Anti-imperialism cannot be allowed to trump human rights
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment is Free – London, UK – 7 October 2011
The Afghan war strategy is not working. After 10 bloody years, there are too many civilian casualties and no prospect of defeating the Taliban. We are propping up a Kabul government mired in corruption, which gained power through fraudulent elections. Our intervention has focussed on war-fighting to the relative neglect of economic reconstruction and the empowerment of civil society. The cost to the British people of this half-baked venture is a staggering £5 billion a year, when public services are being slashed. For all these reasons, I’m supporting the mass anti-war assembly in Trafalgar Square this Saturday. But I do so critically.
As a left-winger and internationalist, I can’t accept the simplistic calls for immediate troop withdrawal. Don’t get me wrong. I never supported the military strategy in Afghanistan. The NATO-led occupation is wrong. Democracy and human rights cannot be imposed by western diktat. The troops should come home – but not with no regard for the consequences.
A hasty NATO withdrawal will not bring peace. Afghan security forces lack the training, equipment and numbers to stave off the fundamentalist threat. A premature exit could result in a Taliban victory – and a bloodbath. Is this what anti-war activists want? I’m sure they don’t. So why do many of my colleagues make a demand that risks such a grisly outcome?
Campaigners against the war are rightly critical of NATO’s ham-fisted intervention, human rights abuses and reckless attacks that kill civilians.
But why aren’t they equally critical of the Taliban? Taliban fighters deliberately target civilians. They kill many more ordinary Afghans than the NATO forces, and they’d kill even more civilians if there was a rushed pull out of western troops. A one-sided focus on NATO’s wrongs, to the neglect of a far more brutal set of killers, is a tad hypocritical.
Nearly 90% of Afghans oppose the Taliban – a clerical fascist movement that seeks to impose a religious dictatorship. A Taliban regime would ban all political parties, trade unions, and women’s organisations. Women and girls would be forced out of schools and jobs, back into the home. They’d be subjected to compulsory shrouding and gender apartheid. Any woman who refused to conform would risk lashing and stoning. Why has the anti-war movement never protested against the Taliban’s crimes against female humanity?
Afghan advocates of women’s equality oppose a swift troop pull out. They fear it could result in a Taliban take over, which would suppress women for decades. Despite NATO’s failings, 72% of Afghan women say their lives are better than 10 years ago.
Afghan female MP, Fawzia Koofi, this week urged Britain “not to abandon us,” arguing that without western help Afghanistan’s precarious attempt at democracy “won’t survive.”
Women’s rights campaigner and Kabul MP, Shinkai Karokhail, stresses: “In the current situation of terrorism, we cannot say troops should be withdrawn…..the international troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety.”
Dr. Sima Samar, chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, has appealed to western nations: “Finish the job you started. It’s about the protection of humanity. This is a human responsibility.”
Is it morally right for the West to ignore the Afghan people’s fears and leave them vulnerable to the savage fate that will befall them if the Taliban seize power?
The “troops out” movement may be silent about the threat posed by the Taliban but most Afghans are not. Three-quarters still support the NATO invasion to topple the Taliban. More Afghans blame the Taliban for the violence than those who blame NATO. While a majority want foreign troops to leave, they don’t want them to leave just yet. Nearly two-thirds of Afghans support the current presence of US-led NATO forces, according to an ABC/BBC poll in December 2010. If most Afghans want the troops to stay, should we still insist they go?
The anti-war movement in Britain is headed by the left. I don’t see how immediate withdrawal – with the risk of mass repression by the Taliban – is compatible with the left-wing values of anti-fascism, international solidarity, human rights and support for oppressed people. Anti-war activists have never explained how they reconcile their humanitarian motives with the likely barbaric consequences of their demand for “troops out now.”
There needs to be a more sophisticated anti-war alternative to the NATO strategy. I haven’t got the answers but I know we should not abandon the Afghan people to a Taliban bloodfest. Anti-imperialism cannot be allowed to trump human rights.
The current NATO war-fighting strategy is clearly wrong and failing. Western troops should withdraw as soon as Afghan forces are strong enough to resist the Taliban.
In the meantime, NATO operations need to change radically.
Western troops should focus on peace-keeping and training the Afghan security forces.
Foreign funding should concentrate on economic reconstruction and empowering civil society. Afghan’s who have jobs, houses, health and education are less likely to be attracted to the Taliban or to tolerate them – and more likely to resist them. If they see their lives getting better under an attempted (albeit flawed) democracy, support for the Taliban will wane even more.
There also needs to be a change in NATO’s response to poppy growers. Instead of destroying the poppy crops – which is impoverishing poor Afghan farmers and driving them into the arms of Taliban, drug barons and warlords – the West should give the farmers a price for growing food that is equivalent to what they’d get for growing poppies. Or we should buy up the poppy crop and use it for medicinal purposes.
I don’t believe the West can impose solutions. What happens in Afghanistan should be determined solely by the interests of the Afghan people, not by western geo-political interests. The days of imperialism are over – or should be.