Today is the International Day of Peace! :)

The Day After Peace is a film that had a huge impact on me. Ever since I watched it (which was in October last year), I promised myself that I would somehow support the efforts of Peace Day.
The 21st of September is a very special day because it aims to be a day of global ceasefire. This allows for help to come to regions to which it is otherwise impossible to get to. The day still doesn’t work quite the way it’s meant to, but it has had some great success stories and every year seems to get it closer to attaining the goal of making the ceasefire global. It would be amazing if the goal was eventually met!

Anyway, having decided that this is a day that really needs to be celebrated, I had trouble figuring out how I should celebrate it exactly. And well, the first answer that came to me was by writing about it… Ok, I know that’s kind of lame, but what this day needs the most is for more people to hear about it and this seems like the most natural thing I can do to help it along.
The other thing that occurred to me was that most people (including myself) actually have no idea about the wars that are currently taking place. So I figured that if I’m going to do a blog post on the International Day of Peace every year, I may as well inform myself and hopefully other people as well about some of these wars.
This year I’m going to be a bit lazy (I’m using my BA project as my excuse) and I’m going to write about a war I already know quite a bit about, so brace yourself for yet another post about Afghanistan! :) This one is going to be very long, but hopefully informative also.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same thing

Most people I come across (unless they’re very young) have a good idea of how this war started. But so far, the only person I spoke to about this, who seemed to understand whom this war is being waged against is Kin. She is the only person, who replied “That’s obvious!” when I told her Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are totally different groups. I’ve come across some very smart and even politically involved people, who were very surprised to hear this. The way the media are covering the story, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban sound like two names for the same militant group. They’re very far from being the same thing, so I figured this is the first thing that really needs explaining.

Who are the Taliban?
Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country. It has three main ethnic groups - the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Hazara. The Pashtuns in particular have a very strong tribal culture. Every Pashtun village has elders known as the Jirga. All Pashtun tribes abide by an honour code called the Pashtunwali - a code, which actually pre-dates Islam.
The Taliban are a militant group that was born from Pashtun tribal culture. They basically mixed and abberrated the principles of Pashtunwali and Islam, creating a very extreme concept of what the country should be - a concept which is actually totally against the principles guiding both Islam and Pashtunwali. They are predominantly Pashtun, which is not to say that all Pashtun tribes support them.
They started coming to power in the 1990s and overthrew the government in Kabul in 1996. Afghanistan was under their governance until 2001 when the US invaded the country.

Who are Al-Qaeda?
Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan was a great place for Islamic terrorist groups to train and regroup. Even if they operated in a completely different part of the world, they would come to Afghanistan to train and plan their actions undisturbed. All extreme Muslim groups were welcome there. Eventually, the United States put their foot down and started exerting pressure on the Taliban government to ban terrorist groups from the country. The Taliban bowed to the pressure and banned all terrorist groups except for… you guessed it - Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden saw his chance - he told all the other terrorist groups that if they united under the Al-Qaeda banner, they could continue their own agendas much as they had until now. The catch was that they had to go through with bin Laden’s agenda too. Most of them agreed to the conditions. From a small terrorist group, Al-Qaeda suddenly became a huge terrorist organization, which spanned not just countries, but continents.

Don’t these two groups have any sort of overlap?
I remember reading an estimate, which said the CIA thought there may have been up to 41 people who belonged to both groups at the time the US invaded Afghanistan. So the overlap was considered completely insignificant at the time. Nowadays I think they estimate the overlap might be a bit larger, but it is still very foolish of the media to portray them as one group. They are two groups with two completely different agendas - the Taliban want power over Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda want to wage “global jihad”.

Who are the USA and NATO fighting in Afghanistan?
Al-Qaeda, by its very nature, is a group that should be fought with intelligence, not military force. They do not have a specific area of operation or a conventional military structure. Furthermore, considering that this war has been going on for almost 8 years now, I’d say it’s foolish to believe that any senior Al-Qaeda members are still in Afghanistan. All they can do against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan right now is gather intelligence, which is the supposed purpose of CIA secret prisons, Guantanamo and other such places.
So, I guess the answer to that question is the Taliban.

Why are they fighting?

The simple answer, the one that most people know is because the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. But I think it would be worth elaborating a little further on that…

Why can’t the US and NATO just withdraw at this point?
If the Taliban get back into power in Afghanistan, Afghanistan will become a breeding spot for terrorism again. In fact, the situation is likely to be worse than before. Tension between the Muslim and Western world has grown significantly since 2001.
Furthermore, the Taliban were one of the most oppressive governments in world history. The atrocities committed against women, other ethnic groups and the extreme forms of censorship they put into practice are so gruesome they are sometimes hard to imagine or even believe.

Why the Taliban are unlikely to give up?
Afghanistan and particularly the Pashtuns have a very long history of putting up strong resistance against outside invaders. This legacy started as long ago as during Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia and the Middle East (apparently, he spent more time fighting in Afghanistan than in the rest of his campaign put together) and has continued throughout the whole of Afghanistan’s history (a recent example being Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union).

Atrocities committed by the US and NATO

War and human rights never go hand in hand. Throughout this war, the USA’s track record in human rights has taken some significant blows. NATO is not without fault either.

US Detention Centres
Imagine that one day somebody grabs you on the street. You are put into detention, tortured, serious accusations are made against you, but you are not allowed to contact your family or a lawyer to help you. A couple of years later you are released, you are not given any sort of apology or a sufficient explanation for why you were held. Once you are back in your country and community, everybody treats you like a terrorist and wants nothing to do with you. The very idea that their country is taking in people who have gone through this scares them. You try to sue the people who did this to you, but even there you face difficulties.
This is the plight of hundreds of Muslims all over the world today.
Amongst these cases there are those who were underage at the time of capture. A much talked about case is Omar Khadr - a Canadian citizen who was put in detention in 2002 at the age of 15 and remains in Guantanamo to this day. No charges have been pressed against him in court. More recently, an Afghan man is seeking justice - he says he was kept in detention by the Americans for many years despite being 12 at the time of his capture.
Some of these men have received permanent physical injuries from the torture they were subjected to. There is, for example, the case of Omar Deghayes, who is now completely blind in one eye because of the torture he endured.
There have been cases where men have died under US detention also. The most shocking is the Qala-i-Janghi massacre known also as the “Convoy of Death”. It is estimated that at least 1500 prisoners died. More about the massacre (which the US has tried very hard to hide) can be found here.

Civilian Casualties
When the war started, the Bush administration assured their own citizens and other people in the West that there would be no civilian casualties. The facts are that more civilians than soldiers have died in this war. Thousands have died, most of them because of US and NATO led air strikes.
The Afghan government constantly appeals to the US and NATO to limit their dependency on air strikes, but to no avail. Air combat is more convenient as it carries much less risk to the lives of soldiers. Unfortunately, it also means that the situation on the ground is more difficult to assess and more mistakes are made.
While NATO tends to support enquires into civilian deaths, the US now have a history of trying to cover them up. One of the famous cases I followed was when they bombed a school in a small village. Around 90 people died in the strike, around 50 of those were children. The US claimed that only around 30 of those were civilians and refused to believe reports of the contrary. The media eventually presented photographic and video evidence.

Atrocities committed by the Taliban

The Taliban have a horrible history of human rights abuses. I could write a much longer list than this if I were to include what they used to do when they ran the government.

Human shields
NATO claims that it has strong evidence that the Taliban have used civilians as “shields”. Apparently, during combat they place themselves in areas which are full of civilians, the aim being to increase civilian deaths and therefore turn more people against the international presence in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the biggest opium producer in the world. It accounts for around 90% of the opium produced in the world today. The government has tried to encourage farmers to go back to farming legal crops, but unfortunately most farmers have little choice. The opium industry finances the Taliban insurgency, which means the Taliban often use force and threats to make sure farmers plant opium. There are also other Taliban related problems which cause farmers to resort to opium - such as a lack of mobility (travelling on most roads is dangerous and farmers need to be able to take food to the marketplace to be able to sell it - with opium this is arranged differently) and a lack of water (opium needs significantly less water than food and the insurgency makes it very difficult to set up the irrigation schemes that are needed to sustain food crops).

Civilian Casualties
While most of the protests have been against the killings of civilians by coalition forces, the Taliban have met with disapproval as well - though not quite on the same scale.
Quite apart from casualties in combat areas, a lot of deaths caused by the Taliban happen in different circumstances. Voting in elections or supporting the government in any other way can mean a death sentence.

Women’s rights
Women’s rights under the Taliban government took a huge blow. Even now the Taliban continue their efforts in stopping women from having any sort of independence. Girls that go to school in areas where the Taliban insurgency is active have had acid thrown into their faces. Their parents and teachers face death threats. In some areas the Taliban even succeed in closing schools for girls.
In many areas women are still scared to leave the house without a male companion and a burkha.

What you can do to help

If you have other propositions for taking action - please post them in the comments :) I rather wish I had more time to research this properly myself :-/

Support Amnesty International’s campaign against torture
For more details see here. For my Polish readers - there is a campaign that we, as Poles, should particularly take notice of. It relates to the investigation into CIA secret prisons in Poland. More about the campaign here.

Support a Women’s Charity in Afghanistan
The women of Afghanistan need help! Many Afghan women are amazingly clever and brave individuals and their involvement in the politics and development of the country could change a lot for the better.
A charity with a long history is RAWA. RAWA does not support any of the major political forces in Afghanistan today. The Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the international forces, the Afghan government… all of these get very negative reviews from RAWA in how they are effecting the lives of Afghan women. Politics is not RAWA’s thing, what they’re concerned with is the plight of Afghan woman and you will find many ways (not necessarily financial) in which you can help them on their site.

Inform yourself further and inform others
The more people care and know about what is happening in Afghanistan, the bigger the chance that we can bring about positive change.

Peace Day in Afghanistan

On a final note, Afghanistan is one of the places where Peace Day has had a significant impact. A short clip about how Peace Day is helping to eradicate polio in the country can be found here. And a great film to watch in this context is The Day After Peace (which I will gladly lend to friends who ask for it). There is hope for Afghanistan yet! :)

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