The 22nd Käte Hamburger Dialogue was held on Tuesday, October 19th and problematized the issue of the decades-long intervention in Afghanistan and its disastrous conclusion with the withdrawal of Western forces and the ensuing resurgence of Taliban rule in the country earlier this year. The dialogue was jointly organized by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research and the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC), in cooperation with the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF), University of Duisburg-Essen.
Hosted by Centre Co-Director Tobias Debiel, and chaired by author and journalist Andreas Zumach, the dialogue’s panel consisted of Nargis Nehan (former member of the government of Afghanistan), Conrad Schetter (Director of the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies), Thomas Ruttig (Co-founder and Co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network), and Patricia Gossman (Human Rights Watch, Associate Director for the Asia Division). Panelists were first asked to provide short commentaries on four leading questions, before the discussion would be opened up to questions and comments from further participants.
The very title of the dialogue, ‘Peace- and Statebuilding in Afghanistan: Partial Success or Predictable Failure?’ already suggests a problem of conflicting narratives around the intervention, a theme that would recur in the discussion again and again.
Panelist Patricia Gossman presented an eloquent summation of this theme, stating that ‘we see contrasting and competing narratives of the war and refusal to see the deep divisions within Afghan society that created it, exacerbated of course by foreign intervention’.
Competing narratives play an integral role in all of the four leading questions around which the dialogue was organized:
- What mistakes did the international community of states make at the beginning of the mission? At which junctures was the wrong direction chosen?
- Were the Taliban underestimated as former rulers as well as now as the new ones? Should they have earlier been accepted as negotiation partners? How would an inclusive peace settlement have looked like?
- From the outset, should the state-building have focused on core functions? What would have been the role of the state budget, which helps determine the state's legitimacy and capacity? Did the heavy external aid primarily contribute to corruption and self-enrichment among the elites?
- Where have achievements been made in human rights and especially women's rights? Are these advancements now completely threatened, or can some standards be preserved under the Taliban's new rule?
While no single response to any of the questions could not adequately encapsule the reality on the ground during the intervention, certain sentiments were echoed by multiple panelists. It is clear, for example, that at the outset of the conflict, mistakes were made by intervening parties. Patricia Gossman pointed out that in the beginning, the conflict was styled as a type of US-led revenge campaign for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Thomas Ruttig added that from this point on, al-Qaeda was both conflated and equated with the Taliban, a supposition that did not correspond with reality.
From the revenge narrative then emerged the statebuilding narrative. How were the intervening powers to instate and guide increased democracy in the country? Assessments are differentiated and nuanced, but a certain inability or unwillingness to understand Afghan society and culture from a Western perspective seems to have been the prevalent determinant in the statebuilding project.
‘Ignoring the society and the culture of Afghanistan was the main mistake in the beginning which continued until the end’, asserted Conrad Schetter. ‘The Afghans as such were never taken seriously, and there was never a serious interest in understanding them. This is not only an issue of perception, but also of the arbiters of the intervention from the first days to the last’. Disregarding the history, culture, religion, and politics of Afghanistan led to a disastrously mismanaged intervention. The interests of the culturally heterogeneous country were in a way sidelined in favour of Western ideals and modes of government totally unsuited to the political reality of the situation.
Nargis Nehan, former member of the Afghan government, and founder of the NGO Equality for Peace and Democracy, provided an idea of what, in her view, a more inclusive peace settlement might have looked like:
‘The political settlement, ideally something that could have been sustainable would have included Afghans from different backgrounds and of different ethnicities, so we could have had political parties representative of different ethnicities, of different genders, different ideologies, all coming together and building consensus toward the establishment of an interim government, so that the war could have been ended’.
The peace process, she said, was managed by the US in such a way that it was killed before it even began.
‘The international community, instead of putting an appropriate, constructive pressure on the Afghan government, so that they could appoint the right people, develop the right policies, and actually execute those policies properly, kept talking in a general way about corruption; they kept talking about weak governance. But whenever we talk about civil society, about the specific issues and challenges that we have in budgetary processes, they were never willing to listen to the government, they were never willing to negotiate or discuss with the government because they were saying “These are your internal affairs, we don’t want to interfere in that”’.
The question of human rights in Afghanistan also took precedence in the dialogue. What does the reinstatement of Taliban rule mean for women and other vulnerable populations? The Taliban has made certain assurances to the international community that its new regime will offer a more inclusive and liberal culture, but the statement runs counter to factual accounts. The Taliban represents governance guided by religious fundamentalism, an environment which keeps women and other groups at a disadvantage as a matter of faith. The period before the withdrawal of Western military presence saw a growing trend of feminist activism, not just for the sake of women, but also of other marginalized populations. With the return of Taliban control of Afghanistan, the country is threatened with a drastic backward step. Vulnerable groups are still suffering, regardless of any assertions by the new regime.
While speaking about how the West may have underestimated the Taliban, Thomas Ruttig provided a telling commentary, pointing to how governments should now come to terms with their own behaviour during the Afghanistan intervention:
‘Yes we have underestimated the Taliban by far, both politically and militarily, and right up until the time that they were able to march into Kabul without any resistance; but it’s not about underestimating them anymore, the real danger is that we continue overestimating ourselves. In particular, our governments should actually take a moment to contemplate what their responsibility for the complete breakdown is, and what they can do to address primary problems such as hunger, which is a humanitarian and social crisis. Do something about these problems and stop lecturing the Taliban’.
This statement, in a way, sums up sentiments during the dialogue as a whole. An effort certainly ought to be made towards understand what has happened in Afghanistan, but in the meantime, there are people in the country who are suffering now because of the collective (in)action of intervening powers. Immediate problems need to be resolved before a total (re)evaluation of the intervention can be fully comprehended.