Facts on the ground in Afghanistan: a village perspective

Let’s try asking Afghan people: “Has the west failed in Afghanistan?”

Contrary to the US rhetoric of ‘shifting momentum’ and ‘notable operational gains’, “there is little proof”, as a recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report argues, “ that the operations have disrupted the insurgency’s momentum or increased stability”. It adds: “The storyline does not match the facts on the ground”.

Facts on the ground, in fact, tell a completely different story. It is a story every journalist not content with simply repeating well-informed accounts or military draft knows well. I knew it through my trips, firstly made for gathering detailed, ground-level information as a freelance journalist, and then for field-research on ‘Afghan civil society’ promoted by the Italian network “Afgana”, which will organize two conferences on the subject in Kabul and Rome.

In recent years I have had the opportunity to travel at different times for quite long periods throughout Afghanistan, mostly by road, using public buses, collective taxis, motorbike, covering almost half of the 34 provinces, crossing the Tajikistan and Iran borders, always travelling independently and strictly avoiding any ‘embeddings’ except from those within the Afghan local communities.

Those communities continue to reconstitute and refresh the Afghan cultural and social legacy, despite deteriorating security even in regions previously considered safe. They strongly criticize the lack of accountability of the Afghan Government, to which they deny any confidence, trust or legitimacy. But they also reserve the right to criticize the schizophrenic posture of the international community, which uses the language of rights when it suits their purposes, and dismisses those rights when they are incompatible with its strategic interests.

One of the strategic interests of the international community is the close alliance with forces that are a major obstacle to people’s empowerment and participation in social life. Afghanistan, they affirm, is in deadlock - walking the tightrope between an always promised and always postponed reconstruction and a political instability never solved. But to be clear, this is a paradox of their own making. It is the unavoidable outcome of the ‘original sin’ of the USA: its lack of foresight and its extreme pragmatism which have led it to entrust Afghanistan to warlords, corrupt local strongmen and drug dealers. Why entrust Afghanistan to them? Because their control of large and diverse areas of the country along with the USA’s lack of concern for the ways they obtained and maintain that control, were supposed to quickly ensure security and governance in Afghanistan. These are also the same people who are preventing a transparent and reliable institutional framework from being consolidated.

This is an untenable policy, because, as the ICG reports, “selecting some of the most violent and corrupt people in the country, stoking them up with suitcases of cash and promises of more to come and then putting them in charge was never a recipe for stability, never mind institution building”. This shortsighted policy has led to a perverse political economy, “a nexus of financial interests between corrupt government officials, warlords, international contractors, and even the Taliban”, that has become counterproductive also for the US administration. In fact, initiatives that rely on the Afghan government to bring to justice major corrupt figures “contain a serious dilemma: they would include some of Karzai’s closest relatives and allies and require the prosecution of people on whom we often rely for assistance and/or support”, according to a leaked diplomatic cable coming from the Kabul US embassy at the end of 2009.

As a result, Afghanistan and the US administration are in a deadlock. Politically, and militarily, as Ajmal Samadi, researcher and director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), an independent Kabul-based organization monitoring civilian casualties (2421 killed in 2010 according to ARM Annual Report on Civilian Casualties of War), told me in a recent interview: “as long as the West is paying for every bullet the Afghan army shoots on the Taliban, this conflict will continue. But the day that money stops, international troops withdraw, the conflict will end in favour of the Taliban because if everywhere in the country there’s the belief that the Taliban are coming back, sooner or later, then it’s only a matter of time for them to succeed”.

The White House and Pentagon know it’s an unwinnable war, argues Haroun Mir, former assistant of commandant Massoud and director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies: “they have been forced to silently admit there is no military victory or solution in Afghanistan. That’s why the main aim today is to leave the country without losing face. It is not accidental that now the talk is of ‘reconciliation’ rather than ‘democracy’. But we all know it means surrender”. The USA is afraid to admit they have been defeated on the ground. And the Afghan population will be left “with a factionalised political arena, a well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law, an insurgency that is likely to resurge, and a fragile government propped up by foreign funding and a limited military presence. Not despite our best efforts, but quite possibly because of them”. Let’s try asking Afghan people: “Has the west failed in Afghanistan?”

How did the US get to here and what should they conclude?

May 1, 2003. In Kabul the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces a clear move “from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. The bulk of this country today is permissive, it’s secure”, he said regarding Afghanistan on the same day President Bush was giving a similar announcement for Iraq on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

January 27, 2011. Politicians, human rights and social activists, journalists and an excellent academic researcher, Martine van Bijlert, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, are invited to be part of a panel at the Davos Open Forum, where the transnational financial gotham is usually more inclined to consolatory self-indulgence than to serious tackling of controversial international issues. But on this occasion, Afghanistan was debated and harsh questions were asked – namely, “Has the West Failed in Afghanistan?” This was an implicit riposte, almost ten years later, to Rumsfeld’s optimistic claim of successful American interventionism. And it clearly exposes a truth, too long neglected, but now self-evident: the failure of the ambitious plan of state building, reconstruction and ‘development’ set out by the international community in the aftermath of the Taliban’s removal from power.

The shift in US administration official speeches is not accidental. Faced with an obstinate Taliban reluctance to welcome foreign troops, and faced with Afghanis’ resistance to exogenous ideological and political agendas, the instrumental ideal of promoting democracy and human rights was best abandoned. It has been substituted by the aim to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” terrorism through the gradual withdrawal of US and ISAF troops and the strengthening of the Afghan National Security Forces – all of it couched in sufficiently vague and imprecise terms to fit just about every politician’s rhetorical needs. When goals cannot be reached, any war-strategy manual teaches the same thing.

Now, let’s assume the most often - uncritically - adopted perspective on Afghanistan, the military side of the coin. Let’s forget a series of other essential things: the ineffective Afghan political system, hijacked by factional fighting and affected by systemic corruption; the uncertain political landscape, with the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) inaugurated 130 days after the parliamentary vote, symbolizing the fraudulent electoral process and the Karzai government’s inability to produce heterogeneous political deals; the impunity of state officials and power-brokers due to an anaemic and un-professional judiciary; the promiscuous marriage between the war economy and the aid development industry; the international community’s predatory attitude; donors’ tendency to see Afghan civil society as first and foremost “a channel for emergency and development assistance”, its incapacity to see other than “constructing buildings and schools, forgetting”, as Raz Mohammad Dalili, director of Sanayee Development Organization, put it to me, “all the ‘software’ components such as the social and cultural activities”, together with its misunderstanding, as Mirwais Wardak, from Cooperation for Peace and Unity stressed, of “the fundamental role still played in Afghanistan by key blocks of traditional society - the shura and  jirga, and other such councils - and by Islamic values”.

Let’s ignore all these crucial points, as was mostly, wrongly done until now in policy-makers’ debates, and let’s see what Afghanistan looks like from a narrow military viewpoint: a quagmire, “from which it is difficult to come out and even more complicated to move on”. True, Washington’s new approach combines “a readiness to negotiate and compromise (even with significant elements of the Taliban leadership) in order to end the war, with a belief that it needs to do so from a position of clear military strength”. Still, it is also true that this superior military strength cannot be reached. Despite the huge cost of the war “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country” – in the words of some of the best-informed and sharpest observers of Afghanistan, in a December  'Letter to the President of the United States.'  

Photos are the author's. Top to bottom: Afghan road; man and river, Zarshay village, Kesht valley, Faryab province; nomad girls near Garmao,central Afghanistan; Chatting-mazar; barbershop

About the author

Freelance journalist and researcher, Giuliano Battiston contributes to the Italian newspaper “il manifesto”, “l’Unità” e to the cultural review “Lo Straniero”. From Afghanistan he writes also for Inter Press Service news agency. He has conducted field-researches in Afghanistan for the Italian civil society network “Afgana” and other NGOs. He is the programme coordinator of a book fair dedicated to social issues (“Salone dell’editoria sociale”, www.editoriasociale.info) and the author of two interview books on globalization: Zygmunt Bauman. Modernità e globalizzazione (Edizioni dell’Asino 2009) and Per un’altra globalizzazione (Edizioni dell’Asino 2010). He is working on a book about the Afghan conflict through the people's eyes.