Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Broken Record Day: Afghanistan

If I’m going to say the same thing over and over again anyway, I might as well pretend it’s all part of the plan.
So I hereby create the institution of the ‘Broken Record Day’ during which I am allowed to repeat myself and go on and on about the things that really bug me.
That sorted, I might as well inform you that today is a broken record day and my subject is Afghanistan. Then again, when the subject is Afghanistan, every day is a broken record day.

Things are not going well in Afghanistan.
Things have not gone well in Afghanistan since the beginning of the operation.
Of course, there have been good days and bad days.
But on an average day it is evident that US and coalition forces are approaching this all wrong: from rotating troops out of the country pretty much the minute they are beginning to understand what’s happening on the ground; to falling prey to cheap emotional tricks like trying to befriend the local children and being drawn into ambushes; to getting caught up in regional and tribal disputes they do not understand and cannot resolve - but can exacerbate. And exacerbate them they do.

No-one is saying it’s easy.
The US troops are battling on many fronts: fighting the insurrection; trying to help Afghanistan build new institutions, structures and a new political culture; undermining these institutions, structures and culture via their very presence; fighting the drug cartels; trying to discourage poppy cultivation and encourage alternative crop cultivation whilst simultaneously trying to build the roads via which the alternative crops will be taken to market without rotting while the farmers are negotiating treacherous terrain; grappling with the centuries’ old system of feudal debt and bondage that would keep farmers bound to poppy cultivation even if viable alternatives did exist; watching their reconstruction work being undermined by their counter-insurgency fighting and their counter-insurgency fighting hampered by their reconstruction work.

It’s not easy.
But it was never going to be easy.

And now accusations are being made that US forces are failing to share counter-insurgency intelligence with their international military allies.
A report prepared by RAND and leaked to Wikileaks suggests that efforts in Afghanistan are hampered by the twin evils of US commanders being overwhelmed by information on hundreds of contradictory databases and the same commanders not comparing notes and/or sharing this information with their counterparts within the coalition.
Meanwhile much of this closely guarded intelligence is coming from local contacts that get tipped for every tip they offer, thus providing unreliable and often erroneous information that the US army then spends time and money to code, analyse, counter-reference and guard. From their own allies, among others.

The report describes a force drowning. In information. In confusion. In despair.
Having gone in without a plan.
Realising slowly that the military commanders do not understand Afghanistan with its tribal politics, deep-rooted religious entanglement and drug-fuelled economy based on debt bondage and serfdom.
And now, not seeing a way out that wouldn’t push the country over the brink into complete civil war and political disintegration, the force is drowning.

Things are not good for the US troops.
But they still need to send reports home. And ‘we are in this way over our heads’ is not a good report. Besides, you can only say it so many times.
So, it seems, the US forces have devised complex economic, military and political ‘progress indicators’ the relevance of which is shaky but the purpose clear: they allow for reports to be sent back home, for activity to be measured, for an illusion of progress to be maintained.

All the while, according to the same report, coalition forces at Camp Holland near Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan maintain 13 different intelligence sections as nobody is talking to anyone else.
If nothing else, the coalition is leading by example: a true inspiration for the fragmented, tribal and bitterly divided Afghan society.

Broken record day.
You cannot provide a solution to a problem you do not understand.
You cannot navigate an unknown land without a map or compass.
Good intentions and a cheery disposition suffice only if your name is Polyanna.

‘On s’engage et puis on voit’ didn’t work out all that well for Napoleon.
Why Bush thought it would work out for him beats me.

And yes, I know: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’.
I know.
But if you start out without a plan, without even knowing what you are setting out to achieve, in general terms, it’s you that may not survive contact with the enemy. Especially if your enemy knows what he’s fighting for, and you don’t.

Monday, 9 March 2009

When looking ahead is hard, look back and look busy

For 5 points, political science:
What is the function of the US Congress?
If you answered ‘legislation’ you get 5 points. But if you answered ‘to serve as the forum in which political vendettas and ideological politics are all played out’ you also get 5 points. Because debate within Congress is partly about making laws and partly about making a point. And I can’t help thinking that the latest push towards passing a resolution that describes the Ottoman massacres of the Armenians on the run-up to and during the First World War as ‘genocide’ is little more than that. I am just not sure what the point is.
Despite placating the Armenian lobby.
Despite giving the beleaguered Armenian nation a belated moral victory.
Despite looking back and nodding wisely.
Despite all this, I fear that this gesture is just that – a gesture – a symbolic pat on the head and not the start of a global preventative initiative.

Almost a century has gone by since the Armenian massacres the proposed Congress resolution is dealing with occurred. And although the memory of the pain and the horror remains, none of the political players do.
At the time, Armenia was not yet a state.
The state that perpetrated the crimes (the Ottoman Empire) no longer exists.
The state that replaced it (Turkey) came into being partly by rebelling against and rejecting the Ottoman Empire. It has a new polity, new legal system, new language and script, new capital and no state religion. It is in all ways different to the Ottoman Empire, difference compounded by rejection when the nationalists rebelled against the Ottomans. This is not our crime, say the Turks. And nobody is actually accusing the Republic of a crime that was perpetrated before it existed. But the ‘Armenian question’ makes Turks feel put on the spot, accused, provoked to respond. And respond they do. Most vociferously. And then of course the world thinks ‘the lady doth protest too much’. And Turkey is looked at suspiciously. And the cycle continues.

So if the resolution passes, it will be castigating a country that no longer exists. It will be offending a country that is only linked to the horrors perpetrated by history and association but not institutional continuity and ‘national’ collective responsibility. And it will be giving the Armenians a nod. Nothing more. The resolution is offering no reparations, no redress and no promise that we have learnt from this particular horror, as a species. All that is offered is a piece of paper saying that the horrors endured by the Armenians a century ago were comparable to the horrors endured by the Jews during World War II.
Because that’s what the term ‘genocide’ boils down to.
Of course, it has been used since and for other cases but when Raphael Lemkin first wrote of genocide in 1944 he only had one thing in mind: to build legislation that would punish the perpetrators and avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It didn’t work.
Genocide predated its name and outlived Lemkin.
But what we have had since Lemkin is a body of international law and the right language to understand, isolate, describe and – on few occasions – punish the crime that is genocide.
But this being a body of law, it all gets technical, as one of the criteria for proving a massacre constitutes genocide is that specific intent needs to be proved. The letter of the law requires a paper trail or suchlike proving that the killings are part of a sustained policy to annihilate an ethnic group as such, people being killed because they belong to that ethnic group.

Rwanda – with the extensive incendiary media coverage exhorting members of one group to kill members of another, qualifies.
The Armenian case is more complicated.
The Armenian massacres occurred before the information age. There were no media campaigns. The dissolution of the Ottoman state means that even if paper trails existed then, they no longer do. And chances are they never did as high levels of illiteracy meant that orders had to be given orally in the most part.
It was a different time. The definition does not apply. Still, the deaths occurred and the legal assessment makes them no more and no less real.

The resolution may ignore all this and call it a genocide regardless.
And yet this will offer little comfort to Armenians – only the bittersweet aftertaste of a minor and long overdue moral victory. If giving a title to suffering can be counted as a victory. Meanwhile the Turks will feel slighted and wronged. A minor diplomatic episode might ensue. But they too will get over it.

And then what?

Then we all go back home.
And if new atrocities occur, we make sure we wait a good hundred years before assessing exactly what is going on, why it is happening and just how horrible it is.
Of course time gives us perspective.
Time also ensures we don’t have to get our hands dirty in the messy business of saving lives and preventing slaughter before it becomes genocide.
Time allows for taxonomy.
Time is the enemy of survival.

I do not object to the sentiment behind this resolution.
I also appreciate the technical debate around this. I am quite fond of taxonomy. I like legal definitions and pedantic arguments.
But the US Congress is not a historical society.
For Congress this is not about a moral choice. This is a choice between looking back, looking busy or looking straight ahead.
The victim often has no choice but to look back.
The law-maker always has a choice.
Call me pedantic, but given the choice, I’d rather law-makers opted for looking ahead rather than looking back and looking busy.
Because that’s as bad as looking the other way as things actually occur.