Will the International Community Prevent “Eye-Watering” Violence in Afghanistan as Troops Depart?

My latest:

Afghanistan could experience “eye-watering” levels of violence during and after the departure of foreign troops, NATO civilian Special Representative Mark Sedwill told reporters Wednesday, just two days before the 2010 NATO Summit commenced in Lisbon. Human rights groups meanwhile urged NATO member states to take humanitarian and human rights concerns seriously as plans are made for the phased withdrawal of foreign forces beginning early next year.

“As NATO begins to discuss its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s crucial to explain to the Afghan people exactly how the international community will follow through on its promise to protect and promote their human rights,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme Director.

Twenty-nine leading Afghan and international NGOs, led by Oxfam, called on NATO to improve oversight of Afghanistan’s police and army during the security transition between 2011 and 2014 and end programs that train and arm often abusive local militias to fight the Taliban.

Human Rights Watch, which echoed the call to end militia programs, rebuked the United States and NATO for working closely with known human rights abusers and ignoring Afghans’ desire for justice and an effective, non-predatory government.

“The US and NATO impatience for quick results is reducing their resolve to press for governance reform,” said Rachel Reid, HRW’s Afghanistan researcher. ”The tougher – but longer-term solution – is to stop doing deals with abusive or corrupt people, and instead, prosecute them and strengthen the institutions capable of delivering that justice.”

Sedwill’s candid admission that mass violence could follow the security transition poses urgent questions. Will the international community prevent major crimes against civilians in Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal of foreign forces?

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.

The perils of mapping Afghanistan’s conflict

Afghan soldiers stand near the site of a mass grave outside Kabul. May 2010.

I have a new piece up at UN Dispatch about why the leaked and recently resurfaced UN conflict mapping report on Afghanistan matters.

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming former commanders now serving in the Afghan government in  connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.

Sliding

Herat Citadel. September 2010. A bombing in Herat killed 3 civilians today.

My worldview, if one can call it that, hews to the famous M.L.K  quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I am trying –hard– not to lose sight of that.

Being here continuously (read: no R&R) since the beginning of the year has been physically and emotionally grueling. It has been one of the hardest and at times most painful experiences of my life, and also one of the most formative. Thrown into situations I don’t know how to even begin describing, and for which nothing in my previous life prepared me, I’ve shed many old beliefs and sharpened others to points fine enough to pierce steel.

The war in Afghanistan is worsening in ways that are tangible. Places that were safe when I arrived last winter, places I traveled with no fear, have since slipped into violence and become “no-go” zones. Taliban control is expanding in the north of the country.  The parliamentary campaign season was bloody and frightening. Every few days now, I hear of another kidnapping or another assassination. In the south, suicide bombings have become as ordinary as car accidents. And now the air war is back.

Over dinner a few nights ago, a friend asked me where I think all this is going. I answered honestly: I don’t know. I wish I did, but I have no idea what Kabul city, let alone Afghanistan, will look or feel like two months from now, six months from now, a year from now. Karzai is calling the talks with insurgent groups a “peace process.” Yet, we, politically informed expats and Afghans, still have very little idea what’s actually on the negotiating table or how any sort of political deal might work.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that most of the international community has given up on values: anti-corruption, human rights,  justice, democratization –those have been discarded. All the internationals seem to be working and hoping for at this late hour is some vague concept of stability, the aversion of all-out disaster just long enough to allow their soldiers a dignified exit.

Afghanistan is sliding, and no one knows how to put the brakes on.

None of this is revelatory, but I felt the need to write it anyway, to get it out of myself so I can get back to work.

Living with ghosts

Captain Cat, on recent political developments here:

Whilst we endlessly debate whether Karzai is friend or foe or fit to lead, and discuss the possibility of peace deals led by men who will probably never have to answer for their own crimes or for the lives they have destroyed; whilst we avidly read news articles in the half-belief that someone, somewhere must surely make a breakthrough about what must be done, the country’s quiet majority will continue to live with their ghosts, hopes for some kind of justice for past abuses vanquished. Dreams will bow their heads in silent resignation, the world will continue to turn.

I so wish Javaid could comment. Almost three months have passed since his death, and I still catch myself wondering what he’ll say about the elections, or the appointment of the High Level Peace Council. And then I remember.

The amnesty law

The Guardian reports:

Taliban fighters who have maimed and murdered but who lay down their weapons will be given immunity from prosecution according to a law that came into force without announcement in the weeks running up to last month’s London conference on Afghanistan.

The sudden implementation of the controversial law, which had been shelved for almost two years since it was passed by a slim parliamentary majority in 2007, has raised fears that the Afghan government is ignoring the rights of Taliban victims for the sake of President Hamid Karzai‘s push for a quick peace deal with insurgents.

The gazetting of the law hasn’t “raised fears”;  it has confirmed them.  And, of course, the law applies not only to the current crop of insurgents, who, let’s not forget, aren’t the only killers of Afghan civilians over the past thirty years:

The reconciliation and general amnesty law also gives immunity from prosecution to all of the country’s warlords, the former factional leaders, many of whom are hated for the atrocities they committed during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s.

The sorry transitional justice process Criminal accountability  in Afghanistan was just dealt a very serious –if not killing– blow.  It will be interesting to see if the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and human rights NGOs start pushing the angle of international prosecution. With the implementation of the amnesty law, Afghanistan undeniably meets the ICC’s  “unable or unwilling” standard, and Human Rights Watch and other groups have long (as in, before 2001) advocated for an international tribunal for Afghanistan similar to those created for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Here is an account of the 1993 Afshar massacre, one of many atrocities committed during the civil war:

That first day, a rocket hit our house. My husband was wounded in the foot. He was bleeding. . . . People were rushing around: men, women, children, all fleeing their houses, going toward the Intercontinental Hotel. I told my husband, “Everyone is leaving, fleeing, no one is left.” And I said that we should go. But he said, “I can’t move. I can’t go with you. Leave me here, and flee.” And he told me to take the eldest daughter, and that taking her away was the most important thing. . . .

We went out [of the house], but I couldn’t go. I couldn’t leave him there—my husband. I had to go back. So I went back, and I told him that I wanted him to come with us, and that I would help him walk. . . . So then we went, I was helping him, he had his arm around my shoulder. I was also carrying my three-month-old son, and my eldest daughter was holding my three-year-old. We got as far as the water canal [about 80 meters away].

At that moment, some gunmen came up to us, Mullah Ezatullah’s men. The commander said, “Qalfak Chapat.” [A derogatory term for Hazaras referring to their facial features.] “I’m one of Ezatullah’s men, and I’ve been ordered to seize this area. I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget, for all of history.” He was a fat strong man, in plain Afghan clothes. But they didn’t do anything to us. They said, “We can reach you anywhere you go, we are everywhere, we control everything.” And they moved on.

So we were very scared. My husband said he could not go on. So we went back to our house. He made us leave, he insisted that I take our daughter, and so we went. We went [past] the Intercontinental . . . and we went to the Ismaili people [in Taimani], who helped us.

A few days later, a neighbor came to us, a Tajik who knew what was going on. He told us that Afshar was destroyed, my house was burned, and my husband was killed.

Today in west Kabul, survivors marked the 17th anniversary of these events and demonstrated against the immunization of the perpetrators from prosecution.

The same old canard

From the comments section of Aid Watch, emphasis mine:

Lure D. Lou:

Transitionland says that immediately tackling corruption could go far to reversing this. What I would say is that one man’s corruption is another man’s way of life…as long as you have great disparities in wealth, a non-democratic power allocation, and fortunes to be made from drugs and weapons you will get nowhere in tackling corruption. Corruption is endemic to even the most advanced societies…just look at New Jersey politics…what you need are alternative structures that aren’t corrupt that will hopefully draw enough people away and give them enough incentives to stay on the straight and narrow. This is not going to happen any time soon in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or even New Jersey. The focus on corruption is a waste of time…better to use the corrupt system than to try to change it…but goodie-two shoes Americans are unlikely to want to go there…we want to save souls while allowing our contractors to rake in the dough and our NGO legions to pad their ‘conflict zone’ resumes…the Great Game of neo-colonialism continues.

Good governance NGOs in places like Afghanistan make me laugh.

A few things:

1) When I mentioned corruption, I was referring to corruption by aid agencies and their contractors. If corruption in the aid world is, as Lure D. Lou argues, a “way of life,” it is not one I want any part of.  We condemn and punish corruption in the for-profit sector (or should); there’s no reason we should apply a different set of principles to non-profits, including aid agencies.

2) New Jersey is corrupt. Comically so. But its corruption is, for the most part, the non-lethal variety, and it is mitigated (though not always successfully) by strong rule of law. Comparing Afghanistan to New Jersey is absurd. Afghanistan won’t reach New Jersey’s level of governance development for a very, very long time (I’m pretty confident I will be long dead by the time it does), but that doesn’t mean Afghanistan can’t do better, or shouldn’t. Corruption in poor societies steals food from the mouths of the poor, deprives people of basic necessities of life, walks hand in hand with human rights abuse, kills. If you don’t have an ethical problem with that, you’re an asshole.

3) It’s “better to use a corrupt system than try to change it”? Use it for what exactly?

Lou’s muddled argument seems to be that corruption is hardwired into human nature, but some humans (read: people from the developing world) are slightly more prone to corrupt behavior than others.  Lovely.

*

Another prize-winning comment:

Justin Kraus:

Transitionland,

I for one wish there were more people like Lure D. Lou in development work, at least he is thinking outside the box a little bit. Your own approach, and that of most development agencies, strikes me as arrogant and patronizing. Talking about how the “international community,” which if it exists at all in any meaningful sense, is surely the most hypocritical entity on this planet, should “hold the Afghan government to its commitments” as if they were somehow freely made in the first place (how many troops do “we” have in that country?), and as if it were completely unproblematic for “us” to be telling them how to run their country. What we call vetting, they call western imperialist encroachment. Why not “allow” them to choose their leaders as they see fit? We don’t go waltzing into Japan which, even with the recent election, doesn’t have a “true” democracy in any western sense of the word?

And then you take this patroninizing protective posture over the Afghan people by stating that Mr. Lure is “dangerous” to the people that you are (supposedly) “helping.” Who is the best judge of what is and what is not help? From the looks of it most Afghanis are rejecting Western “help.”

Perhaps we should be humble enough to take a step back and stop trying to impose our “help” on a people who clearly prefer to manage themselves in ways very different from “our” own.

1) Putting international community in snark quotes is lame. Everyone knows what it means, or should anyway. It’s a convenient shorthand for a collection of governments and IOs working together. In Bosnia, it’s the OSCE, EU, UN, and United States. In Afghanistan, UNAMA, ISAF, donor agencies, NGOs, and foreign governments. No one is going to write all that out. You find international community an obnoxious phrase? Too bad. Get over it already.

2) Holding the Afghan Government to its own constitution and to international law is not disrespectful, but the opposite would be. “You must do better” implies “and we know you can.”

3) As for “telling them how to run their country” — well, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Are we shoving an unsuitable form of government and set of ideals down the throats of unwilling Afghans?

We are, if you count only those  who gain personal benefit from anarchy, corruption, and misgovernment. These are the people who, in every transitional society, are first to invoke “cultural differences” when the existence of said differences would oh-so-conveniently allow them to gain or retain power.

Afghan public opinion on many things  –that is, what ordinary women and men think– matches closely the more principled goals of the international community in Afghanistan. If anything, Afghans have actually expressed stronger desire for good governance, rule of law, and transitional justice than many expats.

4) “What we call vetting, they call imperialist encroachment.” Um, no. That’s just factually untrue.

From page 28 of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report, A Call for Justice:

Many people who participated in our study forcefully made the point that human rights violations continue in Afghanistan today and that abusers remain in power. The vast majority of respondents who participated in the survey wished to see those who committed human rights abuses removed from their posts. Ninety percent of respondents indicated a desire to see the removal of perpetrators from their posts. The results of the survey were reflected in the sentiments expressed in the focus groups. Most participants wished to see the exclusion of human rights abusers from public office in order to prevent the reoccurrence of injustice. In particular they wanted to prevent perpetrators from gaining political power in the future.

Some “Western encroachment” that is.

5) “Why not ‘allow’ them to choose their leaders as they see fit?” That’s a great idea. Only, slightly difficult in practice at the moment for two reasons: some of those in power will do almost anything, including defraud, intimidate and kill, to hang on to it. And the international community is not doing enough to protect the right of ordinary Afghans to freely and fairly choose their own leaders.

6) Afghans (Afghani is a unit of currency, like dollar or Euro) aren’t “rejecting Western ‘help’” –they are rejecting our hypocrisy, laziness, corruption, insufficient respect for Afghan lives on the military side of things, and unwillingness to listen to Afghans who actually want the best for their country. That’s a different animal entirely.

Predicting and preventing disaster in Afghanistan

Bill Easterly writes:

Maybe I have a biased selection, but it seems like every sensible economist, political scientist, development worker, and journalist that I know thinks our current course in Afghanistan can have only one outcome — disaster. Disaster for Americans, for our NATO allies, AND for Afghans.

Why is nobody listening?

I would argue that more people in positions to do something are listening now than they were in, say, 2002, when the course could have been corrected far more easily.

So, what needs to be done differently?

The following are literally no more than the first few things that popped into my head. Please do not berate me over all the things I left out:

Continue reading

What international justice looks like

Former paramilitaries Milan and Sredoje Lukic were sentenced to life and 30 years imprisonment, respectively, by the ICTY.

The cousins were found guilty of burning alive 130 civilians –most of them women, children and elderly men– near the Bosnian town in Visegrad in 1992, murdering an additional 12 civilian men, and beating prisoners in a detention camp.

According to the BBC:

Judge Patrick Robinson, reading his verdict, said: “The perpetration by Milan Lukic and Stredoje Lukic of crimes in this case is characterised by a callous and vicious disregard for human life.”

The burning alive of Muslims, he said, was extraordinarily brutal, and “exemplified the worst acts of humanity that one person may inflict on others”.

You can watch a video of the verdict here.