Sunday, February 20, 2011

Almost a Decade Later

I've been putting off writing this post since what more, realistically, needs to be said about the slapstick career of Christopher Hitchens?

There seems to be a consensus emerging that Hitch has become a tragic figure - inadvertently blinded to the horrors of our wars by his principled zeal for Getting The Bad Guys.  I contend that this isn't so, and that Hitchens has known very well what he's been up to this last decade. 

So skilled a communicator doesn't accidentally find himself penning intentionally dishonest defences of the Americans' black prison network, nor would he consider such causes as defending the Bush administration on the fake Niger yellowcake uranium documents or the Valerie Plame kerfuffle, or beating down the mothers of dead soldiers worth his time, unless he was...  a hack, a bullshitter.  A hatchet man with armfuls of custard pies rather than hatchets.

Tragedy is the wrong word, I think.  The term we're looking for is bathos. 

Thus do we find Hitchens beating up on human rights organisations yet again.  The excuse this time is a typical piece of New York Times reporting at its one-eyed best...

International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies... 

Now, that's an interesting hook for a fairly straightforward story, i.e. "US Military Now Suspiciously Vocal on Own Record Of Rubbing Out Afghan Civilians, After Years Of Being Very, Very Evasive Indeed on the Subject".

The short version is that coalition forces in Afghanistan are now actually counting civilian deaths and that local independent human rights groups are focusing their attention on the Taliban, who are now killing the larger proportion of non-combatants.  Further, groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are calling for the International Criminal Court to indict Taliban leaders for war crimes.

The news is Christopher's cue to issue an astonishing series of hoots and snorts aimed at "the human rights community", with the implication that such groups are talking about the Taliban because suicide bombers are attacking "upscale markets or hotels that cater to the NGO constituency in Kabul, and suddenly there is an abrupt change from moral neutrality".  

I call this "astonishing" because the main groups under discussion are Afghanistan Rights Monitor and the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, i.e. Afghans.  While I appreciate that such organisations are likely to be drawn from what remains of Afghanistan's educated middle and upper class, it seems to me that they're probably not the bunch of pointy-headed, ivory tower-dwelling western relativists that Hitchens might like us to conclude they are.

Of course, the Afghan orgs aren't necessarily 100% correct in their campaigning simply because they're Afghans and spend most of their lives surrounded by other Afghans, or because they live in Afghanistan. It's perfectly possible that Hitchens draws the correct conclusions and that the NGOs have been terribly wrong.

Let us note at this point however that the habit of raising louder complaints about US air strikes than the Taliban's appalling human rights abuses is quite a popular passtime in Afghanistan.  Afghans have made their feelings known with many protests throughout the decade in Kabul, in Kandahar, in Nangarhar province, in Lashkargar, in Farah, in Laghman province, in Jalalabad, in villages such as Azizabad and on numerous occasions, by the President of Afghanistan.

When Hitchens talks of "Afghan authorities" who he wishes "were more deserving of the sacrifices that are made on their behalf", we can be sure he means Hamid Karzai and not, you know, the Afghans themselves.  What he'd make of them is anyone's guess, although his casual attitude to civilian deaths - as he notes, the Taliban's civilian dress "makes it hard if not impossible to distinguish their corpses from others who may have been killed in an airstrike" - is less than encouraging.

Well, so what?  None of this is bullshit is new from Afghan war enthusiasts, and Hitchens in particular.  I guess what bugs me about Hitch generally - and, by extension, the subset of jingoes for whom he speaks - is that it's simply never enough that he gets his way.  It's the demands that you either buy Hitchens' sales pitch 100% or you give aid and comfort to the enemy, with no middle ground available.

It's not enough that human rights NGOs protest Taliban atrocities - they must instead entirely focus their attentions on the Taliban, and keep their criticisms of NATO to a minimum.  After all, coalition troops have now "amended" their "rules of engagement", so what's the problem?  Okay, an unknown number - likely in the tens of thousands - of Afghans have been killed by NATO, but these can't be mentioned "in the same breath as the forces that are opposed to it".  

I've always thought that dead people killed by villains are neither more nor less dead than those killed by the good guys, but I guess that's my error.

It's not enough that people recognise that the Taliban are a brutal, murderous and disgusting bunch - we must instead recognise that they're inhuman psychotics who rise from their beds midway through the act of hurling acid into schoolgirls' faces, then set to a hard day's work mutilating women and retire after a nightcap of intimidating potential voters.  If we suspect that Hitchens' habit of repeatedly filling his columns with the crimes of the Taliban is less for public enlightenment than it is a dodge to avoid discussing the nature and utility of the war itself then well, us Islamist-lovers would say that, wouldn't we?

In the wider picture, it's not enough that Hitchens gets his trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or super-violent bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Lebanon and so on; not while the Iranians continue their schemes of remorseless evil un-splatterated. It's not enough that the United States runs a secret detention network for disappearing, imprisoning and torturing an unknown number of unnamed persons, far beyond judicial oversight or the possibility of review - it must be allowed to do it without having to answer a lot of impertinent questions from human rights groups.

And finally, it's not enough that human rights and aid organisations assist in reconstruction efforts and call for the Taliban to be prosecuted.  From the article...

I can only too well remember attending some press conference in Pakistan in the winter of 2001 and seeing the unbearably smug expressions on the faces of various human rights and "relief" spokesmen who were concerned lest the military operation against the Taliban should support their relatively modest efforts.  They failed or refused to see that the removal of the Taliban was a necessary precondition of any serious relief and reconstruction.  It's heartening to learn that, almost a decade later, they are at least open to the awareness that the Taliban is the worst offender. 

Forget the "smug expressions"; let's skim over the fact that the Taliban, unfortunately, remain stubbornly unremoved.

If you're unfavourably comparing the activities of human rights orgs to the joy of military force, then what the fuck is that phrase "almost a decade later" doing in there?

I'd say that "almost a decade" after the invasion of Afghanistan, the attitudes of NGOs is right at the bottom of a towering pile of extremely serious military, political and humanitarian difficulties facing NATO.  Maybe Hitch will find time to discuss them next week.

And Hitchens' career is the tragedy?

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