnam, American generals and diplomats must go on claiming in the meantime that victory is in sight.
When General John Allen, the last US commander in Afghanistan, handed over to his successor in February, he said what he had to say: “This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well trained Afghan forces that are emerging today….This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.” But privately, he must know better: American generals are rarely stupid.
And just as in Vietnam, the puppet regime in Afghanistan is now panicking as its master prepares to abandon it. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, rightly sensing that he was about to be sold down the river, revealed the details of the secret American-North Vietnamese agreement in 1972, hoping to mobilise US Congressional and public opinion against it. Fat chance. Both members of Congress and the public wanted out at any price.
So, too, with Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to send representatives to the American-organised talks in Qatar until he has a promise that the Taliban will not be given a share of power. He is also refusing to agree to a continuing US military presence in the country after 2014 until he gets his way. But he will not get his way, and the US will do whatever it wants.
Maybe the Taliban will be patient enough to give the US the “decent interval” it wants, believing that they can collect their victory a few years after the American troops have gone home. Or perhaps they will reject anything short of immediate and total victory, knowing that the American troops will leave anyway. However, the war in Afghanistan is actually a civil war, and they can never win a decisive victory.
The Afghan civil war began in 1992, when the puppet government that the Russians left behind when they pulled their troops out the country in 1989 collapsed. The various mujaheddin groups who had fought the Russians went to war with one another for control of the country, and that civil war has continued ever since.
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country, and the conflict soon resolved into a struggle between the Taliban, the dominant organisation in the Pashtun-populated parts of the country, and the militias of the Northern Alliance, the various smaller ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan.
Since the Pashtuns are almost half the country’s population and had Pakistani support, the Taliban won control of multi-ethnic Kabul and become the country’s “government” in 1996. However, they never conquered the “Northern Alliance” that dominated the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek provinces in the north.
Then, after 9/11, the US invaded and made a de facto alliance with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. This tipped the balance in the war in the other direction, and it’s the northern warlords who have effectively run (or rather, looted) the country for the past decade.
Once the US leaves, the balance of power between these two sides will be restored – and the civil war between them will continue on a more equal basis. This is not Vietnam, a homogeneous country with a strong national identity. It is a tribal country whose borders are entirely artificial. Decisive victory in Afghanistan is unattainable for any ethnic group.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Just…stupid”)
26 May 2013
The Peaceful World
By Gwynne Dyer
Imagine for a moment that all the wars of the world have come to a peaceful conclusion. Most violent crime against people and property has also been eradicated. The worst outbreak of violence in the world in the past 24 hours has been a fight in a bar in Irkutsk, Russia.
What item do you think will lead the international news for the next 12 hours, or however long it takes until something fresher come along? The bar fight in Irkutsk, of course. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says the axiom, and the world’s media follow it slavishly, so they will always give you the impression that the world is drowning in violence. It is not – but people think it is.
Stop people at random and ask them how many wars they think are going on in the world right now. Most people would guess around a dozen, although they wouldn’t be able to name them. The right answer is two, and one of them, Afghanistan, is probably approaching its end.
There are close to 200 independent countries in the world, and only one in a hundred is currently at war. They are both primarily civil wars, although there is some foreign involvement in each case. The Syrian civil war is extremely destructive of lives and property, the war in Afghanistan less so, and in both cases the fighting occasionally slops over their borders, but that’s it.
There are a number of other countries where there is a lower level of civil conflict: the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, or Colombia (although the latter is now engaged in peace talks to end the fifty-year conflict between the state and the FARC guerillas). But the Sri Lankan civil war is over, the Iraqi civil war is at least over for the moment, and the many little wars of West Africa are all over.
Then there is Somalia, the world’s only failed state, where twenty years of violent anarchy may finally be drawing to an end. But the actual scale of the fighting has rarely risen to a level that would qualify what has been happening there as a full-scale war. Not, at least, what would have qualified as a full-scale war back in the days when that sort of thing was still common. Most of the time Somalia’s conflict has been more like gangland wars on steroids.
There is terrorism in various places, like Boko Haram’s bizarre campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria (where only half the population is Muslim), the Pakistani Taliban’s campaign of murder against their Shia fellow-citizens, and the Naxalites’ long and forlorn struggle to make a Communist revolution in India. All nasty, but none of them real wars.
And there is, finally, the famous “war” on terror, which these days amounts to little more than over-zealous law enforcement at home and selective assassination by drones abroad. Like the “war” on drugs in Mexico, it is only a metaphor for an activity that is not really a war at all.
So that’s it: two real wars, and a clutter of lesser conflicts that really do not merit the term. In a world of seven billion people, only a few hundred million have even the slightest experience of organised violence for political ends. Why, then, do so many people think that the world is still overrun by war?
The media are partly to blame, but they are also manipulated by various governments that raise the spectre of war for their own ends. Wars that have not happened and are never likely to fill the imaginations of the public: a war in Korea, a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran, Western or Israeli intervention in Syria, a war between China and South-East Asian countries over islands in the South China Sea, a US-Chinese conflict in the Pacific, and on and on.
A lot of people, some in uniform and some not, make a living off these mostly phantom fears, and they contribute to the general impression that the world is still a place where war, however deplorable, is the normal state of affairs. It is not. We live in an era where, for the first time in history, no great power genuinely fears attack by any other, and where the number of actual wars can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand.
Almost 90 million people died in the world wars and other big wars (including the Russian, Chinese and Spanish civil wars) of the first half of the 20th century, out of a world population that was one-third of what it is now. In the second half of the century the death toll dropped steeply to 25 million or so, most of whom died in colonial independence wars and civil wars.
And so far, in the 21st century, the total is less than one million people killed in war. What we have on our hands here is a miraculous and mostly unsung success story. There will doubtless be more wars, but they may be small and infrequent. We are obviously doing something right. We should figure out what it is, and do more of it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Then…steroids”; and “And there is…at all)