When war was declared on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in October 2001, I supported the invasion. America made a series of perfectly reasonable demands — like, stop sheltering the terrorists who killed 3,000 people a fortnight ago — which were then ignored.
Even though the war was a brutal one, it seemed like it had some sense of purpose — at least, until Bush lost sight of his original ambitions, decided that the colour scheme of the big “Mission Accomplished” banner he’d ordered wouldn’t “go” with Helmand Province, and swiftly reached the conclusion that Iraq would make a great venue for Round II of Operation Enduring Freedom.
And since being so horrifically sidetracked into engaging in war with Iraq, everyone seemed to sort of forget about Afghanistan for a while; a condition not helped by the perpetual conflation of the causes behind each conflict.
The awful, tragic reality is that if Bush and Rumsfeld had been a little less attention deficit-y and not moved on as soon as they got bored, there almost certainly would be more lasting signs of progress in the country.
The Taliban wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to re-group, move into Pakistan in such strong numbers (and forget Iran, that’s what we should really be worrying about: a nuclear-armed country sporadically dotted with completely lawless, terrorist-controlled border regions) and then re-assert power over large swathes of the Afghan population.
But that has happened, and so it’s time to accept that success will probably never look like how we imagined — not least because democracy of the kind we enjoy will never work in a country with no real notion of centralised government or a top-down power structure — and re-adjust expectations accordingly.
Inflated ideas of success are probably — after Iraq — the most significant contributing factor to the stalemate that has emerged. It’s worth bearing in mind that historically, Afghanistan has pretty much been the most difficult country in the world to conquer: Alexander the Great didn’t succeed, the Soviets didn’t succeed, and nor have NATO. Or, at least, not in the way they’d imagined.
No clear definition of “victory” and constantly fluctuating arguments for why British troops are still in Afghanistan has done little other than lead to prolonged and unnecessary casualties, and rather than continuing engagement in pointless skirmishes with localised Taliban forces, the allied troops ought to be limiting their direct involvement in maintaining security and handing over powers to national military and police powers.
What’s happening now is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns: America and Britain continue pouring greater and greater numbers into the country, with ever less satisfactory results — and further huge troop increases would achieve nothing other than demonstrating even further quite how poorly-defined our goals are.
It only took nineteen men to change the course of global foreign policy: nineteen men and four planes. I don’t think that it’s possible for Britain or America to wage war enough to stop nineteen guys from trying to repeat the act, and the only way to achieve safety at home and stability in Afghanistan is not through this endless battle of attrition, but though less dramatic and less bloodthirsty means.
What is at stake in Afghanistan? One might be forgiven for thinking that it is only the lives of British and American soldiers. In those NATO countries that maintain a substantial military presence in South-central Asia, public debate has been reduced to a single, sordid, consideration: what best serves our national interest? This is the standard refrain of the foreign policy realist; of the Kissingerian isolationist. It would be all too easy for Barack Obama to capitulate to the growing number of voices in his own country — and in ours — that express this sentiment. But the initial question deserves a proper answer.
Western forces have established a fragile barricade between the admittedly tentative, limited freedoms of Afghan citizens, and the Islamist predators that ruled the country prior to the NATO intervention in 2001. It would be a difficult thing to draw out the full horror of the Taliban government here, but we can gather some impression from a cursory review of how they conduct themselves as insurgents.
Primary and secondary schools are among their favourite targets. They particularly relish decapitating those teachers who dare to try to educate girls, and they have been known to mutilate with powder acid those girls who dare to try to get an education.
Let’s assume, though, that we’re all familiar with opposition policy on females (and homosexuals, Christians, Jews, atheists, liberals, socialists… add a category of your choice) and explore instead another consequence of troop withdrawal. Afghanistan sits on a geo-political fault-line with nuclear-armed Pakistan. The Pakistani state is currently struggling with its own guerrilla uprising against a movement not at all dissimilar from that of its neighbour.
Were Al-Qaeda and the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban allowed free range of the Hindu Kush, Pakistan’s shaky democracy would be on the brink; it would take perhaps only months for it to collapse. The world would then be faced with the prospect of an army of violent theocrats equipped with weapons powerful enough to reduce Europe to rubble several times over.
There is, of course, also the very real question of international justice. The hunt for the men who organised the 9/11 attacks did not end with the apprehension of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was Osama bin Laden who sanctioned the atrocity — he has himself repeatedly laid claim to this particular dishonour — and he remains free, skulking somewhere on Afghanistan’s eastern rim. It would be a disgraceful abrogation of the American state’s moral duty to his victims if it failed to find, capture, or kill bin Laden. Ideally, he would stand trial in Manhattan, less than a mile away from the scene of the crime. Who would say it wasn’t worth the effort then?
It may be the case that increasing the intensity of the campaign against Islamist militants in Afghanistan will result in the deaths of more British and American servicemen and women. There is no question that this is tragic. But President Obama should grit his teeth and tell his people that these are necessary losses. He knows that there is a great deal more at stake.