Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Afghanistan and Iraq: Good War, Bad War? Lakhdar Brahimi

Centre for the Study of Global Governance
Afghanistan and Iraq: Good War, Bad War?
Lakhdar Brahimi
Chair: Mary Kaldor
11 February 2009

How do you introduce a very important statesman? Mary Kaldor who chaired this talk wanted to convey the stature of Lakhdar Brahimi by way of anecdote. She thought the best way to go about it would be to tell a story of where Brahimi and she were late for a conference or meeting somewhere in the Middle East. The taxi driver was so impressed with the fact that it was Lakhdar Brahimi that he refused to take any fare. Kaldor said that this demonstrates how much Brahimi is respected in the Middle East.

I really do not know how this makes for a good anecdote when one is introducing a world-class statesman. I do not think it does Brahimi any justice at all. * It is a great cultural anecdote of Middle Eastern hospitality of which I myself have many stories which I could share.

Kaldor was a very annoying chair to be honest. Her questions to Mr. Brahimi, in her sitting-on-a-sofa voice were - likewise - lazy and general. To begin with, what kind of a title for a lecture is this? Do we want to sit and philosophise whether the attacks and invasions on Afghanistan and Iraq were good or bad? I suppose it is a safe and easy place to begin but, to be honest, it sounds more like the title of a CNN programme not a talk at a university. I think it could have been more appropriately entitled 'Lakhdar Brahimi's reflections on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the role of the UN' or something to that effect.

On the whole, they could have a more animated, wake and insightful chair than Kaldor although she happens to be a distinguished chair of the LSE global governance centre. And she is the author of New and Old Wars and, I do not even want to get into that right now. I'm going to get those violence, conflict and development blues again.**

Good war, bad war?

In response to this question, Mr. Brahimi said that there aren't any good wars. Some are worse than others. In the case of Afghanistan, the war seemed 'justified' because the U.S. had been attacked. The war in Iraq seemed entirely 'unjustified' even more so given outright public outrage globally except for the U.S. and Israel.

I think this was a very diplomatic and precisely summarised answer. This is exactly how these wars have been perceived in the West and, elsewhere too. We knew the U.S. was going to be merciless in its revenge after 9-11 and, would not spare any carnage in Afghanistan. It was inevitable. Not right but inevitable. Iraq was just a circus of lies, aggression, greed and the continuing march of empire and hegemony.

Mr. Brahimi said he felt the U.N. - "we" - did a reasonably good job in Afghanistan for the first two years however, there was no interest in Afghanistan. It was considered a low-intensity conflict, far away. It was believed the Taliban had been dealt with. However that was far from the truth. Mr. Brahimi said without the necessary support, it was not going to work. In the end he had to publicly quit and declare why he did. He told the UN Security Council that it did not have the right attitude towards Afghanistan which needed support. Moreover, the conflict could not be bottled in that country and would spill out.

One-Eyed Mullah and the Taliban

Kaldor asked Mr. Brahimi about the one-eyed mullah, the leader of the Taliban. She said, you are the "UN person" who had met Mullah Omar, the "one-eyed leader of the Taliban", twice. I was frowning to myself when she said that. It was a flippant question, worded carelessly. It is hard to believe an academic would go around talking like that. And, I think this really triggered Mr. Brahimi to respond the way he did. In that one flippant and disrespectful question, she managed to separate, divide, alienate, demonise, generalise - the Taliban freaks as an irrational group, their leader a freaky one-eyed Mullah, in a world apart very different from LSE, Holborn, London.

Mr. Brahimi said that Mullah Omar was actually a mujahideen who had lost his eye in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He had found Omar to be a soft spoken, shy person who was extremely conscious of the eye he had lost. He went on to explain that Taliban means "student" and Omar was one. In fact, he was an idealist. The Taliban had risen up against the very mujahideen who after having liberated Afghanistan from the Soviets started fighting with each other. The Taliban were intially welcomed by the Afghanis.

Moreover, he also made reference to the fact that many Afghanis were by and large quite conservative to begin even before the Taliban arrived.

I think Mr. Brahimi was really trying to make a point in response to Kaldor's question. He related a few incidents which demonstrated that the Taliban were not some demonised monsters but a group of people who came about in response to the chaos in Afghanistan. For instance, when the Taliban had taken over Mazar, they arrested Iranians and confiscated trucks. Mr. Brahimi went to see Mullah Omar and convinced them to release the Iranians (who in turn had become very angry and had, started amassing troops on the border) and the trucks too because these were the livelihoods of local people. The same thing happened with UN offices, warehouses and vehicles in Bamiyan and again, everything was returned in tact to the U.N. Apparently they distributed some food (these were WFP warehouses) before returning the assets.

He said that at that point in time the Taliban were the 'most honest' people there were in Afghanistan. Moreover, we have 'demonised them excessively' and it is ironic that we are now talking about negotiating with them. We could have taken such steps much earlier.

He also made a reference to the destruction of the Buddha's in Bamiyan. Mr. Brahimi was in talks with the Taliban commander in 'in charge' trying to convince him that the Buddha's were world heritage, important to everyone and the Buddhists, etc. The commander replied that it was Afghanistan's heritage, that the Buddha's had been untouched with 1,300 years of Islam. Mr. Brahimi said whatever happened after that is 'speculation.'

Regarding the destruction of the Buddha's may be not really so much of speculation. Most people would probably agree that the Taliban did indeed destroy those statues. As for whether or not Afghanis were conservative to an extremist degree before the Taliban arrived on the scene is also arguable. Afghanistan remembered by different Afghanis will be different accordingly. There might be those claiming that bears and burqa's were the norm but, likewise, there are many who remember Afghanistan and particularly Kabul as a modern, functioning city with universities, cinemas, culture and life.

Nevertheless, I understand Mr. Brahimi's efforts in demonstrating that at the time the Taliban arrived on the scene, they were welcomed by many of the people. Moreover, this group overthrew the warlords who had led Afghanistan into a 20-year old civil war but also brought in their own version of Islam. Mr. Brahimi thought Mullah Omar was a soft-spoken individual (the same observation has been made of Osama bin Laden as well by journalists), an idealist even. I think he was trying to humanise this group of people he had interacted with and, pointing out the complexity of the circumstances which produced and moulded a group like the Taliban. I think this was triggered really by Kaldor's flippant one-eyed-mullah-leader-of-the-Taliban comment.

Brahimi Report

Mr. Brahimi said that he never had a clue as to how famous his report would become. He was pretty sure it was going to join the many other reports commissioned and produced by the U.N. gathering dust on bookshelves.

The report was produced at a time when the U.N. was 'stumbling failure to failure' e.g. Srebenica, Rwanda. Almost a million people got killed in Rwanda while the U.N. looked away. He said Srebenica was even more terrible and inexcusable because that massacre occurred at U.N. safe haven.

The main recommendation was:
  • U.N. should give itself doable mandates and, ensure it has the necessary tools and resources for those mandates.
- the Secretary General should tell the Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear, I think he was making reference to Kofi Annan's soft style
- DPKO moves thousands of soldiers with just a few staff
- there were to be 26,000 troops in Darfur, the target was never met; moreover, they did not even have enough helicopters

Afghanistan - Successes and Failures; Bonn Agreement

Mr . Brahimi said that 'we' exploited the fact that the Americans had bombed Afghanistan and the Taliban ran away from the cities. I guess he was saying that the first couple of years were used to do some programmes, install a new government, etc. Millions of refugees returned to Afghanistan. There were two successful Loya Jirga's.

The conference in Bonn was hurriedly put together and lasted for 10 days. The participants were not the real representatives.

As for the failures:

1) The people in Bonn were not the representatives. In fact, 'we' gave the domination back to those who had been overthrown by the Taliban with 'our' money. What was needed was to reach out to the Taliban and bring them on board. No one wanted to hear anything about them when in fact, the Taliban had never surrendered, they had 95% of the land. What should have happened was a Bonn 2 to assess and evaluate the work done so far. However, the Americans were not interested in hearing anything negative with their elections and Iraq.

2) The people who were put into power were not to be trusted. Moreover, ISAF should have been expanded outside of Kabul. The expansion was asked for and, in those days, ISAF was seen as friends. They had a good reputation. One of the British commanders was applauded even more than Karzai.

3) The Americans were never interested in Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi said that he was not sure about this in the beginning but is absolutely certain of it now. They went into Afghanistan for the sole purpose of looking for bin Laden. In September 2001, they had already decided to invade Iraq. Afghanistan was just a side show. They were not interested in 'nation building.' His comment on NATO was to the effect that it doesn't exist and, certainly not in Afghanistan. He said the British think Helmand is Afghanistan; the Canadians think Kandahar is Afghanistan; and so on.

Iraq has really damaged the credibility and role of the U.N. The Americans had invaded Iraq without the approval of the U.N. and came back asking to be recognised as occupiers. As such, the U.N. had not role in Iraq. The Americans would have come back to the U.N. anyway asking for help but at that point, it was not necessary or right to be associated with this invasion.

Kofi Annan apparently said in an interview before the end of his second term what was his biggest regret and, he had said it was sending in Sergio Vieira de Mello who got killed in 2003.

The U.N. was severely compromised in Iraq having become associated with the occupying force. Mr. Brahimi said that even in Afghanistan before the American invasion, the U.N. flag was enough to cross from one faction territory into another in order to distribute relief or conduct immunisations. Now, the U.N. has become a target. He gave the example of the attack on U.N. offices in Algiers which is not because of something the U.N. did in Algeria but simply because it has lost its neutrality and credibility and, has become a target with people with an agenda.

The Americans did come to the U.N. in January 2004 asking for help as they did not want to be occupiers any longer. Mr. Brahimi said that the 'mediator' in him eventually gave in but he regrets ever going there.

He said that national reconciliation should have been pursued and, instead the war intensified. At this point, Kaldor yes, when I was also in Iraq, I spoke to a few Iraqis and they said, you are the first person who has ever spoken to us. No comment there.

He said the war was completely unjust and irrational. He asked why is it that the Americans went in there. The 'legend' of the WMDs was a complete fraud. The Americans completely destroyed Iraq. In that initial chaos, they allowed museums to be looted. The y apparently built a helipad on one of the important archaeological sites. The only thing that was protected was the Ministry of Oil. The war was completely wrong and no matter what was achieved after that (the removal of Saddam or elections) will never justify the war in which perhaps one million Iraqis died.

Should Bush and Blair be tried for war crimes?

Mr. Brahimi only responded by asking the same question.

Was it the surge that helped in Iraq?

It was not the 20,000 extra troops that made the difference. The Americans simply stopped killing people. Al Qaeda, by the way, went in there with the invasion, it did not exist in Iraq before that. Ethnic cleansing started happening in Iraq, walls were built around communities separating them.

It is said that Afghanistan is the 'graveyard for empire.' It should be a lesson to the policy makers there that the Afghanis will always destroy invaders but, if you demonstrate to them you are their friends, they will be cooperative. Mr. Brahimi said that the war has spilled over into Pakistan and even India giving it a dimensional complexity.

Role for the U.N.

Mr. Brahimi said that although the U.N. needs more resources to operate better and protect itself, it is unrealistic to expect more support in that respect. He said that the British embassy in Iraq probably spends millions of dollars just on its security - the U.N. cannot do that. As such, the U.N. desperately needs to reclaim its neutrality and credibility. NATO is seen as an occupying force in Afghanistan and, the U.N. needs to distance itself. Talks needs to be held with the Taliban and, the U.N. is the best body to convene these talks.

Question and Answers

The question and answer session was very interesting. There were a few questions by an Afghani girl, an Iraqi gentleman, a crazy Aussie and some others. The Afghani and Iraqi questions were very critical. The girl pointed out that the Taliban had committed a lot of massacres. The Iraqi gentleman criticised the installment of so-called technocrats and why did not Brahimi resign in Iraq as well. The response was that in both cases, he did whatever he could after messy wars and as a mediator. The Taliban were not 'worse' than anyone else. He was in Iraq for hardly six months and had made his reasons for leaving very clear. The recent elections in Afghanistan were okay but, there was no need to draft a new constitution; the 1964, stripped of the references to the monarchy, could have been used for another ten years. The elections in Iraq in 2005 were a farce though organised by the militias. He stressed that 'we' rush into elections too soon and, as such elections divide rather than bring anyone together. I think this is a very fair point for post conflict projects. It has often been pointed out that millions is spent on elections way too soon. There was a question by a Brit I think in response to the comments NATO most probably - he said that foreign armies could not solve Afghanistan's problems. Mr. Brahimi said he certainly agreed; however, if NATO is unable to help the Afghans and create more problems, it should leave. The crazy Aussie went on a rampage about why Mr. Brahimi went into Afghanistan in the first place; where did the U.S. end and the U.N. begin? He was talking about daisy cutters and why two hours even and why two years? Mr. Brahimi politely said that he agreed with much of what he said and, the U.N. certainly needed to reclaim its image; however, some good work had been done in the first two years.

***** ***** *****

Overall I really enjoyed these reflections by Mr. Brahimi. He was extremely honest about the successes and failures of the post conflict projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was in Afghanistan briefly while Mr. Brahimi was the U.N. boss and when the U.N. offices in Baghdad were bombed in August 2003 (I was in the north in Erbil). Traveling to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 was not really that much of a dilemma for me; I never instinctively had any feeling that the U.N. was associated with any invasion. Security was pretty good at that time. I still fondly remember the strolls along Chicken and Flower Streets in Kabul where apparently now expats are not allowed to go. Iraq though was a completely different case; I had a lot of problems when I went there but ignored my moral dilemmas of course. I knew I was in an occupied country. My passport was never stamped either going in or out! Americans were running the show. I remember a few weekly briefing meetings hosted by the American military in Mosul which I attended with my boss; I can't even describe the feeling of meeting those arrogant army officers. And when the U.N. offices were bombed hardly two months after I had just arrived in Erbil, the U.N. left en masse in U.N. flights. Our UNJLC office did some of the coordination of those flights and receiving staff at the airport in Amman, Jordan. From what I understood the injured Iraqi national staff did not receive the same kind of support. I remember standing with my friend and colleague at the airport watching the staff come in through those doors. There was one case where an Iraqi family was stranded at the airport because the wife and kids did not have entry visas or something like that and were going to be sent back. My friend Aysha and I sat with them until well after midnight. It was terrible to see that family knowing they would be separated in the morning. I've just remembered that incident. Aysha had made friends with another couple of young Iraqi staff who had come to Jordan for treatment of their wounds, a couple of young kids had lost one of their eyes, and were completely traumatised.

* My mother told us that the taxi drivers in Ankara often refused to take any fare from her because she was Pakistani. When I was in Erbil, Iraq our office driver never allowed my boss nor I to pay for meals in any restaurants. He would practically invite me every weekend to his house for a feast. This was almost the same story in Afghanistan. Of course, you would never find any hospitality in the UK for sure except for from fellow Pakistanis but certainly not from the locals. In fact, I have another story to that effect. Just recently, my family and I were strolling along New Kings Road and stopped at a cafe for tea; the fellow from Peshawar serving us was so happy to find out we were from Pakistan and the fact that my brother had taken the time to chat to him, that he presented us with a plate of muffins and croissants. The point I am trying to make is that a simple gesture from a taxi driver is part of the culture anyway - I can't even imagine the gestures and respect that would actually be shown to someone of Mr. Brahimi's stature.

** They go like this - why oh why do I have to read this crap? This a-historical, hypocritical crap about what's wrong with the developing world, why it is so backward, undeveloped and full of 'new' wars. The blues make me wonder whether I am studying a course entirely designed for Westerners.

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