Victory in Afghanistan

In March 2010, then the deadliest year yet for civilians in the almost decade long war, a United Nations Refugee Agency report on Afghanistan found that the prioritisation of “military or political objectives” over the needs of local communities was undermining basic human rights and exacerbating poverty. “Numerous decisions are made in fora and policy circles beyond Afghanistan and are often geared to meet short term objectives that have little to do with the safety and best interests of impoverished Afghans,” the report’s authors noted. “Few Afghans, and especially the poor, participate in, or influence, decisions that have major consequences for their security and well-being.” They advised, “It is time to listen to the voices of the poor who constitute the bulk of the Afghan people.”[1] In the same month, Save the Children reported “The world is ignoring the daily deaths of more than 850 Afghan children from treatable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, focusing on fighting the insurgency rather than providing humanitarian aid.”  It seems reasonable to ask: in pursuit of what aims are these military and political objectives being prioritised and are Afghans continuing to suffer? 

The question is rarely posed with any seriousness. For Council on Foreign Relations Fellow and Afghanistan analyst Stephen Biddle, typifying the majority of articulate opinion on the matter, the “biggest question” is “whether we can win and whether we’re winning.”  The answer essentially splits supporters of the continuation of the war from those, including aspects of the peace movement, calling for some kind of withdrawal. In the latter case, critics oppose the war on the grounds of it being hopeless, futile and un-winnable. The invasion was a “folly”, a “mistake”, which has the US and NATO trapped in a “quagmire”. [2]

The quagmire discussion contains a simple lesson for similar endeavours in the future; the next time the most powerful military coalition in history attacks another country it should pick an easier target than Afghanistan, ravaged by 30 years of warfare and lying at the bottom of all indicators of human development. There are other lessons. US tactics in Afghanistan have been too mild: “the next time we need to deploy an army to defend ourselves, we need to annihilate the enemy” says the initiator of the CIA’s rendition program Michael Scheur. “If this is all the power that the American people have paid for over the past 30 years, since the end of the cold war, and this is the best we can do, it really is a shame. Any war can be won if you kill enough of the enemy and their supporters.”  The US must “absolutely” be willing to “kill a lot of civilians.”  [3] 

Adopting a racism reminiscent of earlier colonial and imperialist ventures, much blame for the quagmire can be placed on the Afghans themselves. When the CIA has a number of “disputable members” of Karzai’s government on the payroll it is because “Mother Theresa can’t be found in Afghanistan.”  “What is acceptable to the Afghans is different than what is acceptable to you or me or our people,” explains one Western official. [4]  Part of the problem is that, “We cannot provide democracy if we desire it more than the Afghans.” [5]

There are also the curiously Afghan qualities to contend with, a people who “guard their privacy fiercely” and have a “strong independent streak and ancient dislike of invaders”; comments made in reaction to Afghans’ uniquely negative opinions of bombings and house raids. [6]  The Afghan National Army are constantly ridiculed for their failure to kill the Taliban with as much gusto as the occupying forces, then there is the cunning of the latter who, unlike the US, have a “cohesive strategy.”  [7]

Failing that there is Karzai, despised as an “unreliable partner” ever since he committed the sin of responding to domestic pressure and condemned civilian casualties. Such an unstable surrogate, willing to occasionally voice the concerns of the population, provides a problem for those hoping to steer Afghanistan in a way that benefits their interests. For Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, the answer is to treat Karzai “as a symbolic president” and to give him “the organizational “mushroom treatment” — that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government.” [8]  According to Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Afghanistan, the best solution would be installing an “acceptable dictator”, for which “We should think of preparing our public opinion.”  [9]

As ambassador, Cowper-Coles had experience influencing public opinion, downplaying the disastrous effects of the war in order to justify its continuation; the “terrible dilemma” of “staying honest while knowing the brief from your client.” “As a professional public servant,” recounts Sir Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO, “you have to take the public line, you have to accentuate the positive, but you also need to give honest advice to your political masters.” [10]

Like other brave and principled statesmen, the former ambassador has waited until he left public office to become a vocal critique of the way the war is fought, taking a high-ranking position with BAE systems, unrelated to his role in ending an investigation into BAE’s corrupt deals with Saudi Arabia.

The mentality and hubris of imperialism permeates commentary and analysis. A contribution to the influential journal Foreign Affairs, titled “Defining Success in Afghanistan”, discusses the most effective way to politically organise the country in order to create an “acceptable option for the United States.” [11]  An “acceptable option” for Afghans, to be decided by Afghans, is not mentioned. Similar discussions, adopting the same framework of understanding, are considered legitimate tasks for scholarship. 

The treatment of Malalai Joya, possibly the most well known Afghan activist, who has spoken out with incredible bravery against the occupation and the warlords it empowers, is instructive. In a TIME magazine profile, American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes, “I hope in time she comes to see the US and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”  That is, a woman who has struggled against the Soviets, fundamentalist mujahadeen, warlords, Taliban and now US/NATO invasion and occupation, is insufficiently aware of the nature of oppression to comprehend the benevolence of her occupiers. In the Guardian, columnist Nushin Arbabzadah expresses amazement at Joya’s opposition to the US occupation because “without US intervention, Joya would not have been able to own a passport, let alone travel abroad.”  Joya has a passport, is able to leave Afghanistan, and therefore should disregard what is happening to her country and be satisfied. Arbabzadah goes on to condemn the activist for criticising the parliament composed of warlords and human rights abusers; evidence of her lack of “pragmatism.” [12]

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