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| Ander Nieuws week 20 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |
 
 
 
Why NATO misreads the Afghan rulebook

 
In an essay adapted from her new memoir, Hamida Ghafour draws on her family history to explain what's gone wrong with Canada's mission in her ancestral homeland
 
Globe and Mail
May 05, 2007
By Hamida Ghafour
 
When I hear about the latest battles between Pashtun insurgents and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, I recall an old family tale.
 
Before the Afghan monarchy was abolished in 1973, the royal family enjoyed hunting trips to the eastern regions of Nuristan and Kunar to stalk deer and shoot red-eyed partridges.
 
But these hunting trips were also diplomatic missions to the blue-eyed tribes that lived in the high valleys. Kabul relied on their powerful tribal aristocracy to keep the kingdom at peace.
 
My ancestors were among those families. My great-grandfather Pacha Sahib was a revered Sufi mystic who converted the pagans of the area to Islam in the late 19th century. Later he mediated between the warring Pashtun tribes and ensured they did not rise up against Kabul.
 
Today, Canadian soldiers and their North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are fighting a battle in which they don't understand the rules -- the Pashtun code of honour, or Pashtunwali. Meanwhile, the monarchy is gone, and most of the legitimate leaders are dead or in exile. These two problems are driving and worsening an insurgency that has killed 17,000 people since 2001.
 
The Pashtun code in south and eastern Afghanistan centres around three main issues -- women, land and wealth. An attack on any of the three ignites deadly feuds between tribes or against outsiders.
 
Hospitality is also key: A guest is given food and protection without question. But an insult to hospitality is also grounds for a feud. Sometimes the fighting lasts for generations and can wipe out entire male lines.
 
The royal family would have been well aware of this, when, one year in the 1930s, prime minister Hashem Khan, an uncle of the then-king, sent a message by horseback to my great-grandmother Hawa in Kunar. He was on his way to his hunting lodge and would stop at her house to pay his respects at her late husband's grave.
 
When great-grandmother Hawa received the prime minister's message, she prepared a feast for the 400 soldiers and camp followers who would accompany him. Sheeps, cows and chickens were roasted on spits. Four different kinds of rice dishes were made with pomegranates. Sweetmeats and biscuits were baked for breakfast.
 
But instead of stopping at my great-grandmother's estate, the prime minister continued on to his hunting lodge. The medieval banquet went to waste. One of his advisers told Hashem Khan he had made a mistake. He sent another messenger with a letter of apology, promising he would arrive as soon as possible.
 
When my great-grandmother read this note, she scooped a bowl of lentils into an earthen bowl, a meal eaten only by servants. "Here, feed him this," she said, and shoved the bowl into the messenger's hand.
 
The insult could have turned a powerful family against Kabul. Though she chose not to, my great-grandmother could have roused the tribes of Nuristan to rebel against the king.
 
Today, this delicate balance of power is gone. President Hamid Karzai on paper has the right credentials: He is a Pashtun, the head of a powerful tribe in Kandahar and a distant relative of the former king. But he is struggling to assert his legitimacy in the countryside.
 
He relies on the soldiers and officers of NATO to fight the complex insurgency. In 2005, there were 17 suicide attacks. Today, they happen almost daily as NATO's Operation Achilles tries to drive the Taliban out. And the Afghans use the code to play both sides in the so-called war on terror.
 
It may be Pashtunwali that has kept Osama bin Laden safe. Mullah Omar refused to give him up to the American military after 9/11 because he was a guest, to whom a Pashtun could not refuse sanctuary. The illiterate leader of the Taliban was applying a tribal village code to a matter of international diplomacy.
 
But Pashtunwali also has saved the life of at least one American soldier. In the Korengal valley in Kunar province, a few miles from where my great-grandparents lived, I saw the code of honour in practice.
 
On June 28, 2005, a four-man team of Navy Seals came under fire from insurgents. One was knocked down the side of a mountain, where a young shepherd found him, wounded but alive. He dragged the sailor to his village, and the elders held a meeting. (Under the Pashtun code, decisions are always based on consensus.)
 
Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters circled the village, demanding that the "infidel" be handed over. But the tribe refused. The shepherd walked 12 miles to the nearest U.S. military base to say its man was safe. A helicopter swooped down and saved the sailor.
 
But the Afghans received little thanks. A couple of days later, a Chinook flew over the nearby Chegal valley and dropped a bomb, killing 17 to 20 civilians. A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul said he "regretted" the death of "non-combatants" but they were acting on a tip that a terrorist leader who may have been involved in the original attack against the Navy Seals was hiding in the valley.
 
Very soon after, the Chegal valley became a conduit for insurgents.
 
There are stories like this all over the south and east. Bombs are dropped, children are killed and new enemies are made out of entire tribes.
 
To make matters worse, from the very beginning of the U.S. invasion in 2001 to oust the Taliban, there has been little attempt to bring honourable leaders into the government.
 
In 2002 alone, the Pentagon gave $70-million (U.S.) in cash and arms to warlords who agreed to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda for them. But these men do not have legitimacy -- they are mostly drug traffickers and war criminals who extort travellers on the road or kidnap girls and force them into marriage. Many have been allowed to run for parliament or the presidency.
 
The term "war on terror" has not extended to the men who terrorize the Afghans.
 
Five years on, it has become easy for the insurgency's leaders to exploit the population's genuine grievances. The government and police forces and, by extension, the Canadian army are increasingly considered illegitimate.
 
The old frontier officers of the British Raj spent years among the Afghans, unravelling complex tribal dynamics and learning Pashto. But a modern tour of duty lasts a year at most. Many officers I met in Afghanistan were just starting to learn the first rule of etiquette -- never refuse a cup of tea -- before leaving.
 
NATO relies on air strikes instead of human contact to gain intelligence. Digging a well is not enough to win hearts and minds. Any good work is undone when one innocent civilian is killed.
 
Soldiers must go into the villages to establish links with residents, yet with worsening security this seems impossible. An additional 80,000 soldiers are needed to secure the south and east before development can begin, according to political scientist Seth G. Jones at the Rand Corporation, a Washington think tank. This seems unimaginable under the current circumstances.
 
Canada bears an unequal share of the burden in the NATO alliance. Other members, including France, Germany and Spain, hesitate to send soldiers in any meaningful numbers. And so the insurgency rumbles on, diplomats and officers appear at a loss for what to do and the Afghans' disillusionment with the foreign soldiers grows.
 
A few months after leaving Kabul, I spoke to Mohammed Chekari, a former Afghan government adviser who quit in frustration and returned home to London. He said the Taliban and their supporters could have been isolated if Mr. Karzai and NATO channelled talks through the mullahs in 15,000 mosques across the country, as it was done in the old days.
 
"The mullahs are telling Afghans to go and fight because they will go to paradise -- [that] foreigners are corrupting their country," he said.
 
The vast majority of people get their information through the imams, he said.
 
I told him that my e-mail is flooded with press releases, featuring photographs of the latest well dug by soldiers or airdrops of blankets, to show the soft side of Western power.
 
He agreed. "There seems to be an Afghan way and a Western way, like two parallels lines that never meet."
 
Adapted from Hamida Ghafour's new book, The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family, published by McArthur & Co. today.
 
Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.
 
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| Ander Nieuws week 20 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |