Monday, 2 January 2012

Checking my prejudices

It was some years ago that I stopped spending money on The Guardian. I still read bits of it online, and regularly skim through other people’s copies, but I don’t really try to keep up with it as much as some.

I’m aware the paper has been responsible for excellent work on the news reporting side. It’s the comment and lifestyle stuff that grates, even more if it leaks into the news coverage. Leafing through now, in a peeping through my fingers sort of way, I still find all that as irritating as when I stopped buying, and I usually choose not to seek out the irritation, at least not too often.

Still, I have to keep checking, in case my prejudice is overdone. So when over Christmas a friend, a subscriber to the paper, said she liked reading Simon Jenkins, particularly mentioning his writing on Iraq and Afghanistan, I found I wasn’t clear in my memory as to who he was or what kind of stand he took, and thought I’d better have a look.

I decided first of all to see what he’d written on Afghanistan. His most recent piece on Afghanistan was titled Vanity, machismo and greed have blinded us to the folly of Afghanistan, which begins:
Ten years of western occupation of Afghanistan led the UN this week to plead that half the country's drought-ridden provinces face winter starvation. The World Food Programme calls for £92m to be urgently dispatched.
So, here Simon Jenkins is implying a causal link between Western military intervention and hunger in Afghanistan. Firstly, the direct cause of the WFP call for aid is drought, which is obviously not caused by military action. If we try to interpret or improve his argument, we could take it as implying Western action has lowered resilience to drought in Afghanistan. If the WFP or anyone else has ever made such an argument, Mr Jenkins provides no evidence for it.

This 2007 WFP report show Afghanistan domestic wheat production as follows:

1,469,000 Metric Tons in 2000
1,597,000 MT in 2001 (the year that began the West’s direct military intervention)
2,686,000 MT in 2002
4,362,000 MT in 2003
2,293,000 MT in 2004
4,266,000 MT in 2005
3,363,000 MT in 2006

This 2011 Reuters story quotes an estimate of around 4,500,000 MT for 2009 and 2010. This September 2011 USAID report predicts a 28 percent decrease to 3,250,000 MT for 2011 This 2011 WFP report gives more detail on drought impact, suggesting drastic effects in many areas.

Note that the worst figures above are from the Taliban period. There is nothing in them to suggest that Western military intervention has “led” to the need for food aid. The need however is real, and is great.

According to the 2007 WFP report cited above, “though more than half of the total wheat area is irrigated, Afghanistan’s drought-prone climate results in staggering annual variations in wheat production.” Problems listed include primitive agricultural practices, lack of improved seed and fertilizers, storage problems, as well as harsh conditions and limited irrigation. “Most wheat is consumed on-farm [...] less than 10 percent of production reaches the markets.” Because of this, “major portions of the expanding urban population are increasingly reliant on imported flour [...] due to limited marketable supplies of wheat and the non-existence of a viable milling industry. Also, the on-going major road building projects are causing fundamental changes in the local wheat markets.” Pakistan is the main source of imports as its industry is subsidised, estimated at 600,0000 MT out of a total of 1 million MT imports for 2007/08. “Bread accounts for 50 to 70 percent of the calories in the diet.”

On the WFP budget needed for Afghanistan, this VOA story from July 13 2011 explains that the WFP annual budget for Afghanistan is $400 million, but at the time the story was written, the WFP had received only half the amount for the year. The US is the WFP’s biggest donor, but contributions fell significantly because of the budget impasse between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Back to Simon Jenkins - he goes on:
Afghanistan is the world's greatest recipient of aid, some $20bn in the past decade, plus a hundred times more in military spending. So much cash pours through its doors that $3m a day is said to leave Kabul airport corruptly to buy property in Dubai.
It’s hard to pin down the argument here. Should less aid be spent on Afghanistan? He doesn’t say. What aid would he cut? He doesn’t say. Or does he think more would be spent in aid if less went on military spending? He doesn’t say. All he seems to want to communicate is hopelessness and expense, without any substantive analysis. This is not an argument for doing things better; if anything it’s an argument for doing nothing.

Here’s a more informed starting point for a productive critique of Afghanistan aid.

This seems enough for one post, and I’ve barely dealt with one paragraph of one piece by Simon Jenkins. I want to write more about the rest of the column, and about other articles of his, but will save that for a further post. Before I leave this paragraph, however, I want to look at Mr Jenkins’s phrase “ten years of western occupation”.

To show why this phrase is grossly misleading, here are a few paragraphs from Terry Glavin’s new book, Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan:
It isn’t true, in any conventional meaning of the term, that the United States or its NATO partners “invaded” Afghanistan. By September 11, there was no sovereign country left to invade. At the time, while the multinational jihadist joint venture known as the Taliban did control most of Afghanistan, Pakistan was the only country that formally recognized the regime. The only other countries that had ever recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government were the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but they’d bailed long before September 11. Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations was occupied by the Islamic State of Afghanistan, led by the Northern Alliance chief Berhanuddin Rabbani and the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud. They’d been pleading for military help for years. Immediately after September 11, even Pakistan was scrambling to give the appearance of disowning its Taliban progeny, and Rabbani’s government was loudly reiterating its long-standing invitation to the Americans to help chase the Taliban out.

Strictly speaking, it isn’t even true that the Taliban were overthrown by the United States, or by the United States and its NATO allies. The Northern Alliance would have remained dug in up in the mountains had it not been for a US bombing campaign, American arms and supplies drops and all the Special Forces soldiers skulking around. But the Taliban, al-Qaida and their sundry jihadist brothers-in-arms had been driven out of Kabul by a ragtag assemblage of Afghans before any regular American troops arrived. The Taliban were even chased out of their legendary heartland of Kandahar by the locals before any US combat troops showed up.

[...] As late as 2005, the United States was still only lukewarm to the idea of an expansion of the international military and reconstruction effort in the country.

[...] At least fourteen major national opinion polls and focus group surveys were undertaken by various independent agencies across Afghanistan in the decade following 2001. All the available data show unambiguous Afghan support for the so-called US occupation of their country and for the military intervention overseen by the UN’s poorly resourced, forty-three nation NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The polls do show Afghans to be impatient about the paucity and ineffectiveness of American and NATO troops, however. The United States deployed a mere 7,000 troops to Afghanistan during the first two years after September 11 - this was before the White House could use Iraq as an excuse - and almost all the US troops in Afghanistan were dispatched in a ‘war on terror’ exercise known as Operation Enduring Freedom, mostly in the country’s remote southeastern borderlands. As late as the autumn of 2005, ISAF had extended its reach to only half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and there were only about 40,000 ISAF troops in the whole country. It took until 2009 for the combined ISAF troop strength to reach roughly 150,000.
You can find links to the above-mentioned polls and surveys about Afghanistan on the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee resources page.

Earlier in his book, Terry Glavin writes, “Having spent fifteen years of my life working for daily newspapers, I’m well acquainted with the distance that can exist between the way the world really is and the way accounts of that world enliven the public imagination. But between the real Afghanistan and the imaginary one, there is a chasm.”

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