Friday, May 4, 2007

Afghanistan: war and hunger

After a week of taking a pounding in the press, Canada's Conservative government has yesterday concluded a new deal with the Afghan government regarding access to and treatment of prisoners captured by Canadian military units and transferred into Afghan detention facilities. Previously, Canada had no ability to monitor the treatment of detainees, and Graeme Smith of The Globe and Mail has done a first-rate job of exposing how, on a series of occassions, prisoners that had been transferred into Afghan hands had been subsequently tortured. Now, Canada has secured the most demanding monitoring abilities of any of the external military forces in Afghanistan. Canadian diplomats will have full and unfettered private access to any detainees transferred into Afghan prisons, will have the right to veto the onward transfer of detainees (say, to US authorities), and will have the power to instigate investigations into allegations of torture by prisoners.

These are, of course, extremely welcome developments. One can only wonder, though, of the feelings of those who have been held, for prolonged periods of time, in Afghan facilities, having been originally captured by Canadian forces in the months and years prior to this agreement having been signed. The abuses that these detainees have faced--many of whom are likely to have been totally innocent of any offence--will, no doubt, have provided some fresh recruits for the insurgents fighting coalition forces across Afghanistan. This week fighting has been reported outside Jalalabad in the east, Herat in the west, as well as Kandahar and Helmand provinces. In short, fighting is raging across the breath of Afghanistan more than six years after the collapse of the Taliban.

It was not meant to be like this. The coalition has fallen into the same trap as did the Soviets in the 1980s--intervening in a nation where the state has limited sway, where ethnic identities are strong, and where allegiance to kin and community far outstrips allegiance to notional forms of national identity. As a result, coalition forces, having killed, since the start of the war, tens of thousands of non-combatant Afghans, have created the very opposition that they did not want to fight. This week alone, the UN has found credible reports of 49 civilians killed by US forces around Herat, including women and children. Earlier this week, 6 civilians were killed in Jalalabad in a raid on a compound by US forces. The western media avoids the issue of civilian deaths by continually referring to the insurgents as the Taliban. This is highly misleading. To be sure, there are, no doubt, elements of the Taliban fighting the coalition. However, driving many of the insurgents is a desire for revenge driven by decades of conflict, as well as the knowledge, especially in the south, that while those allied with the Afghan government are doing quite nicely by skimming off large amounts of the aid that is coming in, the vast bulk of the Afghan peasantry is facing a prolonged livelihoods crisis as a result of possibly climate-induced drought. Hunger amidst war in an environment full of weapons, corruption on an endemic scale, vast deaths of non-combatants, and a culture that continually recreates ethnic and kin-based rivalry that can be solved, in a socially legitimate way, by violence, is a formula for a war without end. The west has been intimately involved in Afghanistan for more than 125 years. The recourse to force has never worked in all that time. What is needed is a way of building peace.

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