21 August 2009

Reconsidering Pashtunistan

A guest post by Edward Turner

An American Solution for an American Empire?

The traditional story says Afghanistan's problems began around 1993: a year earlier the Soviets had retreated from the mujahidin and in the subsequent anarchy a group of half-illiterate vigilante Madrasa students decided they could do a better job at keeping order and challenged the power of the warlords.

At first it didn't seem significant: a 30-man group of tribesmen, lead by Mullah Omar a Pashtun of the trans-border Ghilzai tribe, took control of Kandahar city from a particularly hated warlord. But it didn't stop there: with the help of Pakistan, the "Taliban" movement snowballed into an unstoppable force for statehood.

By 1996 the ragtag group had conquered most of the country, Pashtun and non-Pashtun. In gratitude to their - as yet uninvited - Arab guests, whose jihadists and cash had helped the disorganised fighters win significant battles, the Taliban allowed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to set up Al Qaeda training camps in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Pakistan, wishing to support an Afghanistan state in which ethnic bonds were suppressed in deference to religious ties, eagerly recognised the new state in 1997.

Using Afghanistan as a springboard, the Arab Al Qaeda committed a string of high-profile terror attacks. This culminated in the 9/11 strikes on America, in New York and Washington, which in turn lead to the War on Terrorism being launched on Afghanistan in 2001.

Soon thereafter all Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan were flattened by bombs and a new Afghan government installed in 2006 - it seemed the Taliban had fled across the border with some remnants of Al Qaeda.

But three years later, while the Americans had stopped calling the war in Afghanistan a "War on Terror" the conflict with the Taliban appeared to have intensified to a terrifying new level and spread to a nuclear state, Pakistan.

Surely now, the traditional narrative of the conflict in Afghanistan has run its useful purpose. In Afghanistan the threat of Al Qaeda has been destroyed, while the Pakistani government support of the Taliban has U-turned into a fight for its life against it.

Rethinking the War on Taliban

The alternative narrative is this: the most significant date before 1993 was 100 years earlier, in 1893. In this year the 1600 mile-plus squiggly border over the barely-explored mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the Durand line, was etched into historical infamy by the most powerful Empire of the age, Great Britain.

After decades of futile conflict with the North Western tribes, the British, like Alexander the Great before, decided conquering the inhabitants along the North West Frontier was too much trouble. The region would be far better left as a natural quagmire for an invading Russian army.

Typical of British divide-and-rule tactics, the Durand line split the Pashtun tribes down the middle: the majority put on a trajectory towards a Pakistan state in 1947; while the historically most influential Durrani and Ghilzai tribes would be out of harm's way in Afghanistan.

The more educated and wealthier Durrani Pashtun, who lived in the urban south west of Afghanistan, would be the most powerful force in the notoriously unstable Afghan state until 1979. It is from this tribe of five million that the 2006 Afghanistan government draws its Pashtun Taliban opposition, including President Hamid Kazai.

The strategic point is this: the British Empire didn't need the Pashtun; they were a nuisance that could most effectively be employed as someone else's nuisance, and ignored. Today the successor Empire forgets about the Pashtun people at its cost.

The Taliban are not just Islamists, they are Pashtun Islamists.

If the conflict against the Taliban is to be won the Pashtun, and specifically the Ghilzai tribe of the Pashtun which forms the core of the Taliban, must be placed at the center of strategy. Everything else, including the need to protect a multi-ethnic "Afghanistan" can be ignored: why fight a British Empire war in the age of American Empire?

A useful strategic concept: Pashtunistan

If Pashtunistan had a capital city it would be Kandahar. At least three times in its history sizeable Pashtun Empires - including the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - have been built upon the initial capture of Kandahar by representatives of the Durrani or Ghilzai Pashtuns. (The other two cases were the Durrani Empire of the 19th Century, and the Hotaki dynasty of the 18th Century).

Mullah Omar is a member of the Hotaki clan of Pashtun nomads from the mountains east of Kandahar. While his traditional enemy is the Durrani - when one side has gained power the other has been excluded from leadership positions, which is the case inside the Ghilzai dominated Taliban - to describe their history as a Hatfield and McCoy act would be an over-simplification.

Though Ghilzai lead, the Durrani and other Pashtun tribes have cooperated under the banner of the Taliban, and so cooperation between them must be crucial for leveraging the Ghilzai Pashtun away from Al Qaeda with the promise of power within a Pashtun state. This cooperation is not due to a developed cultural sense of Pashtun nationhood (though from time to time Pashtuns have planted the Pashtun flag-stick on Pakistan’s side of the Durand line) but mutual interest.

Pashtun society has a "Russian doll" structure which means allegiances are always mixed and forever shifting. From tribe, khel, sub-khel, to kahol and the nuclear family, the koranay, the approximately 350 tribes (all but half-dozen insignificantly small) are united only in being notoriously ungovernable (such as Pakistan's experience with the Waziri tribe within the Federally Administered Tribal Area). Though they share one language and culture, the Pashtun are too much at war within itself to unite as one nation.

The Pashtun share a distinct social code, the Pashtunwali, and it is the strong emphasis on personal freedom within it that provides the basis for rejection of all external authority which is common to all Pashtuns when faced with attack. It also strongly favours a violent honor culture, and, if we didn’t already guess, hospitality and protection for guests. Graft on to this another the binding agent, the Islamic religion, which the Taliban represents, and it could be understood why it is not easy for external authority to overrun Pashtun peoples.

If the lock of peace can be unpicked it is through fostering cooperation on ethnic lines between the two tribes that have spawned Pashtuni Empires and which would provide the basis of Pashtunistan.

As the Taliban has shown, cooperation between Pashtun tribes is not an insurmountable problem. In order to be powerful, Ghilzai nomads must have control over the valuable economic strongholds of Uruzgan, Kandahar and the Helmand river valley (where opium is currently produced). This lies in Durrani Pashtun dominated regions. For their part, in order for the slightly less numerous Durrani to rule they need to be strong enough to rule the fierce Ghilzai warriors.

For one tribe to rule the other must acquiesce; their fates are entwined; there is no other way. Today, the Ghilzai have the upper hand through their Taliban vehicle. The concept of Pashtunistan is a useful one, however, as it might be the only political carrot that could rival the binding cause of the Taliban and make the powerful Durrani and Ghilzai tribes work together in a project that conflicts with the aims of Al Qaeda.

New American Solution: Self-determination for Afghanistan's ethnic groups

The sine qua non of any solution must first be to ensure a multi-national terrorist group can never use the region as a base for terrorist activity and that any new state does not directly sponsor terrorism. Other goals, such as democracy and human rights, should be ignored.

The idea of Afghanistan's Islamic democracy is contrary to the aims of the War on Terror: it encourages peoples of different ethnicities to live together in one state bound not by their shared ethnic ties but by an Islamic mono-culture that will lean toward extremist solutions.

As the Taliban proved, the only way to keep a comically diverse country together as Afghanistan is by a brutal version of Islam that cares neither for human rights or the destruction of foreign cities. States built upon territory, institutions and people can be deterred with force, however nasty. States built upon evil religious ideology and intimidation of out-groups cannot.

In Afghanistan, does America want another Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or Libya or another Saudi Arabia?

To reduce the role of Islamism as a binding agent for “Afghans”, the ethnic groups must be separated and ethnic ties must be used to bind them. Like the British Empire, Afghanistan, which was little more than a Pashtun Empire, must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Specifically, the Pashtuns, the only group that seems genuinely interested in the Taliban, need a rejuvination of bonds on ethnic lines. For this, cooperation between the Durrani and Ghilzai tribes is paramount. The Durrani can provide the economic base, the Ghilzai the security and political leadership.

Americans believe in self-determination - they demonstrated this in Yugoslavia. There is no reason for Uzbeks or Tajiks to live in the same state as Pashtuns. Likewise the Shia Hazara, whom the Sunni Pashtuns treat as non-believers, require their own state if there is going to be peace.

That old legacy of Empire, Pakistan cannot be allowed to derail the new American solution. It will be a challenge to incorporate parts of Pakistan into Pashtunistan without compromising Pakistan's sense of security. This could be done by lease of land of strategic importance to Pakistan for 50 years, with non-proliferation in mind.

Barack Obama who visited Pakistan in 1981 and whom has friends in high places is the ideal American President to host the Dayton style negotiations. He may recall Afghanistan represented a solution useful to the British Empire but not to the American Empire. It’s time for boundaries to be redrawn so there is never another Afghanistan.

01 August 2009

News values

In projecting the progress of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, metrics most commonly by the media are the deaths of British soldiers and, more generally, the deaths of other coalition troops. Further "downstream" are reports of the deaths of Afghani citizens, both civilians, members of the security forces and such categories as security guards.

In the hierarchy of death, however, we have long been aware that there has been a ranking applied by the popular media – the emphasis (quite understandably) given to British troops. Much less attention is given to other nationalities and, down the scale, are incidents involving Afghanis, which are often completely unreported.

Much the same applied to the campaign in Iraq, to the extent where the death of even quite prominent Iraqis went unreported, sometimes dropped in favour of more prominent events, especially those with a domestic political content.

This, I remarked upon in Ministry of Defeat, in one instance noting that the murder of a prominent Sunni and his son in Basra – and the kidnap of five others - had gone unreported. The British media had focused on Tony Blair giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, where he had been asked whether life was then better for the citizens of Basra than it had been pre-war.

This came up during the Frontline Club meeting yesterday, as an example of my unreasonable criticism of the media, the argument being that the news value of the Blair evidence far outweighed the murder and kidnap of a few Iraqis, even if these crimes had been committed by men in civilian clothes and police uniforms, in a fleet of 10 "official" cars with no number plates.

This, incidentally, had coincided with a six-hour curfew being imposed in Basra in an attempt to stem the growing tide of violence and a report that oil smuggling in southern Iraq had reached epidemic proportions, costing the country an estimated $4 billion a year, followed by yet another report of a rocket attack on a British base – none of which were reported in the British media.

What I had not realised, however, was that the ranking was quite formally structured. In the early days, of the occupation, one news organisation imposed a "tariff", reporting events only if they involved one dead British or American soldier, or five Iraqis. But, as the violence increased, the bar was raised where, to qualify for inclusion in a news report, three US soldiers or 25 Iraqis had to be killed. A British military death, of course, was always reported.

This, in my view, undoubtedly distorted British public perception of events – and indeed misled journalists. Relying on the metric of British military deaths as a comparator, in May 2005 Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele actually wrote that the insurgency barely existed in the south, it having been "quiet for months". British troops could pull out immediately, he declared.

Undeterred, the media is playing the same games in Afghanistan. We know, of course, that the reporting of British troops has been extremely high profile, with the toll reaching 22 for the month.

Yet, in the last two days, four Afghani soldiers have been killed in Helmand, their lives ended by an IED which hit their vehicle, and – in two separate incidents, eight and then four Afghani private security guards were killed, also by roadside bombs in Helmand, the first incident injuring four others. None of these incidents have been reported by the British media. You will have to turn to the official Chinese news agency Xinhuanet for details.

This news, however, is highly significant, for several reasons. First, it points up the perilous insecurity of the roads, where the death toll is actually far greater than the British media would indicate. Secondly, it reminds us of an important, but again ill-reported dynamic – that the Taleban is by no means confining its attacks to foreign security forces. The Afghan forces are at greater risk than our own.

Nor indeed are just the security forces are risk. There is also a steady and largely unreported toll taken of construction workers, another incident recently reported in Khost. And just over a week ago, 13 Afghan road construction workers were kidnapped in Paktia.

All these issues have a much wider significance. On the one hand, the strategic plan for Afghanistan is progressively to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and, on the other, much depends on the coalition and aid agencies being able to deliver reconstruction. Where both the security forces and construction workers are so much at risk, neither is going to happen, even discounting the unreliability of the local police.

The other significant issue here – one we have noted before – is the media-supported demand to increase helicopter lift for British troops, to enable them to be transported without using the road network, to keep them out of harm's way. Yet, that very process – effectively abandoning the network to the Taleban – could delay progress, by exposing local security forces and others to greater risk.

Meanwhile, in Lashkar Gah, in the city's main bazaar, turban seller Haji Lala says Taleban black is still the most popular colour. "Everyone wants black, like the Taleban. I sell 40 or 50 a month." It may be an indicator of where ordinary people think the province is heading, notes Australian writer Jerome Starkey.

Whichever way the province is heading, it seems not unreasonable to aver that we will not find out from the British media. Whether it is even reasonable to suggest that they should tell us is another matter. The very firm view I heard expressed on Wedenesday was, effectively, that it was not. What matters, it seems, are news values – not the actual news.

Snout in the trough

Through the MPs' expenses scandal, one occasionally heard noises off from our European "partners" who seemed to be amazed that there should be so much public outrage about what is, in other climes, perfectly normal behaviour.

Now, it seems, the Germans are having their own version. Social Democrat Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has raised a storm of protest after it emerged that she had flown out to Spain on holiday while instructing her official chauffeur to drive her ministerial limousine down from Germany to meet her at her holiday destination.

After the 3,000-mile trip in the official Mercedes, the chauffeur was kept on duty for two weeks, at the beck and call of his minister, being paid handsomely as overtime, while he shuttled her to and from the beach.

Embarrassingly, the chauffeur never got to do the 3,000-mile return trip as enterprising Spanish thieves nicked the motor, thus leading to the revelations in the press about the minister's little arrangement.

Interestingly, the minister was perfectly within the rules to use her official car for this purpose – so we have another "I was only obeying the rules" scenario, which went down so well in the UK.

The revelations have come at a particularly unhappy time for Frau Schmidt, now dubbed "S-Class Ulla" after the Mercedes model that disappeared. With a general election in the offing, the Social Democrats are positioning themselves as the party best equipped to lead the country out of the economic and financial crisis.

In her defence, I suppose, Frau Schmidt could claim that she was creating employment – not least for Spanish car thieves – and no one could complain that these were ruinously expensive "green jobs" so beloved of our ruling classes.