Hawks hiding among doves

19 October 2007 / 25 Mizan 1386

Two weeks ago I took a field trip to a UNHCR resettlement site north of Kabul. We traveled in a bullet-proof white SUV, with doors that must weigh 200 pounds and windows that do not open. I thought it was a little surreal that a refugee agency is clomping around in these monsters. But on the way, the project director talked about the increasing risk to humanitarian agencies.

“We don’t use the Kabul-Salang highway anymore, because military convoys use it and it has become too dangerous. But now they are using this [Deh Sabs] highway also, and the US military uses white SUVs that look like ours. So we worry that we are becoming a target here too.”

“But that is totally unethical!” I replied.

“They argue that their SUVs are unmarked, so insurgents should have no trouble distinguishing them from humanitarian agency vehicles.” We agreed that in a country with a 35% literacy rate, where insurgents are targeting vehicles from hundreds of meters away, the distinction between a white SUV with a logo on the door or no logo is meaningless. During our field trip we saw several convoys of unmarked SUVs go by, some white, some black. Some had stubby radio posts on their roofs. Some did not. On several occasions I saw soldiers in them, and at one point these SUVs were escorting a US armored convoy. Soldiers in full combat gear got out and started directing traffic so I could identify them clearly. I also saw an SUV convoy parked ten blocks from my house yesterday morning (18 Oct) at 9:36 am, with US soldiers in combat gear both inside them and leaning against them on the outside. So I am a first-person witness to this policy on two occasions. In a land rich with rumors, it is necessary to make this sort of careful confirmation.

I make this nitty-gritty point because there are some serious flaws in US policy and representation of the current war in Afghanistan. We need to understand this situation better, and think hard about how to shift our policies to do what we actually intend to do here.

#1. The US does not call this a war, I think for two reasons. The first, of course, is that our Administration wants to look good in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. The second, less obvious reason is that it denies Afghans the legal right to flee as war refugees, which serves an anti-immigration agenda in America, Europe, and Australia.

#2. This ‘conflict’ is presented as between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. This simplification masks an understanding of the many factions and their interests here. An absolute minimum list of factions includes: the US Administration, the Karzai Administration, other Afghan Ministry-level factions, narcotics traffickers, angry local community leaders, al-Qaeda, mercenaries, the Coalition Forces (basically, the US military), Pakistani insurgents, Pakistan-resident Pashtun tribal insurgents, US Special Forces operating outside of US military command, Iranian government factions, Pakistani government factions, humanitarian organizations, the Afghan National Army, and the International Security Assistance Force (run by NATO; totally separate from the Coalition Forces).

I lay out this smorgasbord of factions in random order to replicate the confusion here on the ground. One example: many Afghans are critical of Pakistan in general. But ‘the Pakistan effect’ cannot be generalized as a unified action. Not even the military government is unified: Western journalists call it ‘the Musharraf government’ for expediency, but Pakistan is in no way the dictatorship of one generalissimo. Look up Juan Cole, Barnett Rubin, and Ahmed Rashid to learn more about that. Second example: the US Administration presents ‘the good guys’ as a unified camp of all the regular militaries, the US and Afghan governments, and the humanitarian organizations. In fact, the US Administration would prefer to present these factions as literally indistinguishable.

But no one should be surprised that the various factions are each pursuing their own interests, and that those interests are only partially and temporarily aligned. What is important for American readers of this page is to think about the ‘Good Guys’ factions, the taxes we pay, the votes we make, and how we want to be represented to the world.

The (para)military mix

There are at least five armed groups on the ‘good’ side:
1. The Afghan National Army (ANA), who do most of the front-line fighting against those who call themselves ‘Taliban’ on the southeast borderlands.
2. The Coalition Forces, who have no legal mandate in this country that I know of, who are working with the ANA in the southeast. Their mission is to pursue the Global War on Terror, not to support or protect the Afghan State or people. Most Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are under Coalition command. If a PRT team comes under attack, there is a full military response.
3. US Special Forces operatives, who do not fall under regular military command, who are also operating in the south “to kill Talibs” (quote via an IWPR reporter).
4. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who do have a legal mandate and mission to provide military security and support to the Afghan Government. Since ISAF is run by NATO, it includes European, American, and Canadian forces. So if you read about an incident that involves American military, make sure you know whether it is Coalition or ISAF.
5. Mercenaries, known euphemistically as security consultants. They are paid up to US$2,000 per day. Yes, that is more than $60K/month, $720,000 per year. Most are paid less, but since they are a secretive lot who do not discuss salaries, I state this number to give you a sense of scale. If a consultant is paid only one tenth of the top rate, that is US$72,000 per year. They are usually hired to protect foreign contractors for construction projects, but also international organizations. So their salaries constitute a large fraction of the aid expenditures in Afghanstan. Since these contractors are armed, armored and uniformed, you have to get very close (about ten meters) to distinguish them from actual military.

US taxpayers pay for most of this militarized mix. But since it is fragmented in unexpected ways, neither we nor Afghans have any way of holding these groups accountable. When an armed foreigner shoots and Afghan in cold blood and drives off in an unmarked SUV, who is he? Which organization does he work for? Under which legal framework can he be accused of murder, or found to be acting with just cause? This is a daily worry for Afghans in Kabul, let alone the rising rate of ransom-kidnappings by Afghan ex(?)military.

Hawks hiding among doves

So when the US armed forces openly begin using vehicles which are indistinguishable from the traditional white SUV used by humanitarian organizations in conflict zones, it can be understood in two ways. One way is the US Administration claim that ‘we are all on the same side against terrorists.’ Another way to understand it is as a unilateral decision by the US military command to deliberately blur the distinction between their forces and humanitarian organizations, in order to gain some protection from the good reputation of the humanitarians among Afghans. I think both are true.

An infamous sequence of events in 2004 highlights the problem: since 1998 the organization Medecins Sans Fontieres (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders or MSF) has been warning the U.S. to make a distinction between military operations–even if they are to help vulnerable people–and the work of non-political, unarmed humanitarian organizations (Tanguy 1998). They even made this point in their Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1999 (Orbinski 1999). But in Afghanistan white SUVs became the vehicle of choice for armed groups whom the US put back in power via the Bonn Accord of December 2001 (Taliban, by the way, use pickups). And the PRT program was an overt policy of blending military operations with the US Administration’s version of humanitarian aid. This endangered all neutral organizations in the country, including long-established aid organizations like MSF. MSF had been working in Afghanistan continuously since 1980. But in 2004, five MSF staff were executed in their white SUV. First the Taliban claimed credit, and said all foreign aid workers were legitimate targets. Then it turned out that the attack was ordered by a former local police chief who had been fired for corruption. Evidently he wanted to show that this formerly secure district would become dangerous without him at his old post. Then the Afghan government contacts who identified the reponsible party also informed MSF that the Afghan government did not have the capacity to prosecute either the former police chief or his henchmen. Nor did the US, with its great armed presence here, lend any assistance. There was no assurance that MSF, now publicly targeted, would receive protection from any of the factions that are characterized as ‘allies in the Global War on Terror’. So after 24 years of continuous work here, MSF shut down its operations in Afghanistan in 2005.

I had the chance to ask the (now former) US Ambassador to Afghanistan about this controversy in a forum on 10 June 2006. The forum was convened for all US nationals living in Kabul at the time, after a major riot in Kabul on 29 May 2006 took the US and Afghan governments by surprise. I asked, “Is the State Department considering the reestablishment of a sharp distinction between military, diplomatic, and humanitarian operations? Will the State Department consider MSF’s recommendations after their workers were killed in 2004?” Ambassador Neumann’s response: “I know about MSF’s recommendations and they are entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with it. The PRT program is great, and it functions in many provinces where NGOs will not go. We have a humanitarian mission here in Afghanistan.” The irony–that the PRT program had made most provinces in Afghanistan too dangerous for unarmed humanitarian organizations–was completely lost on the ambassador. I think from his point of view the US military should gain cover by looking like a humanitarian organization, because that is how he understood the US role in Afghanistan. The distinction between diplomatic and military missions is also lost in this logic. And there is another caveat: the 10 June 2006 meeting was convened under the condition that nothing that was said there will be acknowledged. It is strictly off the record. So I did not ask the question above, nor did Ambassador Newmann give that answer.

As the MSF incident shows, factional interests are not very well aligned here. Usually it is hard to tell who is really on your side. And those interests are shifting dramatically now. One example from the ‘Bad Guys’ side: many senior Taliban leadership now feel betrayed by al Qaeda. Initially they did not believe that bin Laden was responsible for the 9-11 attacks in the US. But now that he has publicly taken credit for 9-11 several times, they feel that he betrayed their interest in national security and stability for his global jihad agenda. There are other major disagreements among the Taliban, but a rising interest in negotiating a resolution with the Afghan State (Rubin 2007b). This is complicated by the fact that (former) Taliban and (former) communists and (not-former) Northern Alliance partisans are also part of the Afghan State, as Ministers and Parliamentarians and staff bureaucrats. So the Afghan State itself is anything but a unified interest.

Implications at Home

Okay, so what should Americans take away from this other than a sadder understanding of the situation in Kabul?

Foremost of all: demand accountability, transparency, and formal due process in every sphere in which you work. Demand these from your boss. Demand these from your employees. Demand it from your local, state, and national politicians. Demand a reinstatement of the U.S. Constitution (posted here for convenient review). And remember a crucial detail: the US Constitution is a universal declaration. It establishes rights and duties without distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens. This means: wherever it is in effect, wherever the US has effective power, the US government and all Americans who swear allegiance to that Constitution are sworn to enforce and defend its principles. This means: what we now call “illegal immigrants” are included in US Constitutional rights and protections. This means: if an American contractor shoots his translator in Kabul in 2005, he should be prosecuted for murder, and the US must enforce that prosecution in settings where local authorities do not have the capacity to do so (Rubin 2007a).

I deliberately mix local and global issues for a reason: around the world people are watching Americans very closely. They know about Enron, Worldcom, extraordinary rendition, and the indefinite detention of “illegals” by the INS. They are tracking the upcoming US election because of its enormous direct impact on their daily lives. Americans, even at the private individual level, are role models for the rest of the world. And this leads to a very different interpretation of geopolitics. From what I can learn here in Kabul–from students and taxi drivers and guards and shopkeepers–the global struggle is between Impunity and Just Government. Suicide attacks involve impunity, and so do mistargeted air strikes if there is no substantial apology and no admission of wrongdoing. If the one distinction in this current global war is between impunity and justice, which side are we on? How does that distinction suggest different policies America should pursue? What I hope is that it frees our minds to see the diparate factions and their shifting interests in this situation, including the difference between military, diplomatic, and humanitarian actions of organizations that work with the Afghan State, let alone a better understanding of the various opposition groups. We need that nuanced view to achieve some very specific policy goals:
1. Stabilize the Afghan State.
2. Improve the safety of Americans both at home and abroad.
3. Recover some international credibility so that we have leverage in other negotiations.
My guess is that a social movement demanding accountability and transparency would improve the American economy as well.

Return to Ordinary Time: No Exceptions

This time is only a moment of extraordinary danger because Americans make it so. 9-11 should have been treated as a criminal act since it was not committed by a government. Elevating al Qaeda to the status of primary US rival has given them more credibility, visibility, and recruiting power than they deserve. We cannot undo that attack, nor can we exact some form of restorative revenge. But what we can do is identify a trap: by interpreting that attack as a justification for ‘extraordinary measures,’ we have been our own worst enemy. As it stands the US will be remembered by people alive today for Guantanamo prison, rather than our support for the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our (now withdrawn) support for the International Criminal Court. Every time we make an ‘exception’ to due process we are remembered more for the breach than for an actual commitment to our own laws. We could do more for Iraqis and Afghans now by shifting from exceptionalist, secretive ‘security’ policies to policies of transparency, accountability, and formal due process (Mani 2003). That policy shift alone would greatly increase the effectiveness of the US mission in Afghanistan, and transform how we are perceived in Kabul. We would not need the same sort of security regime if we were respected as supportive allies, both by Afghans and by the humanitarian agencies working here. Respect also means recognizing differences in interests.

You might think the military use of white SUVs is an insignificant thing; the Army is probably using theim because they are less expensive than Humvees. But the white SUV used to be the mark of a nonpolitical, unarmed, humanitarian organization, enabling them to work in very dangerous situations. Every time the US military abuses that symbol to gain its own protection, the US government declares its lack of respect for other organizatons working in Afghanistan, and official American indifference to the way it endangers others and compromises their work. It is an example of flawed policy, and a symbol of the mistaken understanding of the situation here that leads to such flawed policies.

Whoever you are reading this, do what you can to impove this situation, at any level of scale. Even if that means apologizing to your employees in a local organization in California, or treating a stranger with politiness on the street, it means you are constructively engaged in fighting this third world war. Using the sole criteria of impunity versus accountability, it should be clear which side you are on, no matter how messy the situation is.


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Tanguy, Joelle. 1998. Responding to complex humanitarian crises. In The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ed. Medecins Sans Frontieres. New York: United Nations: Medecins Sans Frontieres.

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Weissman, Fabrice. 2004. Military humanitarianism. MSF International activity report.

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