Afghanistan: Maintaining the Facade of the 'Mission'

Steve Nutt, 20 April 2012 | 1 Comment

Categories: Afghanistan | War | USA | BBC News | The Guardian | Middle East |

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In light of recent predictable events in Afghanistan, it is worth taking a long view of the NATO invasion and occupation to see if we can garner some sense of what the "mission" actually entails. The usual rhetoric concerns two related central matters: that NATO's presence is intended to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to an incubator for international jihadi groups, and to help create a stable, democratic state, upholding cosmopolitan humanitarian norms. Contemporary media discourse has it that the former has largely been achieved, and that the latter is fast becoming unsustainable. A more nuanced perspective would indicate that whilst there is evidence to support the first claim, the second has never been seriously implemented in over 10 years.

What is so remarkable is how little the people of Afghanistan have figured at all in both NATO and international NGO actions and in media coverage since 2001. Little coverage was given to the humanitarian disaster in the country before bombardment commenced in 2001, a result of the collapse in subsistence agriculture, mass population movements and infrastructure destruction born out of 20 years of civil war. Indeed the humanitarian disaster was used as a means to secure the fall of the Taliban. Military planners and NGOs together advocated the coercive use of aid in Afghanistan, to help secure longer term 'mission' goals rather than provide for the direct needs of the population. Such methods were roundly supported by the supposed left-wing press at the time. In 2001, the Observer responded to claims that 100,000 children could die of starvation if strikes continued through Afghanistan’s harsh winter, by arguing that those deaths could serve a ‘greater good’:

UNICEF reported last week, that 100,000 more children will die during this winter [...] if bombing of the country continues [...] A greater good squandered if it ceases1

Fast forward to 2012 and a BBC online article on NATO's crisis of trust, concerning the ‘long list of incidents in which members of the Afghan security forces have turned their arms on coalition troops’. There is much ‘how’ but little probing as to why members of the security forces might be motivated to attack their ‘allies’. And a double standard is at play. There have been attacks on civilians in Afghanistan far in excess of such ‘green on blue’ incidents; if there is a crisis of trust it is surely Afghans who must struggle to trust NATO forces. If a NATO soldier is killed by an Afghan ally, their death will make the news as standard practice, when NATO forces have killed – often multiple civilians, even local politicians - the NATO public relations machine does its best to delay, obfuscate, deny and mislead. Only occasionally is the news of such incidents immediately available. Even the most inexplicable and egregious of these incidents must, we are told, be put in the context of the greater good. Yet, if we ignore this narcissistic ideological construct, perhaps we might better understand the motives of Afghan attackers.

The means to pursue the 'mission' are at odds with the immediate needs of the civilian population. The militias recruited to chase out Washington’s former allies in the Taliban were of considerable pedigree. Just as chauvinistic and violent – if moderately less fundamentalist – as their counterparts in Kabul and elsewhere, but perhaps more conventionally corrupt in their reliance on the heroin trade for financing. The interim president ‘parachuted’ into Kabul, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had form in the abuse of human rights: The Revolutionary Woman’s Association of Afghanistan (RAWA) recorded the arbitrary execution of petty thieves by Rabbani’s regime in the mid 90s, its systematic torture and use of rape. Once we acknowledge that the security of common Afghans was of little concern to policy planners, it makes sense that they would simply replace an unfriendly strongman with a friendly counterpart.

The grand plan for Afghanistan? It remains much as it was in 2008: to establish an enduring NATO presence in Eurasia, specifically in the neighbourhood of the Soviet successor states, Iran, China and Pakistan. Yet despite the deliberate ambiguity surrounding potential withdrawal, the mainstream media is content to take up the government line.

Martin Kettle writing in The Guardian alludes to geo-strategic motives but chooses to speculate that currently 'the aim is withdrawal'. This despite regular proclamations of ‘strategic partnership’ between the West and Afghanistan. Kettle goes further; arguing that in their March summit Obama and Cameron were effectively marking

The imminent close of the phase of US-UK foreign policy [...] of American imperial power and British support for the active promotion of democracy and liberal institutions, particularly in the Muslim world.

Not only does this ignore the reality on the ground in Afghanistan - that democracy promotion and liberal institution building are a facade, have proved profoundly negative in their consequences, and provide a cover for imperial grand strategy which has little concern for the people - it ignores the substantial evidence to the contrary in the Muslim world. Kettle perpetuates the normative myth of US-UK foreign policy in the region: that it is active in democracy promotion. What of Afghanistan’s dictatorial neighbours? Those strategic allies in intelligence gathering and sites for military installations, all the while practising torture and state terror? We could look to Bahrain as an example of what to expect in a Western strategic ally, allowed free reign in torture and murder while the world watches, as long as it hosts the US 5th fleet. Kettle warns us of the dangers of quietist foreign policy, he paints the desperate attempts to deepen and extend the policies of a re-branded neo-conservatism as the act of bringing them to an end. Numerous journalists have reiterated this idealistic facade, arguing that David Cameron’s ‘national security’ rhetoric is a pragmatic counterpart to failed Blairite nation building. But the two projects hold precisely the same end goal: Afghanistan as strategic ally. Through the facade of cosmopolitan liberalism, they do not supplement national security, but undermine it.

A recent example of the facade is the agreement on ‘night raids’ to offer more control to the Afghan government. The Guardian reports that the US has ‘relinquished control’, suggesting that the government in Kabul will have a veto on ‘kill and capture’ operations. But the comments of US Navy Commander John Kirby reported by Democracy Now! Indicate that US Special Operations Forces will be able to conduct raids without the approval of the Afghan government. The Guardian report notes briefly that the deal will mean ‘shared responsibility’ for deaths and mistreatment during raids, in what seems to amount to a shift in responsibility without really transferring total authority.

And what will this grand geo-strategy mean for the people of Afghanistan? Not the fruits of the 'good work' of NATO forces parroted by British and American spokesmen, loyally repeated as the normative understanding of the 'mission' by mainstream journalists to reassure the public at home of the worthy cause. Despite the official 'massacre' by Staff Sgt. Bales and alleged accomplices in March, Obama and Cameron are quick to remind us that the 'mission' cannot be compromised by such worries as those for the lives of the murdered. But the official massacre has been preceded by numerous unofficial ones and a plethora of micro crimes that characterise the day-to-day business of an occupation - all implicitly worth suffering in the name of forcing back the Taliban, and banishing the ghosts of Bin Laden. US soldiers have been openly quoted in casual acknowledgement that their behaviour fuels further war, on a standard night raid one remarked:

Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here [...] It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.

Indigenous Afghan civil society organizations such as RAWA are calling for Western forces to leave, as they have been for many years. They fail to see the qualitative difference between the exiled abusers of human rights and the NATO backed replacement. And what of the 'mission'? If it is the stabilization of Afghanistan for Afghans it has failed from the start. If we consider the assassination of Bin Laden it seems obvious that the massive power of the West is more than capable of apprehending its enemies without the kind of mobilization that we have seen in Afghanistan. Indeed as Noam Chomsky has argued, Bin Laden himself might have been captured using diplomacy rather than military adventurism and post-facto UN backed revenge. Alternatives have been ever present, including an international policing operation to apprehend those involved in 9/11, a regionally backed endeavour to bring a settlement in the civil war and to secure basic human rights for Afghans, and an NGO effort to meet the direct needs of Afghan civilians.

In all of this, Afghans have been largely ignored and – now that many call for removal of NATO forces and for opposition to a return of the Taliban - they will no doubt be ignored again, be it in the name of some cosmopolitan liberal ideal that has never been genuinely offered, or in a bid to pull them from a mire of medievalism that in large part is a product of ideologies fostered in extreme poverty and the patriarchy of Pakistani refugee camps and inculcated in Wahabi madras’s. In all of this there is a common theme. It is outside interference.


1. Chandler, D. "From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention" (Pluto: 2006) p.51.

Categories in which this article appears: Afghanistan | War | USA | BBC News | The Guardian | Middle East |

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Comments (1)

1. Gordon Asher20 April 2012 14:13

A Startling Admission

This from article in the Guardian by Carne Ross: “before the campaign even started. In Bonn, an international conference was convened to construct a political strategy to follow the inevitable military victory. A moderate Pashtun would lead a government comprising all factions and ethnicities – or at least those we approved of. This new dispensation was to be endorsed by the traditional loya jirga, or "democracy, Afghan-style", as some chose to call it. It sounded plausible and everyone in the "international community" signed on”

To be clear – it is the fact that such an admission is being made, the source of the admission that is startling, not its content – which might be shocking, but is unsurprising.

Perhaps I’m not being observant but I haven’t seen this mentioned or followed up in Gdian itself or elsewhere in the media – neither mainstream nor radical/critical/alternative media. Perhaps I overestimate it’s significance?

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