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Four Lessons for Afghanistan: 1914, 1945, 1973 and 1989

"America's defeat in Vietnam may not be ignored in searching for an answer to terrorism and Afghanistan. An intervention can only be credible when a minimum of human rights are safeguarded. Ngo Dinh Diem established an authoritarian regime in South Vietnam in 1955 that repressed all opposition and prevented democratic elections and committed massive human rights violations.
Four Lessons for Afghanistan

1914, 1945, 1973 and 1989: A Retrospective Glance shows how everything can go wrong

by Rezzo Schlauch

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, 48/2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.zeit.de.]

After September 11, nothing remains the same. This sentence could be heard again and again in the past weeks. The statement is true if it means that many political parameters have shifted. However it is false if it means that our historical experiences - as Germans, as Europeans and as citizens of the western world - cannot contribute anything to the new challenges. These experiences remain an important compass for imagining humane policy after September 11.

Four historical dates should be recalled: June 28, 1914, May 8, 1945, January 27, 1973 and November 9, 1989.

On May 8, 1945 the Second World War and Hitler fascism ended with the unconditional capitulation of the German army. This was not a day of jubilation but nevertheless a liberation, a turning point to the good. West Germany was helped first of all since the people were incapable of democracy and the rule of law or liberating themselves from national socialism. At the Potsdam conference in July/ August 1945, the victorious powers united on the famous four "Ds": de-nazification, de-militarization, de-centralization and democratization. "Under supervision", Germany should shoulder the reconstruction itself.

Why this recourse to history? Very simply because we can not fade out the origins of our democracy in speaking about international political questions today. Obviously Germany's situation in 1945 was completely different than Afghanistan's plight in 2001. Simple comparisons are impossible. Nevertheless we should examine current arguments and solutions on their historical plausibility. Otherwise we could become historically blind.

First of all, the often quoted sentence "Violence against violence can not produce anything good" is false in this generality. May 8, 1945 marking the end of Hitler fascism and the beginning of a democratic era in Germany refutes it. In some situations, even the resistant parts of the population can not liberate their land from a terror regime. With all anxiety and instability, the pictures from Kabul and other cities show the joy of people over their regained freedom. The international community of states must now honor its promises and give adequate assistance to Afghanistan. We may not leave this country again to its fate.

In addition, a military intervention as a rule assumes the immediate shock of the intervening country. A pure human rights intervention is hard to identify inwardly and outwardly. A democratic government can endanger its own citizens as a consequence of armed conflict. Other countries will only accept an intervention when the invading land has strong reasons for its action.

This was true on December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America to finally meddle in the war events. In the last weeks, December 7, 1941 was often compared with September 11, 2001. In Pearl Harbor, more than 3000 Americans died within a few hours. The difference was that this tragedy occurred far from the coast and not - as on September 11 - in the middle of America's cultural, political and economic center.

There is another reason to recall May 8, 1945 in view of Afghanistan. Wars can end a terror regime but can not create democracy and the rule of law. The challenges and the necessary efforts in building a civilian state structure first began with the end of the war. More than a punitive action is involved in Afghanistan. The pacification of a country once one of the most liberal and world-open states of Central Asia is imperative.

The extent that Afghans make the transition from a terror regime depends on how the international community deals with the main culprits. May 8, 1945 and its aftermath in the 1946/47 Nurnberg trials should be remembered. The main war criminals who were still living were accused and convicted with great procedural expense by an international military tribunal. The principle of the rule of law is always in effect toward its enemies. Therefore an international criminal court has great importance. The US will only be credible in its efforts for a worldwide coalition against terror by helping establish this criminal court.

June 28, 1914: On this day an individual terrorist who was also part of a network shot and killed the Austrian successor to the throne Franz Ferdinand setting off a chain reaction that ultimately caused the First World War.

The European public was shocked by the terror attack. Practically all cabinets were convinced that Serbs owed satisfaction to the imperial and royal monarchy. One thing seemed beyond question: Because Serbia's government tolerated a network of Serbian secret organizations, this government bore indirect responsibility for the attack. The German empire backed an Austrian military action. Emperor Franz Joseph faithful to his old friendship "accepted his alliance obligations and would stand on the side of Austria-Hungary."

As a consequence, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Thus a mechanism of mutual alliance commitments, mobilizations and declarations of war was set in motion.

Reflecting on June 28, 1914 is nearly inescapable if we want to give an answer to the present world political crisis. Even today, the way from a limited conflict to an extensive fire can be very short. Full of worries we ask: What is brewing in Pakistan? How will Iraq react? What about Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Indonesia?

The lesson from 1914 is that great threats can only be overcome multilaterally. These threats can only be limited with the countries of the region - with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tadshikistan, Usbekistan and Iran - not against them. These perils can only be surmounted with the great powers - China and Russia -, not against them. These challenges can only be vanquished with the great cultures and religions - thus with Islam - not against them.

Therefore the answer is multilateralism. The place for multilateralism is the United Nations, the forum where the peoples of the earth meet at eye level. An important key for problem-solving lies in strengthening the United Nations. September 11 made that very clear.

Afghanistan needs the complete support of the United Nations for a peaceful future. The transition administration and the preparation of a constitutional assembly require active UN assistance. Building security structures is also crucial.

Unsolved ethnic, political and cultural crises are an ideal breeding ground for terrorist networks. That was true in 1914 in the Balkans and is true today in the Middle East, particularly in Israel and Palestine. Solving this conflict is imperative to win the battle against fundamentalist terror.

The primacy of politics returned in our consciousness in a dreadful way on September 11. We live today in the one world. In this world, we must reassess international interest policy and develop a new law and order policy. This includes help for poorer countries in access to the world market, fair trade, project assistance, further debt cancellation initiatives, assistance in the technological connection to the leading industrial nations and in developing civil societies in crisis regions. Third World activists in the past and One-world activists today do valuable pioneering work. Their experiences should be recognized and applied for the strategic survival questions of the world.

January 27, 1973 is another important date for the engagement with Afghanistan. At that time the representatives of the US, South Vietnam and North Vietnam signed the treaty ending their war. The cease- fire agreement required the termination of all combat operations and the withdrawal of all American troops within 60 days.

The US completely missed its goal in Vietnam. Despite massive military engagement, its adversary was not defeated militarily. Rather the united Vietnamese state was restored with the founding of the socialist republic of Vietnam after a terrible war. Millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americas were killed. The carpet or saturation bombing for years destroyed the economy and the infrastructure. Napalm and defoliants caused disastrous damage.

America's defeat in Vietnam may not be ignored in the search for an answer to terrorism and Afghanistan. Firstly, an intervention can only be credible when a minimum of human rights is attained. Ngo Dinh Diem established an authoritarian regime in south Vietnam in 1955 that oppressed all opposition, prevented democratic elections and committed massive human rights violations.

False alliances - according to the motto "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" - were also forged in other conflicts. The heavy armament of the UCK in Kosovo as well as the military support of the Taliban occurred in the nineties. This should not be repeated now in Afghanistan through the unconditional support of the Northern Alliance with its extremist forces.

Here is another lesson from Vietnam. The struggle against an adversary who acts with guerilla methods may not become a war against the civilian population. The legitimation foundation for every intervention is cancelled if the proportionality of the means is not safeguarded. Criticism of America's war in Asia intensified worldwide after the massacre of My Lai and the use of napalm against the civilian Vietnamese population. Support crumbled domestically and internationally. The government came under increased pressure.

In Afghanistan there are several indications that Americans have learned from their experiences. The military action is embedded in an effort to reach a political solutions.

November 9, 1989 stands for the end of German separation and the beginning of reunification. Nevertheless the symbolic power of November 9 extends far beyond that. This date marks the end of the Cold War and the beginning of an age beyond block confrontation, an age with unexpected chances and great risks. No new order has replaced the old world order. Sinister energies were released at the periphery of the old superpowers with the dissintegration of the bonds. Ethnic, cultural and religious conflicts explode with great force.

At our front door in former Yugoslavia, Germany experienced directly the dissolution of the old symmetry. The fact that the Red-Green government already had to carry out two military actions in Europe in its first sessions is justified in the turn of an era of the year 1989. On this background, September 11, 2001 has much to do with November 9, 1989 when it was also said that nothing remains the same. Now twelve years after the fall of the wall, we realize in the whole tragedy that the block confrontation and its specific logic belong to the past once and for all.

The terror regime in Afghanistan is finally a result of the era that immediately followed the collapse of the blocks. Now we see that we have no intact compass to find our way in this new world.

Nevertheless what crystalized out in the past years and particularly in the past weeks are elements to a more peaceful future: strengthening the United Nations, forcing Europe's political integration, political solutions for international conflicts, development of civil strategies for solving conflicts and a social and ecological world economic order.

The possibility of limited military interventions legitimated by the United Nations is also included. The dialectic of the new situation is that limited military force under certain conditions is the prerequisite that civilian measures can be effective.

Erhard Eppler made this point when he said that soldiers must realize "that they only stop the murder and can not make peace". "Pacifists can first hold their seminars and do their peace work when soldiers stop the murder." This describes the complexity of the new world situation.

Germany as a whole arrived in the West on November 9, 1989. West is not understood here as a geographic place but as a place of democracy, rule of law, liberality, pluralism and multilateral bonds. The terrorist acts of September 11 were undoubtedly an attack on these values that Germany first found on a laborious and painful way. Defending these values is an imperative of political reason on the background of our history.

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