When faith trumps reality

AS part of a pledge to introduce progressive reforms, Afghan President Hamid Karzai readied a decree named the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act.

The proposed law would ban child marriages, forced marriages, and the “customary” exchange of girls and women to settle men’s debts. It would also criminalise domestic violence, typically men’s violent abuse of their wives, and protect rape victims from being charged with adultery.

A parliamentarian wanted to ensure that the new law would not be reversed by a future government, so he moved to get it passed in Parliament. The attempt was made last weekend and failed; hardline MPs quickly shot it down.

So back to Karzai and his presidential decree, which ignited a firestorm of protests on the streets. Hundreds of hardline students massed in Kabul on Wednesday, torching vehicles while demanding the law be repealed.

They accused the law of being foreign-inspired, “unIslamic” and therefore illegitimate. In practice, the law would also curtail men’s violent misconduct while defending women’s basic rights.

To reformists, such protests are particularly troubling. Since they involved students and therefore youths, they show that a section of the younger generation have absorbed the militant conservatism of their equivalent elders, such as those parliamentarians who had earlier blocked the Bill.

The future of Afghanistan remains mired in serious doubt for anyone other than violent reactionaries. Those who cheered on the US military onslaught from October 2001 in hopes of liberation were naive, and those who would deny that now are being dishonest.

Foreign occupation forces are scheduled to leave by late next year. That is likely to encourage Islamist hardliners to push for more social regression as Karzai’s government grows more susceptible to their pressure.

In the ultimate analysis, what has foreign military intervention done for Afghanistan? Apart from reducing the population through heightened killings, it has also channelled US funds to dubious groups such as militant networks.

Of the billions in US taxpayer money meant for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, vast amounts remain unaccounted for. Money had been allocated for schools and hospitals that were never built because of such local problems as an ongoing insurgency.

Because of administrative loopholes in funding, official figures from the US military put the amount of US$360mil (RM1.09bil) landing in the hands of militant groups over the past decade. Another US$2bil (RM6.06bil) had been awarded for contracts last year.

No foreign occupying force can be certain where one militant group ends and another begins. Likewise there is little knowledge of what group which contractor happens to support or is allied with.

US Special Inspector-General of Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko is aware of some of the problems and is discovering more. His efforts at greater transparency in funding has reportedly met with Obama administration attempts to block him.

US officials on the ground in Afghanistan are said to be more inclined to use drones and bombs to “solve” a problem than to improve on their own internal procedures. Thus militancy gains further ground, fed by both US militarism and US funds.

So as hardline Afghan students rant and riot on the streets against foreign influences, they are also not without cause. But what will they do once the (inadvertent) US funds for their favourite militant groups dry up and foreign forces withdraw next year?

Other hotspots that had experienced vain hopes of sudden changes for the better are just as discouraging.

In Egypt last month, violence erupted in Cairo and al-Fayoum as protests turned deadly. Fires were lit on the streets as police fired tear gas canisters against demonstrators.

The government imposed a state of emergency but to no effect. The bitter protests continued unabated.

Then in Alexandria last week, an argument between a Christian and a Muslim grew into a family feud which then ballooned into a community war. Political turmoil and economic dislocation under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s controversial government have produced serious social upheaval.

Meanwhile, militant groups linked to al-Qaeda plotted to attack the French and US embassies. Some suspects, since detained, were convicts who escaped prison in the chaos of former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

In Libya, military weapons from cannons and assault rifles to rockets and landmines remain freely in the hands of the public. Disarming the population has proven extremely difficult.

To say that the country is still poli­tically unsettled is to express a sweeping understatement. Libya’s combination of political instability and easy access to weapons of war amounts to a highly volatile and deadly situation for any government.

A further problem is that such issues are not necessarily confined within Libya’s borders. Already, reports have surfaced of weapons flowing into neighbouring countries.

The new government, such as it is, is unable to contain the situation, much less control it. The post-Gaddafi situation is now being jeopardised by the potentially destabilising forces at play.

That predicament is not helping perceptions of Syria in Washington and Paris. In the face of President Bashar al-Assad’s unravelling regime, the United States and France are pressuring the European Union to lift or amend its arms embargo on Syria.

According to a recent poll of the US electorate and Americans who had served in the military, two-third majorities oppose US intervention in Syria. That could translate into White House approval for issuing Syrian rebels with arms as an alternative to direct intervention.

Unfortunately, the rebel groups include militant entities likely to threaten a post-Assad government and Western interests. However, that prospect is increasingly being shut out of consideration in Washington, Paris and even London.

Evidently, the recent lesson of Libya is not being learned. The lucrative contracts with defence contractors, including for arms supplies, appear to trump all future security and geopolitical considerations.

Nothing is learnt even in controlling cross-border violence. Since valuable lessons are being ignored in these countries, why should it be any different in post-Saddam Iraq?

That benighted country is currently in the throes of the worst violence in five years. Even for Iraq, that is something of a record.

Car bombs are now the most popular means of sowing death and destruction, with the most common victims being innocent bystanders and passers-by. And as usual, nobody seems able or willing to control it.

There is a widespread sense that it is only a matter of Sunni-Shi’ite differences. But officially, the causes are external – meaning, the import of violence from Syria.

This armed capacity to destabilise the country further through an armed uprising does not sit well with a government in Baghdad increasingly seen as constituting a new dictatorship.

As before, it is the ordinary people caught in the middle who end up being sacrificed. Others who had planned and still profit from such instability and violence continue to keep a safe distance.

These countries have been subjected to sudden and drastic changes and, despite all hopes, none of them has yet seen any change for the better.

> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

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