Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Afghanistan: A strange silence

There is surprisingly little discussion about the pros and cons of the war in Afghanistan, when you consider that British soldiers are getting killed there every week.

Two respected commentators have come out with maverick views on this subject in recent days.

Alan Watkins suspects that, unlike the war in Iraq, which the Lib Dems largely opposed, this one generates little controversy because all three main parties support it. Nick Clegg has actually been there lately, and came back full of enthusiasm for sticking at it, even though it may take decades, he says.

Another reason for the difference might be that the attack on Iraq was perceived to be contrary to international law, did not have a proper UN mandate, and was strongly opposed by some of our major allies, notably France and Germany. The action in Afghanistan, by contrast, is a genuinely multinational effort under NATO with, apparently, pan-European approval and, up to a point, involvement.

Still, Watkins sees the whole adventure as essentially a US initiative, and it is one he is highly sceptical about:

For some reason, enlightened opinion in this country has chosen to depict the war in Afghanistan as a good war – at any rate, a virtuous war –and the war in Iraq as bad. (.....)

Mr Tony Blair joined up as soon as Mr George Bush asked him. (.....) The odd thing was that the representatives of enlightened opinion – the prig press, as much as Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers – seemed to be equally keen on what the Victorians used to call a punitive expedition.

Watkins notes that the thing began as a supposed act of revenge for Osama bin Laden's attack on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. And yet bin Laden is actually from Saudi Arabia, as were most of his partners in that crime. Yet we have not invaded Saudi Arabia. He goes on:
In this country, the umpteenth Afghan war is being dressed up in the language of human rights, notably over the production of opium and the subjection of women. It is largely humbug. The United Kingdom became heavily involved in Afghanistan because Mr Bush asked us to become involved. That is the answer which Mr Brown, Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg should give when the curious voter asks: what are we doing in Afghanistan?

The other notable dissident on this subject recently has been Simon Jenkins. I do not, myself, always have quite as much time for him as I usually do for Alan Watkins. I often feel that I don't really know where I am with him. Nevertheless, he cannot be written off as a complete idiot.

Coming at it from a different angle from Watkins, Simon Jenkins's assertion is simply that, whatever our war aims in Afghanistan are supposed to be, they are not being achieved, and never will be, because the whole strategy is completely misconceived, in his view:

Victory would be at hand "if only" the Afghan army were better, if the poppy crop were suppressed, the Pakistan border sealed, the Taliban leadership assassinated, corruption eradicated, hearts and minds won over. None of this is going to happen. The generals know it but the politicians dare not admit it. (.....)

Nothing will improve without the support of the Afghan government, yet that support is waning by the month. Nothing will improve without the commitment of Pakistan. Yet two weeks ago Nato bombed Pakistani troops inside their own country, losing what lingering sympathy there is for America in an enraged Islamabad. (.....)

We forget that the objective of the Afghanistan incursion was not to build a new and democratic Afghanistan. It was to punish the Taliban for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for Al-Qaeda training camps. The former objective was achieved on day one; the latter would never be achieved by military occupation. (.....)

The Taliban's chief objective is not world domination but a share of power in Afghanistan. While they cannot defeat western troops, they can defeat Nato's war aim by continuing to build on their marriage of convenience with Al-Qaeda, which supplies them with a devastating arsenal of suicide bombers.

What is sure is that Al-Qaeda, as a (grossly overrated) "threat to the West", will not be suppressed without Taliban cooperation. This means reversing a policy that naively equates "defeating" the Taliban with "winning" the war on terror. Fighting in Afghanistan is as senseless as trying to suppress the poppy crop. It just costs lives and money.

There is much more, and I can only recommend reading the whole article. Even if all this is only half true, it seems to me pretty depressing and even somewhat alarming.

None of the main parties is completely united on this issue, I think. Some on the Labour left are unhappy: Diane Abbott MP, as one might expect, was making sceptical noises about it on telly the other day (she is a history graduate and was able to point out that we also made a mess of Afghanistan in the 19th century). Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw Kenneth Clarke MP not long ago saying that although he was open to persuasion that the game was worth the candle, he was not yet so persuaded. If he thinks that, it probably means that others in the Tory party are not entirely on board, either.

I have no knowledge or expertise in these matters, so I rely on those who do to tell me what to think. I am not a fullblown pacifist, and I could support the war if it was clearly the right thing to do. I think there ought to be a fuller and more open debate going on. I should be particularly interested to know what discussions, if any, are going on inside the Liberal Democrats.


Jamie Graham said...

As someone who left the Labour Party after 10 years on the issue of the Iraq War (I cut my membership card in two and sent it to Downing Street, feeling the need to make a futile gesture) and marched against it, I have had to do some fancy political footwork over my support for the war in Afghanistan.

There was a big difference between the two at the time. Afghanistan was an abomination of a failed state. The Taliban rulers were supporting terrorism, running a fascist state, destabilising their neighbours and committing appalling acts against their own people and against human culture. Meanwhile Iraq wasn't a failed state, wasn't supporting terrorism (whatever the Americans may say) and wasn't attacking human culture. It was a fascist state, it was destabilising neighbouring states and it was committing appalling acts against its own people... but the list of countries were these three things apply is appallingly long and there were simply better targets for neocolonialist liberal intervention (albeit none with huge untapped oil reserves).

Tying these two wars together, to my mind, is unhelpful. The Afghanistan war was justifiable - as far as war ever is - whilst the Iraq war was illegal and immoral. There's not much in common between them.

A more substantive point is our war aims. In Iraq, we never really had any that made any sense, but in Afghanistan we had "liberation" for Item 1 and, less well publicised, the opium crop as Item 2. The question now is whether we have succeeded in the aims and whether we can actually achieve them. There is no point in continuing any war that cannot possibly be won (defining "won" as achieving the war aims). So far, at least, we have "liberated" the country. It's not stable, but it's no longer strictly a failed state; the state no longer supports terrorism... to such a degree, anyway; it's now no more fascist than its neighbours; it's now no longer quite as appalling to its own people; and the attacks on human culture seem to have stopped. Box ticked. So we're now there for Item 2. And that's the one we can't win. You don't stop drug production with tanks and guns. You stop it by pumping money - shedloads, massive, bank-busting amounts - into the country, to create other things for the poppy farmers to do.

Since we can't win, then we need to stop. Declare victory and go home. Monetary support to the government can then be used to keep it propped up.

Strangely, this is different to Iraq, where we have created such a mess, made a failed state out of stable one, done everything we can to wreck the joint, that if we left now the result would be civil war and... another Afghanistan.

peezedtee said...


Very interesting comment.

I think you are broadly right, although it's always worth pointing out that Afghanistan isn't really a failed state because it never was a proper state in the first place. Some of the misconceptions about what has been going on there possibly stem from the idea that there is an Afghan "nation", with a government, etc. as if it were in Europe.

Actually, it's just an area of land, containing various warring factions with their own tribal loyalties. The writ of whomever is in charge in Kabul has never run across the whole territory. This state of affairs defeated us in the 19th century, and it defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It's not clear that the regime we currently support in Kabul is ever going to get control over the whole thing. As for democracy, it is a completely alien concept in that part of the world.

Revamp said...

Peezed - I am not sure if it is entirely fair to say that democracy is "alien", indeed the participation in Afghanistan seemed far more successful than in Iraq, where there was a sectional boycott.

Certainly the issue is more complex than Iraq {for instance we see the Taliban, who are the British are trying earnestly to fend off, beheading school teachers who dare educate girls}.

Simon Jenkins is the perpetual pessimist when it comes to foreign affairs but frankly he's been proven right time and time again {see: Iraq} in his analyses. I agree however with Jamie though: there are two wars being waged and one of them is an absurd attempt to bring the already worrying international "War on Drugs" to the Middle East.

This is foolishness of the highest order, especially when there is a global shortage of medical opium. For some reason Americans seem to prefer throwing soldiers at a problem instead of throwing money...

I honestly don't know how involved British troops are in that nonsense but I wouldn't put it past Brown and co to get the new reinforcements involved.