By Steven McCaffery
NORTHERN Ireland should not underestimate its potential to inspire other areas blighted by conflict, according to a former US official who played a leading role in Afghanistan.
David Sedney was the American Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 until May last year.
And despite sporadic tensions in the Northern Ireland peace process, he said the success in ending large scale violence should not be forgotten, nor should we become jaded about the role that plays in giving inspiration to others.
“I think it’s a great tribute to the people of Northern Ireland that they haven’t gone back again, despite I’m sure pressures to do so based on various events," he said.
“And I think that’s the kind of thing that when people outside of Northern Ireland look to, to try and draw – if not lessons – perhaps inspiration.
“So I wouldn’t minimise that inspirational potential that’s there.”
Mr Sedney recently visited Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice and met a series of people involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
He discussed comparisons between efforts to end conflict here and in Afghanistan. He was joined by Michael Semple, who is Visiting Research Professor in the institute and was deputy EU special representative for Afghanistan from 2004-07.
In an interview with The Detail he also addressed the huge task currently facing Afghanistan as it tries to build a new future.
Speaking prior to the recent pledge by President Barack Obama to deliver a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, Mr Sedney said the United States and the wider international community have a “moral responsibility” to make a long-term commitment to stabilising Afghanistan.
He said the war had seen a considerable focus on counter-terrorism tactics that antagonised whole communities and “created literally millions of enemies”, but the progress that had been secured should be built on.
“Afghanistan has shown by a number of objective standards to have made great progress in many areas, social indicators, health indicators, over the last ten years,” he said.
“And that’s very different from people’s perception of Afghanistan – that it’s a place full of bombs and booms and nasty behavior. In fact, the life span of the average Afghan has gone up 15 years. Infant mortality has gone down. Many more women survive child birth than did ten years ago.
“The average Afghan consumes more calories than they did ten years ago. And despite the reporting that we see here, Afghans say their society is headed in the right direction, and they believe what the US, the United Kingdom and the international community has done is very valuable, and they want us to stay and continue that help.”
He said the progress was “due more to the Afghan people than anything else”.
Mr Sedney is now part of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People (ASAP), a coalition that aims to preserve the advances it believes have been made, despite the huge human and financial cost of the war.
But he also said there were serious mistakes made in Afghanistan that could not be overlooked.
“One of the major mistakes is we switched our attention to Iraq where we never should have been, and pulled it away from Afghanistan and made it a second tier effort.
“We also focused on what is often called a counter-terrorism strategy, particularly during the early years of the war.
“In our zeal to try and uncover the supporters of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden himself, we carried out a continuing wave of attacks and arrest in ways that were so antithetical to the Afghan culture.
“We created literally millions of enemies by going into people’s homes, breaking down doors, arresting people based on incorrect intelligence, humiliating, doing things that we thought were normal but Afghans found humiliating, such as searching men in front of other men, going into homes, including areas where women lived.
“Those kind of things created many more enemies than they discovered. And, of course, we found later that Osama bin Laden was not in Afghanistan. He had been in Pakistan all that period of time.”
Looking back at the history of Afghanistan, the former diplomat said that even when the US engaged in non-military interventions, they had devastating consequences.
“In the early ’50s we began a massive irrigation project in southern Afghanistan that brought water to areas that had previously been desert and enabled people to begin planting cotton. And that was a success for a while.
“But then during the war with the Soviet Union, the cotton trade fell apart and the people there began planting poppy.
“And now today in almost every country in the world, the majority of opium poppy that is produced in Afghanistan is exported and is used to fuel heroin addicts. Not the intention of the people who built the dams in the 1950s, but the impact.”
He said of the future: “I believe that if we were to abandon Afghanistan that it would descend into some kind of chaos that would be negative, not just for Afghanistan and for the region, but for others as it has been in the past.
“So I think it would be a bad decision for our national interests, for NATO’s security, for the United Kingdom security. I also, however, think we also have a moral responsibility.
“Our various interventions over the years have played a role in destabilising Afghanistan, despite our good intentions.
“If we were to just throw Afghanistan aside at this point and say we are going to concentrate on some other important deserving issue, we will have left behind a problem that we have created and made it worse by our abandoning.”