Hope wanes

A certain desperation for some signs of hope on Afghanistan has accorded a broad-based welcome to Barack Obama's new policy, which appears to contain the promise of wide-ranging changes. Closer scrutiny of the policy's white paper, however, calls for caution. Despite the multifaceted goals it endorses, implying a comprehensive approach, the policy prioritises a narrow military goal as the focus of US policy. Other elements of support to political processes and development may end up underwriting the military strategy on Afghanistan, an approach that would have serious consequences for the security and welfare of the Afghan population.

The new policy assembles a number of worthy aims, including its emphasis on good governance and a dramatic increase in civilian capacity of Afghans. At the same time, however, it also clearly states that the "core goal of the US must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat the al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." These aims are no different from the initial goals of George W Bush's White House, which was widely criticised for its narrow and short-term military aims.

The new National Security Advisor James Jones is a former Marine, whose area of responsibility includes the military campaign in Afghanistan – an indication that the matter of 'security' may be restricted to a militaristic interpretation. Currently, the goal does not take into account the wider issue of the political stability of Afghanistan, and gives no centrality to the security of Afghan citizens, who face violence from multiple sources, not just from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Afghans must hope to benefit from the limited areas of convergence between their interests and those of the US government and its allies, though past experience suggests that this is likely to yield mixed blessings at best.

In fact, evidence from the last seven years suggests that, in the pursuit of these limited aims, the US government will be willing to condone the use of predatory and violent commanders who 'deliver' on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets even while pursuing rapacious and undemocratic policies towards the Afghan population. The evidence also suggests that there will be a high degree of tolerance for 'collateral damage' – that euphemistic term for civilian casualties arising out of the use of excessive force and an over-reliance on air strikes. In 2008, a year when the international military forces reportedly changed their operating methods to minimise civilian casualties, the number of deaths from air strikes by international military forces rose by 72 percent over the previous year alone, with a 40 percent increase in the use of aerial munitions.

Military altar
The increasing use of development and humanitarian aid in the pursuit of military objectives has come under increasing criticism from development and humanitarian agencies. The involvement of the military in aid delivery began with the concept of the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which were established on the concept that they would bring essential infrastructure to areas not yet secure enough for aid workers. However, as the security situation worsened and the conflict increased, more and more donors began diverting their funds to areas where their troops were stationed, very often through the PRTs, in a bid to bolster the military objective: winning hearts and minds, and mitigating the impact of the military operations in those areas.

The PRTs have since expanded the interpretation of their mandate, using humanitarian aid in pursuit of military objectives and engaging in aid work even in areas where civilian aid workers are able to function. The result has been a blurring of lines between military and aid workers, thus endangering the lives of the aid workers, diverting funds in the aid of military objectives, and prioritising unsustainable short-term projects. International forces in Afghanistan have signed onto guidelines emphasising the need to separate military from non-military tasks, and the need for combatants to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. However, military personnel from some contingents, including from the US, have continued to violate these with impunity. An example is the military use of white unmarked vehicles of the sort that are conventionally used only by humanitarian organisations.

Despite the comforting words emanating from the White House, NGOs on the ground are apprehensive that the reality of the increased military approach may lead to higher levels of displacement, further restrictions on social services and greater impediments for aid agencies to reach civilians in need of protection and assistance. Meanwhile, the Obama administration's endorsement of 'negotiations' with the Taliban also has a section of the Afghan population worried. While there is some support for peace at any cost from some, others worry that any 'deal' may end up in compromises on hard-won democratic and human rights.

In the milieu of resurgent intolerance and conservatism, the fear is that media independence, women's rights, the right to fair trial and the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms may all see a rollback. The government's apparent endorsement of a Shia Bill, containing several discriminatory clauses and endorsing the marriage of minors, is a case in point. Likewise, activists point out that women's groups have not been consulted by the Kabul government in the negotiations with the Taliban. When it comes to making peace, will the rights of women be similarly ignored

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Himal Southasian