President Obama has telephoned British premier David Cameron to offer an apology. This comes after Linda Norgrove (pictured), a British aid worker, was killed in a rescue attempt that went horribly wrong. Ms Norgrove, aged 36, had been working with US firm Development Alternatives Incorporated. On September 26 while in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar, she was abducted. Three Afghans who were kidnapped at the same time as Ms. Norgrove, were released last week.
On Saturday, October 9, news came that suggested that an attempt had been made to free her from her captors, but it had failed. Ms Norgrove had died in the operation, which had taken place on Friday in the Nurgal district of the province. Five insurgents had been killed in the raid on the compound, and a sixth individual had apparently detonated an explosive device, killing himself and Norgrove.
David Petraeus had said: “Afghan and coalition security forces did everything in their power to rescue Linda. Linda was a courageous person with a passion to improve the lives of Afghan people, and sadly she lost her life in their service.”
The British Foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “Working with our allies we received information about where Linda was being held and we decided that, given the danger she was facing, her best chance of safe release was to act on that information.”
On Sunday, the BBC was reporting that tribal leaders in the region had been asking for NATO troops not to intervene with force while they tried to negotiate with her captors. David Cameron was reported as saying: “Decisions on operations to free hostages are always difficult, but where a British life is in such danger, and where we and our allies can act, I believe it is right to try.”
It was suggested that the raid had taken place because there were rumors that the kidnappers were going to transfer Ms. Norgrove across the border into Pakistan, and once there it would be impossible to mount a rescue mission. The kidnappers were said to be al-Qaeda related, and were not from the local Taliban.
Linda Norgrove’s parents John and Linda live on the island of Lewis, off the western coast of Scotland. It was reported yesterday via a family friend that: “They want to know exactly what happened, not just during the attempted rescue, but in the whole period she was captured. Naturally they have their own questions.”
Yesterday, the news had changed. Video captured on a helmet-based camera by one of the American rescue team seemed to show that Ms. Norgrove was killed by a grenade thrown by one of the team. According to a NATO spokesman, US Navy Captain Gary Kirchner, the commander of the unit involved in the rescue had reviewed footage and “discovered what appeared to be, looked to him, like someone throwing a hand grenade into the area where Miss Norgrove was being held…. The bottom line here is that when the commander saw that, he knew that there were some discrepancies and immediately wanted to make sure that we did the right thing.”
David Cameron phoned the Norgrove family at their farmhouse and then made a press announcement, in which he said:
“Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors, as originally believed. None of us can understand how painful this must be for Linda’s family. It is deeply regrettable, particularly for them, that the information published on Saturday is highly likely to have been incorrect. The statements were made in good faith and on the basis of the information we received.”
The circumstances in which Ms. Norgrove died will be discussed and analyzed, but beyond the tragedy of Ms Norgrove’s death, NATO’s candor and prompt response to perusal of the facts is commendable.
Betsy Marcotte is the vice-president of DAI, the development agency that employed Ms Norgrove. She visited the family on Lewis to offer her condolences, but said she supported the aims of the rescue mission. She spoke on British radio:
“Clearly it is distressing news, but it doesn’t change anything for me. I feel confident in how this was handled and that we have been satisfied that the British and the Americans were doing everything they could…
… This is incredibly hard for all of us. We have been doing development work at DAI for 40 years and Afghanistan has been so challenging.
Linda is not the first person we have lost in Afghanistan… but I think, Linda being a woman and someone who had met so many staff when she was here in the US, it is going to be felt deeply by so many people, because she touched so many people.”
Pashtun Resistance to Foreign Influence
DAI is subcontracted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to assist in development work.
In July this year, the DAI offices in Kunduz province were attacked by Taliban raiders. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate, and his colleagues tried to invade the compound. A five hour gun battle ensued in which twenty people were injured, a German individual was killed, and a Filipino aid worker was injured.
The safety of aid workers in Afghanistan has never been guaranteed. After ten medical aid workers were shot dead in the northeast of the country on Thursday August 5, it has become obvious that large parts of Afghanistan will never be governed by anything other than tribalism. The workers who were killed in August were falsely accused of spreading Christianity to tribal people.
Afghanistan is split by language and tribe. The two main tribes are the Hazara (who speak Dari) and the Pashtun, who speak Pashto. Even religion does not bind Afghanistan’s people. A large proportion of the Hazara are Shia, and many of these are opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslim. After the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, many of the Northern Alliance members who fought against the Taliban were Hazara. There are also Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north of the country. The only unifying factor among Afghans seems to be a hatred of Christian missionary work.
As I wrote in August, people have been killed and others threatened with death after being accused of spreading Christianity. When Afghan authorities discovered a man named Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity in February 2006, he was put on trial, threatened with the death penalty. Rahman was smuggled out of the country to Italy while Mullahs demanded his death. With such official antagonism to apostasy and threats of conversion to Christianity, members of Christian aid charities are not allowed to proselytize while in Afghanistan.
The military is also subject to similar restrictions. In May 2009, the U.S. military destroyed Pashto- and Dari-language Bibles which had been sent to a soldier at Bagram, ostensibly for the purposes of introducing Afghans to Christianity. According to U.S. Central Command’s General Order Number 1, no American troops are allowed to convert anyone to another faith.
Afghanistan has never been truly unified. The Durand Line that marks the official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was put in place at the end of the nineteenth century, but for the Pashtun tribes, it means nothing. It is for this reason that in Pakistan, the tribal regions on the Afghanistan border in North-West Frontier Province are regarded as semi-autonomous. The region is called FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) but there is little federal control in these districts.
Historically, the British who tried to control the region had experiences that somewhat predicted the current problems in Afghanistan (and also in Pashtun tribal regions in Pakistan, where the Pakistani government fears to apply laws which other citizens are expected to comply with). One of the issues that still seems to be misunderstood by strategic planners is “Pakhtunwali” a bizarre medieval code of honor that trumps all other man-made laws.
For example, Vernon Harold Starr (1882 – 1918) was a British medical missionary who went to Peshawar in North-West Frontier District. The majority of his patients were of Pahstun tribes, with many coming from Afghanistan. In 1914 he was put in charge of the hospital at Peshawar. Though his medical work was tolerated, Starr’s missionary efforts were to be the death of him. In 1914 he had employed a boy from the Afridi tribe as a hospital worker. The Afridis were a Pashtun tribe who traditionally guarded the Khyber Pass linking Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is evidence that they have been in the region for two thousand years.
The boy employed by Starr responded to the doctor’s Christian evangelizing and became a convert. When the employee heard that a relative was sick, across the border in Afghanistan, he was allowed time off. He never returned to the hospital. Starr later heard that the boy had been told a lie as a means to get him back to his home. Here, he had been forced to recant his Christianity or die. The youth did not change his views and was murdered in an “honor killing”. Four years later, in the early hours of March 17, 1918, three men who were thought to be relatives of the youth, came to the hospital at night, and stabbed Harold Venron Starr when he answered the door. Starr died the following day.
Banditry and Sexism
In 1923, another Afridi of the Bosti Khel clan called Ajab Khan was accused by the British authorities of stealing guns. His village and home were searched. His wife and other women in the household claimed that she too had been physically searched and their veils removed. This broke the honor code that the Pashtun (Pathan) tribes live by, and Ajab Khan took revenge. He kidnapped 17-year old Molly Ellis, the daughter of the major who had ordered the search. When the abduction took place, on the verandah of the Ellis bungalow in Kohat, Khan killed Molly’s mother with a knife. Ajab Khan was able to take Molly to various safe houses, taking advantage of the honor code that offered protection to fellow tribesmen. The story of the kidnapping went global, and after a while, Khan released Molly Ellis. He then went to Afghanistan where he was treated as a hero.
The world of Afghanistan, where women are treated in rural regions as chattels, where young girls can be married when children, operates on a different set of principles to anything that aid workers or foreign military advisers live by. There is one custom that highlights the alien nature of Pathan justice. This is the custom known as “swara”, where a girl can be given away in marriage to compensate for a crime carried out by a male relative. In parts of Pakistan, this is called “vani” and was only made illegal in the start of 2005.
The decisions to give away young girls in these loveless punishment marriages are made by “jirgas”, councils of village elders. Imran Khan, in his 1993 book on the Pathan (Pashtun) tribes called “Warrior Race” wrote (p.15) that
“The Pathans are one of the world’s oldest warrior races and yet the jirga system, upon which their society is based, is one of the oldest democratic systems known to man.”
I personally would never call a meeting of hereditary tribal elders, a system which frequently allows girls to be placed in forced marriages to atone for the sins of their male relatives, remotely “democratic”. However, Khan is right in describing the jirga system as fundamental to the nature of the society. Khan also states:
“There is no denying that through the centuries the Pathans have existed by raiding, robbing and kidnapping….”
Khan claims that the Pathan (Pashtun) clans do this to survive, and he described the frequent raids upon the foreign travellers making their ways through the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan as “really a form of toll system.”
The Durand Line was put in place in 1893 in an agreement with the Afghan king (Emir or Amir), Abdur Rahman (Abdur Rehman Khan) and the British. From 1879 to 1880, the followers of Amir Abdur Rahman had resisted British attempts to control Afghanistan (the Second Afghan War). In February 1919, Habibullah, the Amir, was killed and Afghans invaded British India, readhing Peshawar, before being fought back (The Third Afghan War).
When in 1924, an attempt was made to introduce education for girls in Khost, a rebellion ensued. King Amanullah went on a tour of Europe and also visited Kemal Ataturk. He returned to his country in 1928 and in August of this year he announced his wish to emancipate the women of Afghanistan. This was met with resistance and in November 1928 there was open rebellion, causing the king to renounce his position in January 1929.
Attempts by Russia to control Afghanistan failed, and many of the problems that now politically affect the world in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond was created during the Russian occupation. The Mujahideen were formed in the region and these attracted people like Osama bin Laden to fight against the invaders. It was in this manner that al-Qaeda was born.
The problems of Afghan law and order are not going to be resolved easily. The government of Hamid Karzai does not really exercise power in the eastern tribal regions, just as Pakistan does not really exercise much control of the FATA regions on its side of the Durand Line. In both areas, power is devolved to the jirgas.
The jirgas in the case of Linda Norgrove had warned that their negotiations could have seen her release, but now we can never know if this would have happened. The information that led to the raid on the house where she was held suggested that she would soon be smuggled into Pakistan’s tribal regions which are currently even more lawless, with Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives living under the protection of the “Pakhtunwali” code.
American administration plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan will not herald a new era of peace and democracy for Afghanistan. The country has never really had peace and democracy, even though it joined the League of Nations in 1934. The successor to the League of Nations is the UN, but the news service from the UN office of humanitarian affairs (IRIN) has little that suggests that there will be hope for the country to join the modern world and be run along “humanitarian” lines.
Women in Afghanistan continue to be second class citizens. Jirgas continue to give away young girls in swara marriages, and in the cities, women are subjected to violence. In 2006, there were more than 1,650 recorded cases of violence against women, but in rural communities where there is no-one to receive such reports, the figure may be much higher. According to IRIN figures:
* Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
* 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
* 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
* 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
* 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan
* 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has been subjected to influence from various invaders in the past, but its current system is misogynistic and backwards-looking. Apostates can be killed under Afghan law. Aid workers are being killed for merely being foreign.
If the troops pull out now, Afghanistan will become what it was under the Taliban – a place where terror will be exported around the world, Already, terrorists hiding out in Pashtun regions of Pakistan are exporting terror around the Western world. When NATO troops go, the eastern regions of Afghanistan will similarly become refuges for Islamist terrorists and insurgents from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.
If recent history is anything to judge by, Afghanistan’s loudest voices will not encourage the nation to move into the 21st century. Like Mullah Omar and other Taliban officials, they would prefer to take it back to the 7th century. With every kidnapping or murder of an aid worker, they are shown to be succeeding.
The Editor, Family Security Matters