on the world: a view on human rights
This is an overview of the Afghanistan: What Next? peace conference held in London on 12 October 2013 by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK to mark the twelfth anniversary of the current war in Afghanistan and the start of a new initiative to bring British and Afghan campaigners and communities for peace closer together. As well as a small role in organising the conference, I also facilitated a workshop on “The Dark Side: Secret Prisons, Torture and the War on Terror”.
Another year on the line:
As the British government gears up for costly centenary celebrations of World War I in 2014, less public attention is being paid to the highly unpopular ongoing war in Afghanistan, which marked its twelfth anniversary on Monday 7 October. In a war that has now lasted longer than both the first and second world wars combined, the UK has lost almost 450 servicemen and women, with many casualties from other NATO states, and over 30,000 Afghan deaths, not including the unknown number of casualties of drone strikes. The situation in Afghanistan is currently at a major crossroads: 2014 will see elections for a new president as well as both Britain and the US withdrawing their militaries by the end of the year. They leave behind a country devastated by their presence, an unimproved security situation and questionable progress on the stated aims of the war, such as getting rid of the Taliban and liberating Afghan women, with even President Karzai stating that NATO has caused “a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure.”
On 12 October, as American and Afghan officials met to discuss a partial security deal, a very different and unique meeting was held in London, with the aim of “supporting peace and justice for Afghans”. The conference was organised by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK, which led the first British peace delegation to Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion in December 2012, following a visit by the group’s Maya Evans in 2011, during which she forged positive relationships with local activists working in challenging circumstances. The conference brought together activists and concerned individuals from the British and Afghan communities to consider the issues, challenges and possible solutions through keynote speeches and workshops on issues such as drone warfare, women in Afghanistan and movement building.
Ghosts of Afghanistan:
Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, author of Ghosts of Afghanistan was the main speaker, providing an in-depth analysis of the current challenges, in 2014 and beyond. He first visited the country in 1981, and has reported on the various wars there for the past 30 years. With NATO due to withdraw next year, he expressed his concerns that particularly with a British public weary of war and a parliament that would like its failures forgotten, the issue, which is already underreported, could fall off the radar altogether. The grim reality of the situation is not reported in the media. Stating that since 1978, Afghanistan has been “ruled and bullied by men with guns”, and that aid must not be withdrawn along with troops, he particularly emphasised the negative impact on women and children in a country where the infant and maternal mortality rates are unacceptably high. He looked at four areas where the withdrawal of NATO is likely to have a huge impact: security, the economy, politics and people.
One of the conditions for NATO withdrawal is the ability to ensure Afghans can take care of their own security issues. To this end, NATO has funded the training of 32,000 police and security personnel over the past few years. In spite of this and Barack Obama’s claim that “the tide of war is receding”, Taliban attacks have not declined and casualties among the poorly-trained and poorly-motivated Afghans are higher than among US and UK troops. This year alone, there has been a 24% rise in civilian casualties. The Taliban has made advances and dominates rural districts. Some local NGOs believe that the withdrawal of NATO next year could lead the Pashtun-led Taliban to establish rural bases very soon.
There is also a risk of an economic vacuum being created when tens of thousands of jobs dependent on NATO’s presence leave with it. Afghanistan’s economy is 90% dependent on foreign aid with 97% of its GDP coming from international donors. More than two million people, mainly young people, rely on jobs related to the occupation. Many NGOs will also leave with NATO. In anticipation, the Afghan middle classes have already started to leave, many opting for residence in Middle Eastern states. With presidential elections due next year, which President Hamid Karzai cannot participate in due to constitutional rules, a power vacuum may also emerge with new political tensions arising.
There is also the impact on the Afghan people. Kabul, whose population has swelled to 5 million from 2 million in 2001, is likely to see an influx of many more rural residents, turning to the city for shelter, work and food. The UNHCR reports that the war has created over half a million internally displaced people, many of whom live in tent cities in Kabul and work in precarious conditions. There is also likely to be a large increase in refugees. Afghanistan is already the main source country of refugees in the European Union. Human trafficking is likely to increase too. A brain drain is already underway with many people educated under western-sponsored schemes, particularly women, looking for employment elsewhere.
The situation looks bleak. Negotiations may be the only option, as while the war with the foreign occupier ends, the inter-tribal war is ongoing. A large part of this will depend on whether or not the Taliban will be invited to take part and whether Pakistan will allow the Taliban leadership based in the country to do so. Taliban representation in a national government of unity would lead to an end to the war. Nonetheless, the men in power in Afghanistan are not interested in justice as many of them are guilty of serious human rights abuses going back to the 1990s. Taliban involvement in a coalition government would be positive for security but it would not change the justice deficit; “a peace settlement would be reconciliation to elites” as the justice situation would remain unaddressed.
Mr Steele also stated that while the UK should withdraw its troops, it should continue to support Afghan civil society financially.
Beyond 2014, the US and UK are likely to maintain some form of military presence, most probably through continued drone strikes, as well as support for the military. The current crisis situation in Iraq perhaps provides a bleak example of what the future may hold for Afghanistan.
Brian Terrell, visiting Europe from Voices for Creative Non-Violence in the US, explained why the organisation has, since 1990, sought to humanise and create links with communities as part of its efforts to counter the dominant pro-war narrative in the US.
Other speakers were from the Afghan community in the United Kingdom, and two Skype conversations, including questions and answers, linked London and Kabul. Contrary to media reports, none of the Afghan speakers in London or Kabul mentioned the Taliban as a concern, or at all. Instead, the predominant issues raised by Afghans were the difficult security situation in the country, inter-tribal, inter-ethnic and religious disunity among Afghans and the failure of Afghan rulers to consider the concerns and needs of the Afghan people.
An aim of the conference was to link British and Afghan activists. This was facilitated through two Skype conversations across three and a half time zones linking Londoners to the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers project in Kabul. The project was set up in 2008 by a doctor from Singapore called Hakim who has worked and lived with Afghans for several years and started a project at Bamiyan University to “investigate the potential for creating peace in Afghanistan.” The response was positive and the group has set up a number of initiatives in the country, including a women’s sewing cooperative, providing employment for around 30 women, and initiatives to bring Afghans of different ethnicities together. The conference had hoped to bring some of the activists to the UK, however as it is only possible for Afghans to apply for British visas from the British Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, even though the embassy in Kabul is larger, this was not feasible. Before introducing themselves, a video was shown of one of their recent peace initiatives:
Five women from the sewing cooperative spoke about their experiences and hopes as Afghan women. They stated that the country has a general culture of women not working, studying or leaving their homes. Although this was changing in Kabul, attitudes were more fixed and traditional in rural areas. Furthermore, the insecurity created by war only creates more concerns about the safety of women and affects their ability to go out, study and work. They said that the Afghan people were tired of war, and that it had negative effects on the general mental health of people too. They regretted the fact that the international community has never consulted the Afghan people about policy on their country; decisions are made without them. They also called on their government to be transparent and honest.
The conference was joined by an Afghan woman who had recently won her asylum claim in the UK. She stated that working for peace is a challenge for the whole world and not just the Afghan people: security and peace go hand in hand. She too criticised the Afghan government for not reflecting the concerns and aspirations of the Afghan people. As well as Afghans needing to unite along ethnic lines, women need to be included and their participation facilitated through education. Fundamentally, the progress of men depends on that of women and vice versa.
Sabir Zazai, who has lived in the UK since 1999, is an Afghan grassroots community activist. He focused his speech mainly at the lack of unity among Afghans, in the country and the diaspora, as a challenge to their progress. External interference and decades of war have reduced social cohesion and the mechanisms traditionally used to deal with problems in the country. Civil unrest has damaged the social fabric and trust between ethnic groups; divisions that once existed among tribes and ethnic groups have now permeated into families. Mistreatment by the authorities in Afghanistan is a common trait to all groups in the country, yet poor social cohesion creates more challenges to unity. Social media also takes these problems beyond borders and into the diaspora. He called on Afghans, particularly in the UK, to play their part in bringing about change, especially at the grassroots level, to work with other communities and think of what they, and not others, could and should do. He stated that Afghans need to look beyond their emotions and forgive one another. Sectarianism is a challenge, but Afghans should be pro-justice, equality and human rights. The Afghans in Kabul backed his call for Afghans within and outside the country to work together.
The conference was attended by over 80 people, some of whom had travelled to London for the event, and was the first step in a new initiative to ensure the plight of the Afghan people, largely as a result of the policies of our governments, does not fall under the radar, and that ordinary people on both sides continue to cooperate. For more details on the initiative, please visit www.vcnvuk.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The Dark Side: Secret Prisons, Torture and the War on Terror
As part of a series of workshops held in the afternoon, along with my colleagues Val Brown and Noel Hamel from the London Guantánamo Campaign, I held one on the issue of secret prisons and torture. While many people are aware of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, far fewer know about Afghanistan’s role in extraordinary rendition and its facilitation of secret torture prisons for the CIA. Most of the prisoners held at Guantánamo had previously been held at Bagram and other prisons in Afghanistan; some prisoner never made it out, having been tortured to death. They include both Afghans and foreigners. Contrary to the popular myth, many of the prisoners held at Guantánamo and/or in Afghanistan were not engaged in combat with anyone, and were in many cases brought into the country. The US’s operation of secret prisons has not ended, with 57 foreign nationals still held at Bagram under US control, without charge or trial, whose future beyond 2014 remains uncertain. In September, US lawyers brought an appeal case to look at why some of these men continue to be held after a decade with no reason given. Afghan local media also continues to report the arrest and “disappearance” of Afghans at the hands of American soldiers. Britain too has recently admitted to holding Afghan prisoners without charge for prolonged periods at a secret detention facility.
Afghanistan is one part of a large jigsaw puzzle, a global network of secret prisons and torture facilities that in some cases continue to operate with impunity and beyond the reach of the law: one of the most pernicious and undocumented facets of the global war on terror. Due to their complicity, government are keen to keep such matters as secret as possible. The media is complicit with an almost blanket lack of coverage of such issues.
In the workshop, we looked at the cases of three individuals who were tortured at such prisons in Afghanistan: Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, whose cruel death in 2002 was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, German Khaled El-Masri who was kidnapped in Macedonia and “rendered” to Afghanistan in 2003, and won his case against Macedonia in the European Court of Human Rights last year, and Saudi national Abd El-Nashiri, currently facing the death penalty at Guantánamo Bay, whose “disappearance” over four years and four continents is a most disturbing tale. In spite of being at the very heart of the rationale and practice of the so-called war on terror, raising public awareness about the issue is very difficult, which was the subject of our discussion. Government secrecy and media disinformation or lack of information were identified as the main blocks to raising awareness, as well a failure by NGOs and groups within whose remit such issues would normally fall, to give them their due, having fallen for the status quo that such detention falls out of the known confines of the law. A public lack of awareness as opposed to interest was seen as the problem, with a personalisation of these cases – which we tried to do – seen as a possible solution.
The issue is another potential casualty of the withdrawal next year, and must not be seen as an opportunity to allow further impunity and lack of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
One of the best reports on the issue thus far, listing and documenting the complicity of 54 states in breaches of international law and crimes against humanity through the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, was published in February, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, with details of the known involvement of both the UK and Afghanistan.