H.E. President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani on the Fifth Wave of Political Violence

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RUSI is honoured to welcome the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, His Excellency Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

Watch the recording

The Afghan President gave a public address on drivers of political violence and the global, regional, Islamic and national responses required to contain and overcome the threat posed by terror and conflict in Asia and the Middle East.

Establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan and across Asia and the Middle East remains a pressing challenge for the international community. To support global efforts to counter political violence, it is vital that governments grasp the distinctive characteristics of contemporary terrorist groups and encourage greater cooperation and alignment of understanding on a national, regional, and international level.

 To provide his perspective on the drivers and ecology of the ‘fifth wave’ of political violence, as well as present Afghanistan’s own vision for security and stability in the region, RUSI was delighted to host H.E. Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who gave a public address and answer questions from our audience this May.

The Speech

H.E. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. 

Sir Sherard, lords, ladies, gentlemen, friends. 

First of all let me pay tribute to the 454 British servicemen and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Let me call upon you to express the deepest gratitude of a grateful nation and state to their families. Let me also thank every British veteran who fought with us, who has helped us whether in the military arena or in the civilian arena. Britain has been a strategic partner and I am very proud to be here today to honour them. 

Tonight I would like to speak about the fifth wave of political violence; our understanding of how global security and peace are shaped depends on how we grasp this. My argument will be in five parts. 

Firstly, what were the previous waves? The first wave can be dated with The Manifesto of a Revolutionary, the anarchist wave. The anarchist wave roughly lasted forty years, engulfed Europe, brought us the First World War and it was a global phenomenon. 

The second wave is the national liberation movement which again spanned roughly three decades. 

The third wave was the wave of terrorism in Europe, Japan and the United States following the 1968 student movement and, of course, in the United States it took the form of the Black Panthers and related movements. 

The fourth wave started with Sri Lanka, that invented the phenomena of the suicide bomber, and travelled across to the Middle East and then to Latin America etc. 

Each of these waves shook the foundations of political stability and required distinctive ways of dealing with it. What comes out of this is that political violence is not owned by a specific culture, religion or geographic space. Any generalisation regarding this medium-term view of history requires careful analysis. 

What is it that is specific about the fifth wave? A number of characteristics jump out. Firstly, criminality and political violence become organically related. Take the cartels in Mexico or the heroine production in Afghanistan, there is an inter-relationship and this is fundamental to grasp because there is a distinctive form of violence that is inflicted on the citizens and that results in erosion of state authority. 

Secondly, networks that previously used to be face-to-face or in small groups now have become face-to-faceless or face-to-Facebook. It is a distinctive form of mobilisation that brings rapid utility of information and orientation of people. Recruitment is extraordinarily effective and replication of cells does not depend on central authority. 

Thirdly the space of operation is global, whether it is Kabul, Brussels, Paris, London or events in the United States, there is an interlinked series of phenomenon. The other point about this is that it is probably one of the most well-financed movements in history. Related to this, and if you relate it to the previous things, absence of rules of the game, between the willingness of some states to sponsor non-state actors is fundamental, initially to its operation. 

They pose a threat to state authority but the rapidity of networks puts our inherited bureaucracies in stretches. Simultaneously they thrive on weak states. Weak or failing states are the natural harbouring phenomenon. But the other thing that manifested itself, of course with Daesh but earlier with the Taliban, is the attempt at state capture because, except for the movements of national liberation that focus on state capture, the other movements were about man undermining state authority. Here there is a very distinctive phenomenon. Last, and of course needs to be mentioned, its distinctive affiliation with invoking and hijacking a great religion in a great culture. 

How do they operate? Counter-insurgency was the rage in the early 2000’s but I would argue an insurgent understanding of insurgency is cumulative and much more incorporated. From [the first wave anarchists] to Osama bin Laden you can draw a straight line into the current thinkers of Daesh and Al Qaeda. The degree of knowledge regarding previous counter-insurgency movements is incredibly high. You are not dealing with an enemy that does not know its enemy. But by contrast we do not understand the phenomenon sufficiently. 

So both in terms of theories and in terms of techniques and practices there is a great deal of continuity, but simultaneously there is a great deal of innovation. Where the innovation comes is first in techniques of communication; in terms of network theory you can see, all people who have worked on the phenomena would argue, that they [apply] the theory of networks. Sometimes four to five stages of network formation have been passed in a single year or two and the use of media is fundamental. 

Why do they attack cities? Why do they attack airlines? Why do they attack public spaces? Because fundamentally what is under attack is the compact between the citizen and the state. The great achievement of the modern state has been its compact with the citizenry. Freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship and democracy, and those values are precisely the values that are attacked.

Fear is the objective, inflicting fear, producing fear in a systematic manner, ensuring that we live narrow lives that effectively break the bond of trust between citizens and state. You do not need further evidence, look at previously open borders in Europe and now the number of controls that have been brought in. Look at what we take daily in any airport and accept it. What we did not accept, except under exceptional circumstances, now we willing accept and that is precisely the environment. 

So here, particularly with Daesh, that is refining the technique, infliction of pain for the sake of pain is not the objective, the spectacle of the theatre of violence is critical to achieving this objective. They do not kill six month olds or ninety year olds just for the sake of it. It is to over-awe populations, to ensure that the reflection of violence can destroy our will. 

Now if I am correct about the description of this, then we need allied understanding and action on four levels: global; regional; Islamic; and national levels. 

Why do we need global understanding? Because if the threat is medium-term then we need to muster the right time horizon and the right alignment. Our understanding has been reactive, not proactive and because of that our actions on a global level have been sporadic rather than sustained. Sustained understanding requires a different time horizon in the politics. Global politics is not orientated towards medium-term horizons, but this phenomenon, like the other threats towards global peace and security, requires a medium-term understanding. 

Secondly, some regions of the world are a lot more exposed than others, my country being one of those. Who fights in my country? I was in Ufa, in Russia when President Putin was hosting both the BRICS Summit and Shanghai Meeting and there was talk as though Afghanistan was not in the room. So I posed this question, ‘Who fights in my county?’ The Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks from Uzbekistan, Tajiks from Tajikistan and even Kazakhs. But the greatest one, of course, is the huge movement from Pakistan. 

Then, of course, is all the rejects of the Arab world that are sent on to us. Can anyone point out an historical precedent or a political framework where people who do not belong to a nation and do not have a quarrel internally in terms of rules of the game that have such heavy presence? And the impact of this is, of course, global because the activities that they engage in threaten all of us. 

Here my plea is the development of common understanding; not saying to take a national perspective but take a neutral international perspective because it is imperative that we understand the phenomenon. If we do not understand the phenomenon properly how can we devise the appropriate means for dealing with it? 

I was in the Munich Security Conference when I coined the ‘term fifth’ wave and then there was a feeling of doom, but let me confirm that as far as Afghanistan is concerned NATO is alive and well and their alliance is delivering. There is no combat role for NATO in Afghanistan but our armed forces fully fulfilled the departure of 135,000 NATO troops and the accompanying 600,000 contractors. 

This needs to be appreciated in terms of the context but it also needs to be appreciated that, if I am right about the phenomenon, then our partnership needs to have medium-term and long-term horizons and or course the foundation of that is in place and I would like to thank President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel, European leaders – Prime Minister Renzi and others – for staying with us.

Last year we were operating with nine months as our horizon and it took enormous political courage by these leaders to make the argument that it was worth staying with us. I hope that our peoples’ sacrifice, the great sacrifice of our armed forces’ people, shows that our partnership is indeed enduring. 

The second one is at the regional level – the region of course is a concept not geography – but here we have a fundamental problem. In the South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia region, what is fundamentally missing are the rules of the game defining a system like the Westphalian states. 

States in this part of the world, unfortunately, feel inclined to sponsor both malign non-state actors or even to use some of their own organisations behaving as malign actors. This is a fundamentally lose-lose proposition. 

Anyone who believes that terrorism can be classified as good or bad needs to re-think the fundamental assumptions because within that, if the other waves are indicators, the extent of suffering needs to be appreciated. There is a fantastic book called ‘Sleep Walkers’ about World War One and it shows what state sponsorship of terrorist activity by Serbia did to the whole world. One needs to be reminded to act on lessons of history and not just mention them.

The third level is Islamic and because the phenomenon is being put in terms of abuse of the fundamental understanding in history of this great culture and civilisation, of which I am proud to belong, we need to speak back and regain the narrative. 

An important step was taken last year in 2015 in Mecca where a declaration on the definition of terrorism and the weaknesses of the Islamic word were described. Acting on those in making sure that the narrative is not left to a tiny, tiny minority I think becomes fundamental to the dialogue and the understanding of civilisations and the integrated global world that we live in. 

The other level is national but the national level, of course, is embedded in these others. Here what is fundamental is national ownership. We are proud not to be engaging in blame games but to own our problems. 

What are some of those? If you take the poverty line to be $2.00 a day, seventy per cent of our population is below that line. If you take it to be $1.25, thirty-nine per cent of our population is below that line. 

Corruption is not a symptom; corruption is an enabler for terror and for political violence. Because what is critical in the struggle against corruption, and it has been proven time and time again, is the effectiveness of the state. But not an authoritarian state, you have to have a citizen focussed state. 

The two young men that were here [and previously disrupted proceedings] are actually protesting about a transmission line. I am actually very proud of them because in the midst of a war for survival we still take debates on infrastructure extraordinarily seriously. I thanked them the other day, when I was leaving, for engaging in a discussion of infrastructure. 

The decisions on the project were made in 2013. A decision was made to pass the transmission line through the Salang Pass rather than the Bamyan Valley. It was the wrong decision at the time but meanwhile three years of work have gone to prepare the Salang Pass and six million people will benefit from this transmission line compared to one hundred thousand from the alternative. 

But you have to take young men seriously and I appreciate their anger because if you do not have the tolerance for people’s legitimate anger you cannot guide a state or guide the destiny of a nation. We have inherited many things but corruption is probably the most significant. This is a national shame, as is the mortality rate of our women. We have halved the mortality rate of women but it is still one of the highest in the world. 

What is our tragedy? Our tragedy is that we are potentially one of the richest countries in the region and yet inhabited by extraordinarily poor people. This means that corruption needs to be rephrased, not as abuse of public office for private gain but as forms of capture. 

There are four forms of capture that are fundamental to the challenge that we face and first is capture of institutions. Patronage and bribery has made a mockery of formal institutions. 

Second is economic capture; over five hundred thousand acres of public land have been seized by a small number of individuals. Public assets have been disposed of as though there was no tomorrow. 

The third form of capture is capture of security. Legitimate monopoly of force, which is the key characteristic of state, has not been accomplished because of the many groups and individuals that continue to use the threat of force to deprive others of a dialogue and because of that skins are thin. 

The fourth form of capture is political capture. Politics becomes a zero sum game of competing claims without arbitration. In this kind of situation what is really important now is to think back. If effective states are key to enabling us in the global, regional and Islamic levels, cooperation is central to overcoming this phenomenon and we need to agree on horizons and strategies required to overcome the threats posed by the fifth wave.

In terms of time horizon we cannot operate on a yearly basis, we cannot operate on a reactive basis. We cannot be letting narrative be controlled by their actions. It requires a steady focus and the will to muster the strength to master the threats, like Nazism, fascism and other forms of threats have been mastered. 

In terms of strategies, what is critical is to understand that this is going to be a constantly changing phenomenon. It is not a constant, it is a strategic situation, [which] means that there is a large degree of inbuilt uncertainty in the situation. It is going to constantly morph into other things and that morphing requires that we focus on both the visible and the invisible. 

Daesh has taken all the oxygen, but what keeps me awake still is what Al Qaeda are doing. Has it gone down dark and deep, or is it preparing another surprise. Which is going to be the more enduring phenomena, what is visible or the dog that did not bark? I hope my English education is paying off.

Strategies cannot be in terms of static objectives or terrain that is constant. This is going to be a constantly shifting set of phenomena and relationships, and therefore we need to have flexibility. That is a challenge to our institutional architecture. Being plodding, being slow and deliberate has served us well in periods of great global stability, but now it requires a fundamental rethink about how global and regional organisations will work and how our relationships are defined. 

One thing is certain, our fates are interlinked and there are no walls, great or small, that can separate us. So what is required is joining hands and being able to forge those partnerships that can enable us to change lives fundamentally and to ensure that stability is of the order in which participation becomes deeply embedded, where hope is renewed and where trust at all these four levels is re-established.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity, I would be delighted to engage you in some discussion. 


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