At the annual conference of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which was held in Stockholm in November 2007, Ambassador Jawed Ludin of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Nordic Countries, delivered a speech titled ”The Context of Conflict – the Afghan Perspective”.
Many of us today are very strongly under the effect of the tragedy that happened in Baghlan two days ago, and I can sense that this is going to be one of the issues dominating our minds over the next two days. Hopefully, in our discussions, we will go a little deeper and put events like that into some context, however harsh they may be.
Having said that, there is no escape from reality and this particular incident was perhaps the harshest blow, so far, on the democratic process as we lost six of our parliamentarians. It was an attack on a sugar factory and it was therefore also an attack on our collective effort, the effort of the Afghans and on those of the international community who work for the economic development of Afghanistan. When I was the spokesman for the president, I remember people used to ask me questions like “Why are you not building factories for us, because that is how you will create jobs, economic activity and enterprise”. This was one such factory, which was so mindlessly attacked.
What I will talk about today?
Firstly, there is a sense, both in Afghanistan and in the international community, that failure, although it is not happening, is nonetheless possible. This is a sense that has emerged over the past two years. I would like to address that, because it is important that a lot of what we consider as failure is really about the perception of failure, not the failure itself. Perceiving a failure is an act of reinforcing the failure itself, so we have to be careful when we talk about failure. I believe we are not losing in Afghanistan. But it requires us to work a bit harder to win.
The other thing that I would like to address is that Afghanistan is not a standard humanitarian intervention that the international community is involved in, like in many other places around the world.
Thirdly, I will talk about a few possible signposts to the future, the way forward and about things we need to focus on, in terms of “working harder to win”. And, in that context, the role of Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, is extremely important to focus on.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Bonn was one thing, post-Bonn is another. Bonn was about certainty, about plans, about resolve. Post-Bonn is uncertain, plans are confused, and resolve has to be maintained every day, consciously. As we see today, one of the aspects of post-Bonn is the deterioration of security. One of our promises to the Afghan people, as we set out six years ago, was that their lives would be secure. Today, security is illusive, not for all Afghans but for many, too many, in several provinces in the south of the country. Another promise we made to the people was development, that their lives would be better and that they would be taken out of poverty. But development is still in the pipeline. It has not been delivered. Politics was yet another thing. We promised the people that they would have a choice: to choose their own government, to take part in and decide over their own destiny and take part in a legitimate political process. That has indeed been done, even though the political process continues to be a complex one. But these are all as much about perception as reality, because today in Afghanistan you can make exactly the same arguments to prove the situation either way, a glass half full or a glass half empty.
However, there is one very important observation to be made: we are talking about what we have been doing over the past six years and why we have not done enough. I would say that it is actually not six years. We have only been really at work in Afghanistan for two years. The first four years were just what I would call a honeymoon. The bombings in Afghanistan in 2001 started on the 7th of October 2001, and by the 13th of November the Taliban were out. If the world thought that terrorism could be defeated as easily as that, then it was definitely misled and too optimistic. What we actually did in 2001 and 2002 was to postpone the actual war.
Then over the next four years we went into a period of euphoria, because everything seemed to work. The political process came together, the constitution worked, elections took place, communication went through the roofs and Kabul became an impressive example of the international community achieving something really tangible for the Afghan people.
But, despite our overriding sense of optimism, many in Afghanistan always doubted that this could be so easy. We could not actually believe that a lot was coming together so fast, and so easily, and that this was really true. We always had an intuitive understanding of something lurking around the corner and that is perhaps the reality that we saw in 2005. Terrorism was only one dimension of the blowback, of what I would call the realist period, the post-euphoria period. The Taliban were not actually defeated in 2001 and 2002, we drove them away and thereby just postponed the war on terrorism. We all know, at least in a serious analysis, where they all went. Terrorists have for the past years enjoyed untouchable sanctuaries in our region, beyond our borders. That is where they came back from in 2005, to a big surprise for some of us.
But then again this whole idea of facing the reality is more about perception, because it is not that terrorism has got stronger or that the context has changed. It is just that we did not face it the way we should have done. We only focused on carrying out the war in Afghanistan. We fought the symptoms of terrorism in Afghanistan and disregarded, at best, the fact that terrorism was not just a group of bandits or individuals committing mindless atrocities; that it was actually part of a very elaborate and deeply and historically entrenched set of processes and networks in the region.
On the other hand, what we have seen for the last two years is that the post-Bonn period was a period when reality dawned on the Afghan people too. In retrospect, we should have managed our own expectations better. I was personally at the Bonn conference, and as for any other Afghan, my expectations were really, really high. They were high, simply because of the gravity of what Afghanistan represented at that time, and also because of the scale of the international community’s interest and participation. In retrospect to some extent I blame myself. In many circles today it can be heard that the international community failed to support the Afghans. But then it is also true that we the Afghans were probably too optimistic. When was the last time that the international community was able to produce an example like the one we wanted to achieve in Afghanistan? We were really too optimistic!
I think one reason why we did not focus on terrorism and addressed it in a comprehensive way, and why we did not succeed to the extent possible in the other areas as well, was that the signals that we received at the beginning were misleading. There were talks of a Marshall Plan. There were talks of giving the Afghan people what they had always wanted, and giving it to them in as short a period of time as possible. But that was just politics! When we actually got down to the business itself, we found that we were not just engaged in a war on terrorism but also in a struggle for developing Afghanistan; and we found that what was required was a full scale engagement of the international community in all areas across the board. But then the international community’s engagement gradually became a routine matter. Gradually, it became the victim of what may be called the “desk officer syndrome”.
This brings me to the assertion that Afghanistan is not, as I said earlier, a case of standard humanitarian intervention. I am sure the world today there too many of these interventions on the plate. There is poverty, conflict, AIDS, climate change, you name it. In the Western world, there is pretty much established way of dealing with the question of responsibility towards such challenges across the world.
But then there are cases like Afghanistan, and lets face it, the reason why the international community came to Afghanistan six years ago was not so much about compassion, it was not even so much about the fundamental sense of human responsibility. The reason the world came to Afghanistan was an existential feeling of insecurity and the fear of the consequences of not intervening. Had the reasons been different, then the situation should have been addressed differently. In the future, the world will have challenges that are similar – already we are seeing similar challenges emerging in other places in the world. We would like to think that Afghanistan is still unique, but there is absolutely no reason to imagine that this is going to be the case forever. There will be other cases, but the lesson we need to learn from Afghanistan is that where the imperative of, and the reasons for, intervention are so compelling and consequential, then you really need to come up with different ways of addressing it. You have to go beyond the desk officer syndrome.
This is absolutely no offence to the people in the audience who do have this noble job of being desk officers for Afghanistan, because they are doing a great job. But the problem is in relegating what is an extremely important issue, a situation or a challenge to a routine of bureaucracy. That is exactly what happened, and that was the drawback of the development efforts in Afghanistan, and the drawback in addressing the war on terrorism. The decision to come to Afghanistan was taken on a political level and the implementation was left to junior level people who could not really step beyond the standard policy briefs. I experienced this when I was working in the office of the president. We used to deal with representatives of the international community at Kabul level. To be honest, it was quite frustrating that the statements from some diplomats were quite monotonous. Others were a bit ingenious and skilful and would reword it and deliver it in a different style each time, but some delivered it in exactly the same way, word by word. About Pakistan for example and about why there should be a regional focus rather than a focus on Afghanistan. They would just refuse to listen. The same applied for issues in the development sphere. We talked about what was possible to do within a yearly budget of a country. Later on I am going to come to how grateful we really are for what we have received, because especially in Scandinavia it may sound a bit impolite to imply that you have not been generous - because you have been. Scandinavia has been exemplary and we are deeply and eternally grateful for that, but at times it was not as responsive as it should have been.
The reason why the international community came to Afghanistan is a matter of the past. It is not important now why it came, but it is important why it must stay there until the job is done. This is the real issue. There are several reasons why it is absolutely unimaginable for the world to leave Afghanistan or even to decrease its involvement, whether it would be in the military field or in the development area. The issues that bring us together are so overriding and every day they become even more important. Terrorism, for example, is far from defeated. If there is anything positive about terrorism ever, it is the fact that it brings us together; the fact that Afghanistan has to remain a priority for the world, because Afghanistan’s security is fundamentally linked to the security in Europe.
Drugs are another reason. I heard someone saying recently, very eloquently, that in the case of drugs, Afghanistan’s relationship, especially with Europe, is very symmetric and one of our common responsibilities in terms of the way we are both affected by it. The Europeans are the consumers and the Afghans are the producers. Afghanistan understands that Europe has difficulties, logistical and even political, in tackling its consumption problem and hopefully Europe will understand Afghanistan’s difficulties in tackling a complex production problem. It is as simple as that. The drug business globally is worth 40 billion dollars. Less than 2 billion of it remains inside Afghanistan. The major part of these 38 billion dollars is in the hands of the European mafia. So blame games are not helpful. It is important to see it in this context, and then address it and seriously sort it out, for the interest of those young people in Oslo that I see every day when I drive by. I feel extremely distressed when I see these drug addicts. But the drug trade also needs to be addressed for the interest of the young Afghans who suffer because of addiction, and for security reasons connected with drugs. In Afghanistan drugs are funding terrorism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As to the way forward, it is very important that when it comes to a counter terrorism strategy, the whole ‘Afghanisation’ issue has to be prominent. It is important to emphasise that a lot of times we do get confronted by seemingly nice arguments. For example, that military is not a solution and that we should stake money and development in long-term solutions. That is such a noble idea so that no one really can dispute it. However, whether we like it or not, military may not be the solution, but it is a very fundamental element of the solution. So while we emphasise the continued and even enhanced military presence of the international community in Afghanistan, we also think it is time that, both on the operational level as well as on the strategic level, the involvement of Afghan institutions must be given top priority. Operationally, patrols on the streets or in the villages of Helmand, or Baghlan for that matter, for example, must not be done by ISAF forces. The Afghan national army must be enabled to do that, but they need also to be monitored closely. That is why there is need for foreign troops to be there. The Afghan police and military have to be monitored and they have to be improved so that they can take full responsibility when the time comes. This ‘Afghanistation’ will also have two side effects. I hope, and I am inclined to believe, that there will be less civilian casualties when Afghans take over at the operational level. There will also be fewer casualties on the part of NATO. That is the other aspect of it. Of course, the Afghan people are paying higher price in terms of their lives on an every day basis. But it is also an unbearable situation to see sons and daughters of western families sacrificing their lives. It is extremely distressing for an Afghan to see this.
One of the most important elements in Afghanistan’s efforts against terrorism is that the strategy should have a regional focus. We are deeply concerned about what is going on in the region beyond our borders, as that is having direct effect on Afghanistan. The situation in Pakistan is of deep concern. We follow it extremely closely, simply because it has a direct bearing on Afghanistan and on our security. We do not involve in Pakistan’s internal concerns and we wish the best for our Pakistani brothers and sisters, but what we would like to see is that the war on terrorism continues unabated and does not suffer. It must continue in a serious way, marked by the understanding that terrorism is nobody’s friend and that it can harm all of us.
As far as the interior matters of Afghanistan are concerned, we need to remember two things: We must fight very decisively on the military field but we must also ensure that there is a way out for those who want to leave the Taliban ranks. This includes those in the leadership, those in the rank and file and those who are living in Pakistan and outside Afghanistan who want to return and become part of the development process. They must be able to do so. Of course there are things that we cannot compromise with. The constitution of Afghanistan, which is one of the greatest achievements of the past six years, is beyond compromise. We are really proud of it and we will never be able to compromise with that. We cannot compromise with the political process either. Rather than compromising with it and weakening it, we must strengthen it to be even more inclusive. It has been inclusive, but we can make it even more inclusive so that it includes people who are not yet part of it. But I would like to emphasise once again the importance of the whole process of negotiations and reconciliation being supplemented by an even more vigorous presence on the military side.
Elections are an issue that is very important and on everyone’s mind these days. Kabul is already bursting with activity, which is an extremely positive sign – the kind of things that media fail to report about. The first elections in any post-war country are important but the second elections are vital, because this is where you confirm that the political process is alive. The political process must continue and that is why the next elections do deserve the same, if not a larger, amount of assistance from the international community. This time we must also make sure that we have district elections. Elections on district level will significantly influence dynamics at the local level; they will be extremely helpful for the security of the country, for enabling the development processes and, last and not least, governance.
The president of Afghanistan is subject for criticism. This is just because he leads the country and whoever fails, he, as the president, is held responsible. Thus, if someone complains it ultimately leads to him. The Afghan people are completely justified to do so: they voted for him and they want him to act. But the international community needs to understand that when you want someone to lead, it is essentially a joint effort. Has the question ever been raised whether means are given for the president to lead the country? The international community supports him as a president, elections have been financed and the whole process is being supported. But then he needs an instrument which he could use to enforce security, governance, development and counter narcotics. That instrument needs to be the police. He does not have a police that is professional, incorruptible, well paid and that can be very effectively used. It all boils down to control and to who has the control. If the president or the government had full control across the country, then security, governance, development and counter narcotics would not be as challenging as they are now.
On the development side, education is very important. We are pleased that we have the Minister of Education, Haneef Atmar, here at the conference. The Scandinavian help for that sector has been extremely important. But on the economic side, it is now important to be foresighted and to think in long terms. We need to move on from aid to investment. Europe is not just important for Afghanistan, or for the intervention in Afghanistan, it is vital. What makes Afghanistan special in many ways has truly been the international effort, and we have also been proud of what has made it a success. Of course, we are grateful for Europe’s role in terms of development assistance, but also in terms of NATO. Europe’s level of commitment is exemplary. But on the military element, Europe must ensure that its commitment does not waver. There are nations in Europe that are ambivalent at best, and their ambivalence is having a damaging effect on the situation in Afghanistan. It is not sure whether the international community knows the Taliban better or the Taliban know the international community. Rome or Berlin, or any other capital, may not know so much about the threat that we are facing in Afghanistan and what our constitution says, but they know in Europe that something is wrong. The Taliban attack our weak points.
In all this, Europe has provided troops and dollars. May I again single out Scandinavia for being there not just on the large-scale side, but also on the quality side, because scale is not solely important. Because of your high degree of aid effectiveness, we have benefited several dollars for every dollar that you have given to Afghanistan – the way you spend your money is very effective. This has to be a learning for other countries as well.
There is an important statement going around these days saying that “failure is not an option” in Afghanistan. I would rather say that “success is absolutely essential” in Afghanistan. For the first four years we had a honeymoon and for the past two years we have had the challenge. Signs are indicating that the challenge is now going away, just because we have remained steadfast and faced it, unlike the calculation of our enemies. The challenge is being addressed.
Imagine what we will have at the end of it: a country in the heart of one of the most problematic regions of the world. In this region you will have a country that is Muslim, moderate and democratic with all the resources to become a prosperous nation. It will be a glorious example of the success of the Afghan people and the international community.