By Matthew West
On October 7th 2009 US and British forces, as well as those of other allies including Canada, Spain and Denmark will have been at war with the Taliban and searching for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan for eight years.
To date 188 British soldiers have been killed in the fighting there as well as countless Afghans – literally countless. The UN said recently that a record 2,118 civilians died from violence in 2008, up from 1,523 the previous year. But how much the UN is able to give an accurate picture of the civilian death toll is also questionable, figures such as these always are.
I have never supported either the war in Afghanistan or in Iraq. The reasons for my opposition have also never altered. Both wars were the expression of American imperialist military might. In the case of Iraq the war was predictably brief while the repercussions were also predictably bloody and brutal.
Whether either war has made the world a safer place is still being debated around the world. I am generally of the view that they have not.
But America has never cared about making the world a safer place despite all the rhetoric that it is attempting to spread freedom and democracy and fight terrorism. US foreign policy has largely remained unchanged for 50 years: self interested and on a permanent war footing. How many years of peace has the US actually known since World War 2? How many wars has America involved itself in, in some way shape or form?
Right now America consumes almost 25 per cent of the world’s energy resources so it needs, now more than ever, a powerbase in the Middle East. It needs to be able to contain, or at least threaten, the likes of China, Russia and Iran. A presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has nothing to do with freedom and democracy. It has everything to do with competition for natural resources and the fragile relationship the US has with both Russia and China. The US administration and commentators like David Aaronovitch in Friday’s Times have tried to sell freedom and democracy as the real reasons for war but they fail to realise most of us aren’t buying.
What is most alarming about US foreign policy is the way America is allowed to re-write history.
By way of example the US administration supported a succession of equally cruel fascist regimes in South Vietnam for reasons still best known only to itself and failed to understand the fiercely independent nature of the Vietnamese people. Yet the official history is that a naive America went to protect the south Vietnamese from their aggressive northen and communist neighbours. This is utter nonsense.
Make no mistake. Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again, it is just that the American military has learned a few lessons since 1975.
But this begs the question: how long will it be before Britain and America wave a white flag and tell the world they tried to bring freedom and democracy to the Afghan people before tucking tail and running?
The biggest problem with Afghanistan is essentially the same as in Vietnam: the allied forces don’t know who they are actually fighting. Collectively they are known as the Taliban but the reality is far more complex than that. Were it a simple case of an easily identified and sought out enemy the allies would have had more success by now, wouldn’t they? The answer to this is always: ‘We were fighting a secondary war in Iraq, which may not actually have been all that necessary.’ If this is true the Afghan people may be about to discover just how much misery the West can heap on a nation. One would have thought almost eight years of misery would have been enough.
I’m not a “bring them home now” advocate because I am distressed by the number of casualties among military personnel we have incurred, nor because the soldiers are under-equipped or there are too few soldiers in Afghanistan to ‘get the job done’. The job will never be done and there will never be enough equipment. Casualties, grim as they are, are the price any government pays for going to war.
The reason to bring the soldiers back now is because they are dying for nothing of tangible value to either the Afghan people or to the West. The Taliban like the Mujahedin before them can probably fight a guerrilla war campaign indefinitely. And then we have the ‘hearts and minds’ fight, a phrase incidentally last used with the same level of frequency as it is now in Vietnam.
This brings us to the claims by David Aaronovitch in Friday’s Times that women have a better life now under the current regime in Afghanistan, that Afghans want Isaf forces there to protect them from the terrible and evil Taliban and that those who advocate leaving Afghanistan refuse to “spell out the consequences of their advocacy”.
These points need addressing individually. The position of women within Afghan society is debatable at best and it is certainly not fact that women are better off under the current allied backed regime. It is also not certain that the Afghan people want the allies there at all. If this were the case why is it that the Taliban have managed, on numerous occasions, to retake entire swathes of the country?
Hawks will counter that many people in Afghan villages help the Taliban for fear of reprisals and that young men are given the choice of fighting for the Taliban or being executed where they stand. Both claims are undoubtedly true but then so are those that allied air strikes have indiscriminately killed entire wedding parties (essentially an entire village) and that the CIA manipulate village elders for information as well. Such actions can also help to swell the ranks of the Taliban. But such stories do not make it on to nightly television news bulletins.
Television news broadcasts generally tell of allied casualties caused by intensive fighting but rarely of civilian casualties because, one suspects, of conflict fatigue. People don’t want their news bulletins filled with stories of dead Afghans just as television audiences soon lost interest in the Vietnam war after 1973 and the “official” pull out of American forces.
This conflict fatigue is currently what the likes of Aaronovitch are railing against. They tell us the conflict was obviously going to change; and that we must stay the course because we are there for the right reasons. This is, of course, the kind of argument that kept the US in Vietnam for considerably longer than should have been the case. It is also wholly and fundamentally wrong.
Whether the Taliban are strong enough to retake the whole country and grab power for themselves again is also debateable but if the Afghan people want to change their rulers then surely it is up to them to do so. The country may fall into civil war between the alliance of warlords that Hamid Karzai has managed to establish and the Taliban. There may even be a civil war within that small coalition, in fact some form of civil war is almost certain unless the US takes a much longer term strategic view of how to help Afghanistan develop greater stability. I would suggest that that will only come with, at least, a gradual withdrawal of troops from the country, not a greater build up.
Moreover, stability is proving elusive. While in the short-term a withdrawal of military muscle from Afghanistan may lead to deaths, people are dying now and the region is no more stable than it was in 2001.
And when we talk about stability, whose stability are we really talking about – that of Afghanistan or our own? Aaronovitch cannot think the allies are in Afghanistan fighting for freedom and democracy. No one else does.