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The war in Afghanistan will not be won by force
François Grünewald

Afghanistan has returned to the heart of international questions, particularly concerning debates during NATO’s 60th anniversary celebrations in Strasbourg. Despite this, at the time where the American approach seems finally to evolve but where the Taliban declare war on NGOs [1] and the situation in Pakistan degrades in a disquieting manner, the humanitarian space in Afghanistan is more reduced than ever. There is a need to re-analyse the wars that have been fought in this country by foreign powers, the attitude of the USA since 1980, the reality of the Taliban and how they should be dealt with. NGOs have been calling for renewed debate about these issues for some years and this appears to be taking place on both sides of the Atlantic [2].

Afghanistan is no doubt the context in which US strategists have committed the second-most errors after Vietnam. During the war against the Soviet Union, the CIA provided arms and money to the most fundamentalist groups within the Peshawar Resistance. These same groups laid siege to Kabul between 1994 and 1996 and are laying siege once again alongside the Taliban. Less fundamentalist factions of the Resistance, such as those linked to Massoud, were neglected. During this period, Bin Laden was not considered a threat but an asset in the war against the USSR, due to Saudi support. The US strategy, based on the precept ‘the enemies of my enemies are my friends’, sowed the seeds of the present situation. It is important to remember that the USA was initially very tolerant towards the Taliban, who were supposed to be firmly under the control of the intelligence services in Pakistan. From 1996, when the Taliban were in power, the oil company UNOCAL, close to Dick Cheney, began negotiations to build a pipeline across Afghanistan. At the time, human rights and the position of women were neither part of the deal nor part of the US position.

After September 11, the regime which had given sanctuary to the orchestrator of the attacks had to be punished. This war of revenge was then transformed into a virtuous ‘state-building’ strategy. But further errors were made.
The first of these was the tactical choice to use the most sophisticated means of modern warfare, which have shown their limits. For example, to avoid messages being intercepted they are sent by donkey. More and more tragic Coalition blunders with civilian victims have spread hatred.
The second error was Guantanamo and the special justice system which was contrary to International Humanitarian Law. How can the Taliban be asked to respect the Law of War if the major Western armies do not respect it?
The third error was the adoption of the civil-military strategy based on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which have blurred the lines between civilian humanitarian and development action and military action, with its unsuccessful ‘peace-keeping’ operations. NGOs have often expressed concern about the PRTs, but their warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
The fourth error has been to equate the Taliban and terrorism. The Taliban movement was created in 1994 under the impulsion of the Pakistani government who were worried that Afghanistan would demand a renegotiation of the Durand line, the border between the two countries. It was formed by students from the madrasas of Quetta and Peshawar. After the years of civil war and the lawless and faithless rule of the Warlords, they were often well received, even if their very strict interpretation of Islam was not always understood in Sufi-dominated areas, nor appreciated even in Pashtu areas where tribal identities are strong and resistant to central authority of any kind. The conflict in Iraq opened the door to new forms of Jihad. Terrorist methods such as suicide bombing (in Kandahar and Kabul) and throat-cutting, which are totally foreign to Afghan culture, were imported as a result. Such practices are as much in contradiction to the culture and values of Afghanistan, the Pashtun code of honour and Islam as they are to those of the West.

After so many errors, and with NATO’s military strategy getting deeper into trouble every day, it is time to recognise that the war in Afghanistan will not be won by force. The latest statements by President Karzai, Bernard Kouchner, General Petraeus, chief of US Central Command and President Obama all seem to show that there is a gradual return to fundamentals – the idea that negotiations are necessary and that they need to be conducted without preconceptions which distort debates and hamper the possibility of a breakthrough. Humanitarian actors need to re-establish confidence in humanitarian action so that people understand and respect what it is and the fact that humanitarian principles can be found in the Koran and Islamic teachings as well as in IHL. This will not be easy, but it is important that new approaches are found to meet the current challenges in Afghanistan, this magnificent and rebellious country where one of the first pages of the humanitarian story was written 30 years ago this year.


François Grünewald, Executive director, Groupe URD

[1] According to Taliban Commander Mohammed Ibrahim Hanafi in a telephone interview with CNN early March 2009. See Paula Newton, CNN, 15 March 2009, : http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/03/15/afghan.taliban.threat/

[2] See the work of Canadian NGOs in 2005, the work of the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) and that of the platform of French NGOs which organised the Conference on the reconstruction of Afghanistan on 22 May 2008 just before the Paris Conference on Afghanistan in June.