Afghanistan as a cycle of violence

Quaker Peace & Social Witness Briefing Paper

This thoughtful QPSW paper explores the concept of the ‘cycle of violence’ as a model for understanding conflict. Put simply, this is the idea that using violence to address grievances leads to more grievances and potentially more violence. This cycle can only be broken if one or both antagonists is prepared to abandon their faith in violence as an effective and legitimate tool and explore non-violent alternative means of addressing their grievances.

Afghanistan has been successively invaded over the centuries. The Soviet invasion of 1979 sparked one of the Cold War’s many ‘proxy wars’ in which the US and USSR jostled for strategic advantage. We are reminded that the US supported the Afghan guerrilla resistance movement by providing arms and encouraging the import of Muslim fighters from other countries, thus giving ‘jihad’ — the Muslim struggle for religious integrity — a violent connotation it had not generally held for centuries.

Soviet withdrawal in 1989 left over 1 million people dead and an anarchic country awash with US- and Soviet-produced arms. The Taliban came to power with a promise to restore order based on strict Islamic law. Their fervent ideological opposition to the West is rooted in deep antipathy to perceived western secular values and a fear that US influence is a threat to Islam. In 1996 the Taliban offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden who was already suspected of terrorist attacks against the US, and in 1998 President Clinton ordered US airstrikes against Afghanistan, taking the mutual antagonism to new depths.

Osama bin Laden had originally been recruited by Saudi intelligence services with US support as part of the guerrilla movement fighting the Soviet invasion, but later came to hold many grievances against the ‘anti-Islamic’ US, including the attack on Muslim Iraq in 1990 and the perceived US support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians. These grievances provide al-Qaida with its justification for using violence against the US and its citizens. “God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims... to destroy America” (Osama bin Laden, quoted in the Independent 8·10·2001).

Both President Bush and Tony Blair have encouraged us to see an ideological dimension in the military campaign against the Taliban: “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”. Thus each party feels affronted by the actions of the other and both firmly believe in the redemptive power of violence.

The Quaker pamphlet takes the alternative view that the US-led military action in Afghanistan is but the latest manifestation of the numerous cycles of violence which began long ago and carries a risk of severe regional destabilisation, further provoking anti-Western sentiment and consequent terrorist action. Analysts Paul Rogers and Scilla Elworthy write: “For the bin Laden network and its associates, such a strong military counter-reaction will have been anticipated and will almost certainly be welcomed. The groups themselves will have dispersed, probably retaining a capability for further attacks on the US or its allies.”

Practical non-violent alternatives to military action were available. For example, had the September attacks been treated as a crime against humanity and not an act of war, the alleged perpetrators could have been pursued via a legal route — an International Criminal Court or an ad hoc body modelled on the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. (Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 24th September, Kofi Annan pleaded for the UN to be put at the centre of the international response to September 11th.)

Until October 19th the Taliban made repeated offers to extradite Osama bin Laden to another Muslim country on production of convincing proof of his responsibility for the New York attacks, an offer which was repeatedly rejected by the US and Britain: “There is no diplomacy with bin Laden or the Taliban régime” (Tony Blair addressing the Labour Party conference, 2·10·2001).

This Quaker paper suggests that the risk of future terrorist attacks can best be reduced by addressing the grievances that terrorists use to justify their actions, while at the same time morally isolating the idea that violence is a legitimate method for furthering a political agenda. Violence de-humanises us and perpetuates the conditions for more violence and more suffering.

For more information contact: David Gee, QPSW, Friends House, Euston Road NW1 2BJ

We continue our candlelit vigil for peace in St Mark’s Place every Friday from 6–7pm.

Landmine Action Week 5th–11th November

Because of the horrors of New York and Afghanistan, this Action Week passed largely unnoticed, but Kurt Strauss has sent an account of a presentation at the Wimbledon Quaker Meeting House which reminds us that cluster bombs, which are not outlawed and indeed are currently being used in Afghanistan, are a cause for humanitarian concern for very similar reasons to landmines. ‘Unexploded ordnance’ is the technical term and casualties are almost always civilian. Landmine Action is calling for a new international law placing responsibility for the clearance of all items of unexploded ordnance on those who have used them.

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Mines, myths and the media was the subject of a wide-ranging presentation given at the Quaker meeting house off Worple Road in September. The speaker was Russell Gasser, an electronics graduate with extensive engineering experience in the field, who holds a one-year Rowntree Fellowship to research and publicise the issues amongst Quakers. Russell specialises in appropriate technology — appropriate, that is, for the countries of the two-thirds world, which many of those in the so-called developed world have helped to carpet with anti-personnel mines (APMs). Although they are intended for the opposing side in armed conflict, the majority of their victims are civilians, often children who do not recognise their dangers. However, one reason why the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning APMs gained so much support was because of the large number of ‘own goals’ these mines score, killing the troops who are using them.

As well as sobering facts, startling figures and surprising accounts of both successes and failures, the audience was given a most realistic demonstration of humanitarian de-mining. I checked this one with the OED and to the definition “humanitarian- adj. — of or relating to human welfare (e.g. released on humanitarian grounds; humanitarian aid)” I can now add: removing all explosive débris, clearing land for new use. This is in contrast to military de-mining, whose sole purpose is to create a safe passage quickly for a military column. Our speaker, protected in the style made world-famous by Lady Diana, showed us how painstakingly and tediously slow it was to cut away undergrowth while looking for trip wires, how carefully one had to prod for the slightest piece of buried metal which had caused the detector to bleep, and later how devastating it was if a member of a family whose whole livelihood depended on farming lost a limb as a result of setting off an APM.

We the audience were fortunate to be merely stunned by this evidence of inhumanity, but that was not the end of the story. Although the Ottawa Convention has been dramatically successful in reducing some of the horror of mines, cluster bombs, which are not yet outlawed, are also lethal. There is plenty of work still to be done, not only in the field but here at home, and plenty of ways in which to do it.

Kurt Strauss

Further information is available from Landmine Action, 1st floor 89 Albert Embankment, SE1 7TP or

Vic Jones

We were all shocked and saddened at the sudden death of Vic Jones on November 18th and we extend our deepest sympathies to Helen and the rest of his family, who will miss him even more than we shall. Most of us knew Vic only in retirement, as a passionate socialist and an acerbic wit, but also as an immensely kind man. He wrote frequently for this newsletter and compèred several evenings of themed prose and poetry readings for us. He was a regular stalwart at the Fête of the Earth, which will not be the same without ‘Vic to do the shouting’ and man the door.

The William Morris Hall was packed on Saturday November 24th when Vic’s family hosted a very special memorial service: “He hated funerals... so this isn’t one. We’re here to celebrate a life,” said Vic’s son Philip. We learned about the poverty of Vic’s early life and about the origins of the passion for social justice which drove him, about the life-long friendships he inspired and the loving devotion to his family. Many of us learned for the first time that he wrote splendid poetry as well as prose, but above all we were impressed by the self-confidence, intelligence and sense of fun shown by his grandchildren: the spirit of Vic lives on.

Joanna Bazley

“Challenge to Genocide — Let Iraq Live”

Review of a book published by the International Action Center New York, $12·95.

[As the ‘hawks’ in the Pentagon apparently push the case for extending their campaign against terrorism from Afghanistan to Iraq to finish the ‘unfinished business’ of the Gulf War, it is worth remembering that a programme of bombing still continues in Iraq, and that U.S. sanctions policies ensure that rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastructure remains impossible. Ed.]

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This is a book to break your heart. Indeed, the word ‘heartbreak’ is repeated more than once throughout the many contributions in the book. These contributions come from members of the Iraq Sanctions Challenge — a group of brave and principled Americans who oppose and expose the evils committed by the U.S. Government by their policy of sanctions against the Iraqi people. They do so at great risk to themselves. Visiting Iraq, taking with them medical and nutritional aid, seeing for themselves what is happening there, and reporting it to the world — all these actions are criminal in the eyes of their own government, punishable by twelve years in prison. Thus far no action has been taken against them — a sign perhaps from the American authorities that they recognise the moral argument at least is not on their side.

These essays are powerful and vivid accounts of experiences ‘on the ground’ in Iraq, in homes, schools, hospitals — in hospitals particularly where grieving mothers watch their sick children die with none of the drugs or surgical facilities available which might have saved them. Furthermore it becomes clear that many of these children should not have been sick at all. Sanctions themselves made them sick.

The economic infrastructure of the country has been destroyed by Allied bombing so that there is an acute shortage of food, and above all of clean water. In addition the use of depleted uranium in many U.S. weapons leaves a long trail of menacing dust not only in the atmosphere but on every surface where it falls. In the face of all this the most vulnerable members of the population — the children — suffer most.

To front all this cloud of witness is Ramsay Clarke, himself for some years a distinguished member of the U.S. political establishment — the Attorney General, no less. He writes a long and detailed essay on American policy pre-Gulf War. The fact that such a man can now lend his voice to such a book should convince any doubters — the key to the whole of the US Middle East policy since the Second World War, the double-dealing, the playing-off of one country against another, may be summed up in one word: oil.

Because of oil and their determination to control its supply, the U.S. government had no hesitation at one time in wooing Saddam Hussein — the man they now demonise as the worst of dictators and oppressors. It is clear from the Ramsay Clarke analysis that the only motive in any of these actions is the self-interest of the small group of rich and powerful men and women who control American affairs. It has nothing to do with ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, or any of the other fine-sounding phrases with which the American people are perpetually deceived. The media tell them nothing about the suffering of the people of Iraq. Madeline Albright notoriously said that children’s deaths in Iraq were sad, but “a price worth paying”.

As I said at the beginning, this book will break your heart. All the same we must read it (I hope a British edition will be published before too long). We need to know what is going on, and to tell other people about it. These monstrous crimes have continued for too long, and must be brought to an end — now.

Barbara Wiseman

Visiting speaker — Chris Cole

Chris Cole of CAAT was welcomed and opened our meeting of 13th November with a talk on the subject of ‘Britain and the Arms Trade’. His opening remarks included a chilling quotation from Jane’s Military Review stating that the current military crisis in Afghanistan was “good news for the defence industry”. Chris went on to give an overview of the arms trade, illustrating how it continues to arm repressive régimes round the world and how the Government gives more subsisdies to this trade than to any other industry. He also spoke of CAAT’s current campaign ‘Paying the Price’, which concentrates on the plight of children suffering as a result of the arms trade, and of the Arms Export Bill currently going through Parliament. Although some of the clauses of this Bill are to be welcomed there are two serious loopholes on which CAAT is lobbying.

Ann Strauss

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