International Papers

Peace Is Hell

On Tuesday, representatives from various Afghan factions will gather in Bonn, Germany, to create a “broad-based government” for the country. In the mix: the Northern Alliance; supporters of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 87-year-old former king of Afghanistan who was exiled to Italy after his ouster in 1973; the “Cyprus group,” anti-monarchist Afghan exiles thought to be allied with Iran; and the “Peshawar group,” exiled ethnic Pashtuns who are sympathetic to Pakistan’s aspirations for the region. According to the Financial Times, over the weekend Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani dropped his initial objections to allowing members of the mostly Pastun Taliban regime to join a transitional government. This concession made commentators far more optimistic about the Bonn conference, since no one believed peace in Afghanistan is possible without significant involvement from Pashtuns, who comprise around 40 percent of the Afghan population.

An op-ed in Pakistan’s News International expressed little hope that any of the four groups initially slated to attend the gathering could form a provisional government: Tribal rivalries portend dissention in the Northern Alliance; the king has been away for 28 years, during which time he “remained somewhat unconcerned with the plight of the Afghans”; the Cyprus group tend to be from the privileged elite and are thus unrepresentative of the Afghan population as a whole; and the Peshawar group “mostly consists of leaders who were unable to work out a feasible system soon after the withdrawal of the Soviets.” The writer proposed a federal structure for Afghanistan:

Perhaps the best way out is to opt for a weak central government and strong regional centers. For administrative purposes the country could be divided into five or six regions in accordance with the ethnic composition of the country. Most of the administrative powers should be delegated to the regional authorities. Generally the center could play a coordinator’s role but in the event of serious disagreement it could act as an arbiter.

Writing in Pakistan’s Frontier Post, Dilip Hiro diagnosed feuding—”the perennial settling of scores, from father to son, from son to grandson”—as Afghanistan’s biggest problem and suggested that Afghans would be better off if they had been colonized by Europeans (and for a period longer than the decade Russia battled for control):

[T]he Indians and Vietnamese, whose countries were colonized by Britain and France respectively, developed a strong sense of nationhood in opposition to their imperialist masters over many decades. Had Afghanistan’s inhabitants been ruled by a foreign power, they likely would have submerged their tribal and ethnic identities into an overarching national identity to expel the imperialists from their soil.

An op-ed in Britain’s Observer wondered why Britain has requested nothing in exchange for its “lips-to-posterior” support for the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, when Russia has secured U.S. concessions on trade and nuclear disarmament and Pakistan has seen sanctions dropped. The price should be humanitarian aid, Nick Cohen concluded, “Britain would do well to forget the Sisyphean task of persuading Bush to save the world, for the time being at least, and concentrate on the urgent business of saving millions of Afghans from starvation.” In the Sunday Telegraph, “senior Pentagon adviser” Edward Luttwak declared, “military success must not be spoilt by the failure of aid.” Luttwak proposed rewarding “cooperative local leaders with a flow of aid to their own people, while denying aid to troublemakers.” To facilitate this, aid agencies should be shut out of the process, lest they feed the wrong group of starving Afghans. As the Financial Times reported, Uzbekistan has not yet opened the bridge that connects it with Afghanistan and is allowing only a trickle of aid to be shipped by barge. The FT offered only unconvincing justifications for the “Uzbek paralysis,” but Littwak’s op-ed may well explain it: “It is imperative to encourage Uzbek obstructionism until [all the nongovernmental agencies go] home, while supplying abundant official aid, under the control of the same UN and US officials who are urging Afghan leaders to unite in forming a coalition government.”

The first casualties of war: The deaths early last week of four journalists in Afghanistan occasioned some sober reflections on the dangers of war reporting. (Click here to read the Timesof London’s obituaries for the seven journalists killed thus far during the Afghan war.) Writing in the Observer, Emma Daly, a friend of one of the murdered, noted: “The dangers are amplified by the technology developed in the past 10 years—ultra-portable computers and satellite telephones and digital cameras—which allow the modern correspondent to file words, pictures and video more or less from the trenches or the bombed-out buildings. As late as the 1980s we were forced to return to Managua or Luanda or some other relatively peaceful place in order to reach a telex machine, a telephone line or a satellite dish.” Daly cited intense competition, especially among TV agencies, as another factor in the mounting journalistic death toll. A piece in Argentina’s Clarín(translated from Italy’s La Repubblica) asked, “Why are there so many journalists who want to go to war?” War correspondents don’t face danger to satisfy their editors or to please their readers; instead their motives are “a spirit of adventure, of perfectionism, sometimes a desire to support a cause, a healthy egotism. … And, above all, a passionate curiosity.” An Afghanistan-based correspondent for Britain’s Independent countered, “Contrary to the popular image of the war correspondent, there are very few swashbucklers or adrenalin junkies among the press corps in Jalalabad. Experience, it seems, breeds caution rather than its opposite.” An editorial in the Times concluded:

It is a strange war indeed where more journalists seem to have been killed than, so far, either American or British soldiers. … The option of covering this battle from the safety of 15,000 feet is not one available to newspapers and television. … It takes a special kind of low-key courage to look this sort of desolate death in the face. Those who have it deserve to be remembered with a special respect.