My evidence at the Senate committee on Australia’s overseas development programs in Afghanistan

On 4 December I gave testimony in Parliament House in Canberra at a Senate committee on Australia’s role and responsibilities in Afghanistan after the vast bulk of Western forces leave in 2014. I submitted a short statement to the committee back in September and was then invited to travel to Canberra for a more thorough discussion (full transcript coming soon.)

Here’s my opening statement with links added for context:… 

I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to give evidence here today. As an independent journalist and author who visited Afghanistan this year to investigate privatised military and intelligence and the role of aid and NGOs in helping or hindering the people, I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts on how Australia could improve its standing in Afghanistan after the bulk of Western forces leave in 2014.

Afghanistan has been broken and exploited for more than 30 years and the decade since 2001 has been no different. When America and its allies, including Australia, invaded in October of that year, there was no concrete plan to improve the lives of its citizens. Almost immediately, the West empowered, funded and trained the worst warlords who had caused the chaos in the last decades. We backed President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt leader with no legitimacy who runs a thugocracy.

This shouldn’t disguise the fact that many Taliban are equally brutish, attacking civilians and NGOs. They are currently self-financing through taxes on poppy farming, kidnappings and extortion. Notwithstanding, they may be the only reliable force after 2014 capable of expelling foreign jihadis.

Australia’s record, still largely untold, is not a pretty one, endorsing extreme violence, some undertaken by our own special forces, brutal night-raids and partnering with warlord Matiullah Khan, a man with a shocking record of criminality and running the drug trade in southern Afghanistan. Wikileaks documents confirm this.

We have ignored history, in our collusion with rogue regimes and elements in Latin America in the 1980s and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, that leads us once again to partner with individuals and groups that guarantee blow-back, increased terrorism in the West and resistance.

The reality on the ground, away from embedded journalists, is a dirty war that involves Afghan militias and mercenaries, working with US special forces, to rout the Taliban in a futile effort to eradicate an indigenous part of Afghanistan.

This is a reality I saw in Afghanistan. The people, according to recently released polling by Democracy International for USAID, remain “broadly dissatisfied with the way formal democracy works and expressed a lack of confidence in formal elected institutions, including the…  national…  assembly and the president.” Just nine percent said they were very satisfied with the way democracy works.

This is our legacy in Afghanistan and aid delivery is intimately tied up with these dismal results.

The American and Australian imperial project in Afghanistan has failed. Accepting this is vital before proscribing the solution. Pakistan, an unreliable ally for years, will be central to brokering any peace… treaty… between the Americans and the Taliban. We can no longer heed the delusions of people like Karl Eikenberry, the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, who wrote in the Financial Times recently that progress was “tangible”.

What’s needed is a focus on the Afghan people. One country that’s heavily invested in the future is Norway. It’s currently discussing how to contribute in a non-military way while continuing to provide aid. A recent report by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre noted that since 2005 Norway “took a principled approach to separate military and development activities”. I would encourage Australia to move in the same direction, reducing the Afghan perception that we’re little more than defenders of the Karzai clique.

One of the key justifications for the NATO-led war in Afghanistan was helping women. This was always based on a deception because the West, according to another report by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre in 2012, talked about empowering women but “high profile commitments to funding for women’s rights have been occurring in parallel with other policies that have undermined the very institutions and conditions on which such gains depend, such as a formal justice system, a functioning parliament and a non-militarised political landscape.”

Australia has fallen into the same trap, blindly following an American strategy that prioritises counter-insurgency at the expense of building Afghan-run civil groups.

Independent aid delivery is the only way Afghans will respect the donor and the aid. Instead, we’ve seen the West far too often utilise for-profit and armed firms to damage the process.

The exact number of foreign troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 is unclear though the Obama administration is keen for a residual force to continue counter-terrorism activity. The number could be anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 with a host of private contractors and mercenaries, largely unaccountable. Washington is keen to avoid the situation in Iraq today where a newly independent nation largely ignores the demands of America and pursues its own path despite the daily violence that still plagues the state.

A key demand of the government in Baghdad, and Australia should offer this to both Iraq and Afghanistan, is reparations for the destruction caused by our presence and occupation. It’s the least we can do. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s statement to Parliament in October this year mentioned none of this and instead offered platitudes, dishonestly stating that Australian troops have “kept us safer from terrorism”. The opposite is true and officials and elected politicians should be honest enough to admit the long-term effect of occupying a Muslim nation.

As a journalist who has visited some of the most troubled places in the world, including Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Palestine, a key lesson for governments and aid groups is avoiding the NGO-isation of a troubled land.

One organisation that has attempted to navigate the tough line between aid and independence is Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF). They refuse to play the game set by foreign forces, namely implementing nation-building projects demanded by Afghans and the US. It is unavoidable to deal with the Taliban in some parts of the country and it’s our responsibility to institute policies that accept this reality and find the least compromised way to do it.

Michiel Hofman, a former MSF country representative in Afghanistan, has written that NGOs have a choice when delivering aid. He argues:

“MSF has been able to carve out operational space in Afghanistan through regular, direct, and transparent negotiations with all the warring parties and though complete financial independence from Western and Afghan government sources. We also enforce a strict no-weapons policy in medical facilities. Our independence and purely needs-based approach to providing aid is enabling the possible expansion of operations into other war-wracked parts of the country…While other groups lament the lack of ”˜humanitarian space,’ we see it opening by maintaining our independence and dedication to helping Afghans, without an agenda.”

Australia and the West can’t blame the Afghans for failing to nation build while they’ve been working themselves with a corrupt and inefficient central government. Far less money should be funneled through Kabul officials. Our mandate has been to build local forces and infrastructure but the gains have been minimal and fleeting. The West is doing harm with its current policies. We aren’t neutral and therefore paying the price for siding with a bankrupt Karzai regime. Even when Australia commissions independent assessment of its mission in Oruzgan province, undertaken by the respected NGO The Liaison Office based in Kabul, AusAid dismissed the findings this year because they were too pessimistic.

Undoing the mess Australia and its Western allies have created in Afghanistan will take time but acknowledging past mistakes and crimes is an important start. Afghans will need aid after 2014 but not if it’s delivered alongside the barrel of a gun.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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