What the hell are we doing in Afghanistan?

A WEEK and a half ago it was reported that a roadside bomb had killed the seventh Australian soldier to die in Iraq. This is a personal tragedy for the family, to be added to the toll of deaths, injuries and families destroyed by post-traumatic stress. The Prime Minister was “deeply saddened”. The military said of our troops “they perform their work in the best traditions of Anzac”.

About bloody right, Gallipoli was a disaster, and Afghanistan is even more strategically futile. Winston Churchill said “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”  It seems we have learnt nothing.

This is the fourth Anglo-Afghan war, the English speaking west taming the wilderness for the good of civilisation (as we see it). Each war sets the stage for the next.

In 1838 the British invaded as part of the Great Game with Russia and installed a puppet; then the natives became restless. The British tried to escape and were massacred, with only one British soldier, assistant surgeon William Brydon, making it back alive. The British invaded again in 1878, installing a puppet, establishing suzerainty and the division of Pushtunistan into a nominally independent Afghanistan and the British-occupied now Pakistani tribal areas.

Finally in 1919, after a short war, Afghanistan gained political independence from a Britain already exhausted by war in Europe. The Russo-Afghan war saw the Soviets trying and failing their test of dominance. The current war grows from the post-soviet anarchy and the division of Pushtunistan between a meddlesome Pakistan and a weak multi-ethnic Afghanistan. Once again, initial victory is swift, but holding the territory is far harder.

Failed presidential candidate and war hero, John Kerry asked in 1971 “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry was speaking about Vietnam. Kevin Rudd should be asked the same question about Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a just war, legitimised by the Taliban government assistance to, and protection of, Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the September 11th attacks on the United States. Its opening phase was brilliantly executed in the best tradition of British colonial enterprise, with American CIA and western special forces coordinating a military resurgence of the Northern Alliance of non-Pushtun Afghans to overthrow the Taliban with the assistance of western air-power.

Since invasion the failure to articulate a political solution has created a strategic quagmire. A just war isn’t necessarily a victorious one.

From a western political perspective, Afghanistan is supposed to be the ‘good war’ to contrast with the Iraq ‘bad war’.

Politicians respond to the electorate’s distaste for Iraq, which was doomed from day one, while wanting to appear ‘macho’ and loyal to US military hegemony. Rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wars, a better description would be ‘dumb’ and ‘dumber’. 

Why are we in Afghanistan? To prevent a base for operations for attacks on the West? Events in London, Madrid, Bali and now Mumbai show there has been little if any diminution of the strategic capacity for terrorism.

Have we caught Osama Bin Laden ‘dead or alive?’ Nope.

Have we brought peace and development to the people of Afghanistan? Nope.

Have we prevented the flow of opium narcotics to the west? Nope.

In Bush-speak the US military, like Brownie, is “doing a heck of a job”. After seven years in Kabul, the west has achieved nothing of substance.

Some critics of the Afghan disaster blame Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, for his weakness and corruption. Some of this criticism is justified, but Afghan adventures have always succeeded or failed on their selection of the puppet. You can’t blame the puppet for bad puppet management.

Other critics blame Pakistan, which is the new base for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This criticism is also justified; elements in Pakistan’s inter-services intelligence are clearly playing a double game. But Pakistan is simply a failed state with a strong military that holds the atomic bomb. The United States bullied Pakistan into joining the ‘War on Terror’ on their side, with threats by Richard Armitage, a US under-secretary of state, “to bomb them back to the stone age” if they didn’t. While this threat was frightening to politicians in Islamabad, for inhabitants of the tribal regions it is mere bravado. The US has a fantasy friendship with Pakistan, claiming a strategic alliance while doing nothing to help solve issues like Kashmir that eat away at Pakistan’s national identity.

The US is reliant on Pakistan to deliver 80% of their supplies to fight the war in Afghanistan. Convoys that travel from the port of Karachi to the infamous Khyber Pass are now being attacked by militants with ease.  The Pushtun tribes see any Westerners, and even the Pakistan military, as foreign occupiers to be fought. This is why the Pakistan government has a policy of fight and then negotiate. There can never be absolute victory, but there can be understandings that last until the balance of power is upset. The Pushtun know that history is on their side, not to mention a free flow of weapons and a high birth rate. If for your enemy, honour is more important than life, it pays not to make the natives restless. More western troops and civilian deaths simply exacerbate the problem.

Western generals have acknowledged that there must be a political solution, what they fail to realise is that they are not negotiating from a position of strength. And every year their position gets worse. If history is any guide, the power of foreigners in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is not to impose civilisation, but only to support one tribe or ethnic group over another. The west has the power to depose a king from his throne, but not to protect his replacement. Any attempt to do so simply extracts a huge price in blood and treasure.

There needs to be a political solution and western troops need to leave. A Swiss-style confederacy may work, whereby the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pushtuns, Hazari all have significant autonomy, and a federal government retains control over the more powerful military hardware to prevent any ethnic group establishing dominance. Counter-insurgency would be fought at the state not the national level. Under such a regime, the Taleban would need to be allowed to regain control of at least one of the Afghan ‘states’. Any negotiated conditions must be simple and enforceable. In Afghanistan, western military power extends to deposing bad leaders, not imposing peace or western values.

Alex Wadsley

Alex Wadsley

Since invasion the failure to articulate a political solution has created a strategic quagmire. A just war isn’t necessarily a victorious one…

...Western generals have acknowledged that there must be a political solution, what they fail to realise is that they are not negotiating from a position of strength. And every year their position gets worse. If history is any guide, the power of foreigners in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is not to impose civilisation, but only to support one tribe or ethnic group over another. The west has the power to depose a king from his throne, but not to protect his replacement. Any attempt to do so simply extracts a huge price in blood and treasure.