Sunday 22 March 2009

Another way of resolving conflict

Any day now Richard Holbrooke’s review of American policy in Afghanistan will be published. Whatever the results of the study, we can be reasonably sure that much of it will be dominated by military thinking. Already there have been leaks suggesting, for example, that the US will extend its Predator drone strikes into Balochistan or that an attempt will be made to bribeTaliban foot soldiers away from the organisation.

The emphasis on military thinking is hardly surprising for a country that is obsessed by 9/11 and the threat from al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamist organisations. American generals want to inflict a defeat on the Taliban similar to the one they have inflicted on al-Qaeda and its supporters in Iraq.

It is not going to be so easy in Afghanistan. Even with an extra 17,000 US troops, the total number of Coalition soldiers in the country remains well below the level needed to inflict a severe defeat on an insurgent population. Iraq is much smaller than Afghanistan, with a smaller population and yet at times there were as many as 160,000 combat troops in the country. Most of these were concentrated in just one or two provinces such as al-Anbar, which meant that huge assets could be brought to bear on insurgent groups. Of course, huge damage was also done – who now remembers Falluja?

And the fact that the conflict in Afghanistan is being directed from a neighbouring country – Pakistan – that provides a never-ending stream of recruits, equipment and money, and whose military leadership has a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict – means the insurgency will not be easily defeated. Just over the border in Bajaur, even full-scale warfare and thousands of deaths in the Pakistan Army campaign against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan needed nine months to win a ceasefire that everyone knows is worth nothing.

I sincerely hope that Mr Holbrooke and his advisers are aware that the problems of Afghanistan cannot – repeat, cannot – be solved militarily. They would do well to examine the work of organisations like Cooperation for Peace and Unity, an Afghan not-for-profit think-tank that has been instrumental in establish Peace Councils in areas where the traditional mechanisms for resolving conflicts have been destroyed.

CPAU has begun to publish a series of conflict analysis studies on different areas - Badakhshan, Kunduz, Kabul, Wardak and Ghazni – that use local data to investigate the reasons behind conflicts over the last seven or eight years. The studies are funded by the Irish charity Trocaire.

The most recent study, on Kunduz is very revealing. It shows that the issue most likely to generate violent conflict in the ethnically mixed areas surrounding Kunduz is land. The background to this is the fact that tens of thousands of Pashtuns were expelled from the area following the collapse of the Taliban in 2001 and now local political parties are trying to position themselves as protectors of Uzbek and Tajik intererests. This, of course, allows the Taliban to present themselves as protectors of Pashtun interests.

The study says that rapid settlement of land disputes, many of them going back to 2001, needs to be implemented. And second, that part of any strategy to counter the Taliban has to include measures to counter the alienation of Kunduz Pashtuns.

There is much more in this study and it should be essential reading for anyone who seriously wants to understand the ways in which Afghanistan works. (A second study, on Kabul, also makes fascinating reading).

So when you read the headlines in the next few days about American muscle-flexing in Afghanistan, please don’t forget that history is never really about white hats and black hats. I think the US marine who had that Zippo lighter engraved back in Vietnam in 1967 had it just about right.

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