Editorials: Afghan debacle, Underdogs and overdogs in Northern Ireland

Afghanistan debacle for ‘the West’

There are no easy answers in relation to a complex situation like Afghanistan, and recent events, but certain aspects are clear.

Western powers (the USA, NATO, the UK etc) were quite wrong to invade Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on the USA. Yes, Bin Laden was in Afghanistan but he was quick to try to go into hiding, and the Taliban regime did offer to deliver him up if there was clear evidence for what he had done. There was no basis in international law for the invasion or for instigating regime change, no matter how repressive the Taliban were. And there is the simple pragmatic fact is that it is easy for great powers to invade a country but very much more difficult for them to get out with any shreds of dignity and without further atrocities being perpetrated by all sides (as happened), or indeed to achieve lasting results which might provide at least some justification for their actions. Around a quarter of a million people died in violence in the two decades of Western occupation.

History should have been a guide for the likes of the USA and UK but it was foolishly diregarded. This is at least the third time the UK has come to military grief in Afghanistan; previous British invasions were in 1838 and 1878, and there was another British-Afghan war in 1919. The USSR had to retreat with its tail between its legs in 1989 after direct military intervention a decade earlier. But resistance to USSR control was aided by the USA, arming and training the mujahidin who they would subsequently come to fight. Military intervention often sets loose forces which cannot be controlled.

There have been some gains in twenty years of Western occupation regarding modernisation of the country and increased education and rights for women. Opposition to women’s rights in Afghanistan stems from both a reactionary reading of Islam and local tribal culture and customs. A certain amount of the modernisation will remain or be difficult to stamp out; how much of women’s rights (e.g. to work and get a full education) will last is doubtful.

The jury is yet out on whether the relative tolerance and forgiveness promised by the Taliban as they were coming to power is a smokescreen and if Taliban rule will be nearly as repressive as before. It is difficult to know at this stage whether retribution and repressive actions against women that have taken place actually portray the true face of Taliban rule or whether they may to some extent be the result of local Taliban members not getting the message. Certainly there is much fear and the overall effect will be felt by women and many ordinary citizens as severely repressive.

But it does also have to be said that the Afghan democratic system which ‘the West’ attempted to construct, in alliance obviously with some Afghanis, collapsed very rapidly like a house of cards because it had not won Afghan hearts and minds. The amount spent on equipping and training the few hundred thousand military was, from any point of view, a total waste of money; they succumbed to the much smaller and ill-equipped Taliban force. And most of the couple of trillion dollars money spent by the USA went to the US military-industrial complex in terms of weapons sales and contractors. Some western control was achieved in alliance with local, and brutal, warlords. The Afghan system was corrupt and inefficient, and that is part of why it collapsed so suddenly, and obviously in the situation of Taliban threats and manoeuvring with US withdrawal coming there was no desire by Afghan national military personnel to risk their lives or die for a cause that had little allegiance.

Some in ‘the West’ are concerned about an ‘isolationist’ USA. But the fact of the matter is that when the USA has seen itself as the ‘world’s policeman’ it has been the world’s big bully. You only have to look at the overthrowal of all sorts of regimes, democratic and undemocratic, by the USA, to work that out and that the policeman image is one that almost always hides a much less benign face, that of right wing ideology, big business, and in particular the military-industrial system which dominates in many countries.

It remains to be seen how isolationist the USA becomes in military terms. It retains upwards of a thousand (!) military bases around the world – which does not include other arrangements with countries such as US military use of Shannon Airport which is a US base in all but name. The USA may now be less likely to intervene directly with ‘boots on the ground’ but its continuing use of military drones to kill perceived enemies – and frequently civilians – is not likely to be curtailed, and indeed was extended during the presidency of Barack Obama. Drones and other air attacks can now be considered a permanent feature of the USA’s ‘permanent war’ status..

There are different kinds of power to that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and as Afghanistan has clearly demonstrated, gun power is not even a sure bet in terms of success when a much more poorly armed force, but with dedication and belief on its side, can win.

Gun boat diplomacy has had its day but many countries in the world, not just ‘Western’ powers but Russia and to some extent China also, have yet to move beyond it – though China has been exploring and exploiting its economic power. Military might can certainly change situations but it cannot easily win long terms victories or change hearts and minds.

So how can those who are concerned about situations internationally intervene if they are committed to a just world? There are a variety of approaches, all of which require humility rather than hubris, and may not have the supposed (but false) glamour of military intervention. Dialogue is always underrated. Funding for economic progress, particularly for those who are most repressed and in need, is an important part of a response. Research and technical aid of an appropriate nature, both regarding agriculture and industry, or assitance to local people in doing this, is another response. Supporting green development is a step forward not just for the local society but for the world.

Building on positive aspects of local culture is also part of an answer rather than teleporting new western systems in to traditional cultures (much as we might think they are a good idea). Cultures can evolve but generally are hard to change rapidly. Basing change in indigenous culture and thinking can be a way forward. Take the traditional jirga (elders’ council) system of decision making and conflict reolution in Afghan and Pashtun culture; this offers many possibilities for restorative justice. Most cultures have similar structures which can be used to work on thorny issues of dsagreement. Building on such mechanisms, and making them more inclusive (jirgas would not traditionally have included women) is one valuable approach to dealing with conflict. Other involvement in promoting mechanisms of nonviolent conflict management or resolution is also of vital importance, particularly in early stages when issues may be more resolvable.

The military approach sometimes looks like an easy and safe option. It is not. What is needed is a very different approach to the world, sharing knowedge and expertise, offering a helping hand, exploring how to assist in a way which builds permanent positive change, particularly for most oppressed sections such as women and minorities in a situation like Afghanistan, and simply listening to what people are looking for. In relation to a militant macho ideology in power in certain countries this is far from easy, and in societies where international engagement is labelled treasonous then it is particularly difficult. But there is no other way. NATO militarism has, for example, encouraged Russian xenophobia.

The world is a complex place. Afghanistan is, like any country, not homogenous. Building on the best, in whatever way possible, is the way to proceed so that local cultures can evolve and be more equitable and inclusive. This applies at home just as much as it does anywhere else and what has been spoken of here in relation to Afghanistan could also apply substanrtially to the residual conflict in Northern Ireland, despite very significant cultural differences.

Northern Ireland:

Underdogs and overdogs

The term ‘overdog’ is not anything as much used as ‘underdog’ but one can be understood as the opposite of the other. In the first fifty years of the Northern Ireland state or statelet it was clear that Protestants and unionists were the overdogs and Catholics and nationalists the underdogs. Some aspects of this continued through the period of the Troubles and there being a clear numerical majority for unionism. That majority has now evaporated due to demographic change.

As we frequently state, the end of a majority for political unionism does not necessarily mean a united Ireland but it does mean a change of ethos and atmosphere in the North. However political unionism has not yet adapted to this reality. Indeed, the reckless backing of a hard Brexit by the DUP half a dozen years ago – bahaving as if they owned the whole show – was, from a unionist point of view, a tragic overplaying of its hand; it ended up with the last thing unionism wanted, a buereaucratic economic border in the Irish Sea due to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The other major aspect of unionism currently is the fall from popularity of the DUP, because of the debacle of their handling of Brexit; a recent Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk poll put the Ulster Unionist Party on 16%, the TUV of Jim Allister on 14%, and the DUP on 13%. Even if these figures are not wholly accurate, and they are only a snapshot, it is no wonder DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is calling for ‘unionist unity’.

While some inter-unionist cooperation may emerge prior to the May 2022 Assembly elections, this fragmentation has pluses and minuses. Exiting monolithic sectarian political blocs – on either side – has to be part of progress. But if political unionism as a whole feels weak and divided this is good for no one and may create space for the hard men of the loyalist paramilitaries to come more to the fore, and loyalist parmilitarism is still very much around.

One of the few things which has united people on the island of Ireland recently, including all political parties North and Republic, has been in opposition to British government plans to introduce a ‘Troubles amnesty’ without other and adequate mechanisms to ‘deal with the past’. The British government has made its move on an English/British jingoist basis to protect its former soldiers and the state from accountability and this move is also in accord with its militarist mindset; it is not compatible with international law. However this rare unanimity across the board in Ireland does not herald any breathrough for peace and light on a broader front. For the British government to proceed with its plans would be contemptible and a vicious slap in the face for all victims; to proceed against universal rejection in both jurisdictions in Ireland would be an incredible act of contemptuous disregard for everyone on the westernmost island in Europe..

In many situations people love an underdog. If political unionism is on the cusp of possibly becoming such an underdog then it needs an appreciation of how to wear minority status, and how to adapt. This is difficult given its insistence in the past on ‘majority rule’ and many loyalists currently see the state and police being ‘agin them’ without any decisive evidence beyond Boris Johnson’s clear betrayal of them with the Northern Ireland Protocol (betrayal because of what he had previously promised). However what else could have come to pass with a ‘hard Brexit’ is difficult to see.

There continue to be many dangers in Northern Ireland, and many obstacles remain in building a peaceful society. Moving beyond a situation where any community sees itself as an underdog, but valuing everyone, is an important and difficult goal, whatever the constitutional situation. Those who believe in peace and reconciliation will have to continue to be imaginative and creative for a very considerable period of time. No one deserves to be left behind but what any of us want may not be exactly what we can possibly get so compromise has to be an important word in the political lexicon for everyone. Despite its image, it is compomise which requires bravery and not intransigence.

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