Keeping an Eye on London

by Joshua Foust on 1/28/2010 · 5 comments

One of the main pillars the British government was keen to highlight for the conference today in London was its regional nature: this is supposed to be about Afghanistan and its neighbors coming up with a regional solution so everyone can work toward the same broad goals to mutual benefit.

So… why isn’t Iran participating? The Iranian foreign ministry said they feel, despite the insistence on political and social development, that it remains part of a military strategy:

“Given the fact that the approach of the conference is in line with increasing military action, following double standards on [fighting] terrorism, overlooking the roots of problems and not using regional potentialities in solving the problems in Afghanistan,” Iran believes that the conference would not yield fruitful results, Mehman-Parast said.

While that’s pretty much what you would expect Iran to say to NATO, it raises troubling questions about the prospects for that “straight up diplomacy” the British government says it is employing to bring about a lasting solution. Iran is one of the biggest foreign donors in Afghanistan, and it stands accused (however flimsily) of funding and arming the Taliban. Surely they need to be a part of the plan to quell the war?

From the domestic side, too, there are serious problems. In nearly identical stories, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and Heidi Vogt of the AP write about the new plan in Jalalabad to burn down the homes of families whose children support the Taliban:

The leaders of one of the largest Pashtun tribes in a Taliban stronghold said Wednesday that they had agreed to support the American-backed government, battle insurgents and burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas.

Elders from the Shinwari tribe, which represents about 400,000 people in southeastern Afghanistan, also pledged to send at least one military-age male in each family to the Afghan Army or the police in the event of a Taliban attack.

In exchange for their support, American commanders agreed to channel $1 million in development projects directly to the tribal leaders and bypass the local Afghan government, which is widely seen as corrupt.

Ahh, so the U.S. is undermining the Afghan government and encouraging mob violence, all in the name of supporting the Afghan government and deligitimizing the Taliban. Get it?

Now, this new wrinkle represents a reversal of sorts for the Shinwari, who three years ago were saying they would not permit U.S. forces to travel freely through their district looking for Taliban militants. It’s also not unexpected—independent people who live in Nangarhar, who don’t allow the military to spoon-feed them stories, describe the Shinwari as, “interested in making money and cooperate with both sides to do just that.”

I can’t fathom why millions of dollars would inspire a sudden change of heart. The Shinwari have been something of a pet project for Filkins—he has promoted their cause seemingly oblivious of their recent history or economic fortunes. For example, the Shinwari more or less control the last vestiges of Nangarhar’s opium trade, and they are rumored to dominate the trucking mafia in the east.

It’s possible the Shinwari, who also deliver supplies to Coalition bases in the area thanks to their control of the Khyber Pass, got sick of their drivers being detained, stolen from, and killed by Taliban militants looking to disrupt Coalition supply lines. That would be a good change of fortune worth capitalizing on (there are hints in Filkins’ coverage, too, that they wanted a hyrdo-power dam and the Taliban were contesting it). But throwing money at them to burn down houses is not a feasible or repeatable. solution

Perhaps we should take bets: assuming this works out really well, and Filkins’ militia does manage to enrich itself with American money while burning down the houses of all who oppose it. What happens next? If one of the only major successes in the area comes about because we circumvented the Kabul government, how do we get another success elsewhere? What does America do when it ends up funding the arson of supporting civilians, since technically communal punishment is a war crime?

This is why I keep saying this: we are not seeking long-term solutions, only shallow short term quick fixes. It will make everyone considerably worse off.

Update: Via Gregg Carlstrom, last year Human Rights Watch examined the use of the “burn the homes of your enemies” tactic in Chechnya. It backfired, badly.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dafydd January 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

The Iranians are very important neighbours, particularly in Herat (which seems to operate as some sort of swing state between the Tajik/Hazara/Uzbek north & the Pashtun south).

I think the Iranians were (formally) invited, but the chances of the Iranians coming to a London conference at the moment are close to zero. Iranian British relations are at a very low ebb. Apparently we Brits are responsible for the assassination of their nuclear scientist the other week.

Begs the question of why did they choose London. Could have gone to Istanbul.

Dafydd January 28, 2010 at 9:20 am
Reader January 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I think all these short-term fixes are the result of desperation pure and simple. 1) The US simply doesn’t understand the country, its history, nor its present situation. Honestly, tell me how many people in government speak Pashto who do not have a potential conflict of interest? Just standard Pashto or Pakhto, not any crazy mountain or Kuchi dialects. 2) There are way too many “Lawrence of Afghanistans” sporting about. Why do Americans obsess so much over whether we are loved or not overseas. I’m not talking about the hippies who worry about European polls. I’m talking about the government types. I find it interesting that some of the most obsessive about it are also the most “action prone” who feel the need to “accomplish something” over there and are the most likely to cause hatred by said actions (Major “it’s all about the tribes” Gant). Some people still think this is one great big adventure and they don’t realize those Afghans and Arabs aren’t stage props that will go back to the storage room when the play is over. They also don’t realize that maybe their one good Afghan buddy might have his own agenda. I call this last the Chelebi/Sakishvilli effect. The C.S. effect also applies to point 1. 3) American exceptionalism is proving to be the most long-lasting ideology of the Modern Age. It will die a slow and needlessly painful death. I am afraid it will take a complete economic breakdown for some people to realize that “get er done” won’t get it done. Oh sure we can cure some sore eyes, build some clinics. But can we fix societies? I doubt it, I think that post-WW2 was a specific historical occurrence and will not repeat itself; Afghanistan is not Vietnam, but neither can we Marshall Plan-ify the Middle East. 4) People in government, overall, are taxpayers. But they still seem to not care how they waste other peoples money. So we’ll throw a million at the Shinwaris, after all who cares? It ain’t like Barak Obamma or Dave Petraeus has to open their wallet. 5) We need to avoid all countries starting with the letter “I” that includes supporting them, fighting them, and meddling in their affairs in any way I can think of.

I also find it strange that nobody talks about the elephant in the room: Afghan environmental degradation. The amount of arable farmland and forest that has been lost is quite serious. If it happened in the US people would definately notice. Correct me if I am wrong, but also aren’t the glaciers shrinking? There goes your water sources.

Long and short, at best it will be an ongoing human tragedy and sad situation in Afghanistan. At worse, it will be a tragedy of monumental proportions. But I don’t believe that the US, for structural and real economic reasons, can do a d&mned thing about it.

Turgai Sangar January 29, 2010 at 4:17 am

Good comment. Thanks.

Toryalay Shirzay January 28, 2010 at 9:38 pm

That Iran refused to attend the conference in London speaks volumes about their true intentions in Afghanistan.Iran is ultra stealthy and her motivations are to enhance the power of Shiaism.The money Iran spent in Afstan went for building some roads so Iran could ship ever larger Iranian made goods to be sold there and for supporting the Shiates,building more mosques with more and highly irritating loadspeakers belching poisonous Islamic crap and etc.

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