Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Afghan Question

Yesterday marked 10 years since Nato went into Afghanistan.

In this time British troops have officially suffered 382 deaths, and the direct cost of British involvement is estimated to be rising close to £10bn.

Has anything changed in this time?

The involvement was initiated because of links between the Al Qaeda's global terror threat and the Taliban. Afghanistan was under control of Islamic extremists, providing shelter, training and a focus for jihadi terrorists. The international community was outraged by human rights breaches and widespread persecution of minorities, women and almost any outside influence.

Then came the intervention. Nato teamed up with the Northern Alliance of pro-western tribal leaders and Mujahadeen, but wasted the opportunity to militarily destroy Bin Laden and co in battle when they were cornered in the Tora Bora region. Nevertheless we successfully installed Hamid Karzai, and democratic elections confirmed his status.

Conditions have largely improved for the people of the country, particularly with regard to health, education and cultural freedom. Electricity and clean water supply is no longer the exception in the towns. Poppy production has been removed from headlines as wheat prices have risen and productive trade has returned where order reigns under standardised market conditions. International relations are broadening, with the improving standards of the Afghani national cricket team a beacon for all.

However, ongoing lack of security and growing corruption are the cause of much concern among the population and foreign commentators alike.

Perhaps this is a sign of rising expectations resulting from the rebirth of civic institutions, but equally it represents the ever-present threat that a drawdown of forces would mean to Afghan society as the west struggles with mounting death-tolls and military costs associated with occupation while the global economy experiences a down-turn and the manoeuvering of internal factions in preparation for total withdrawl.

And this is the major problem of the ideological battle being fought out between the two sides.

Afghanistan exists at the furthermost reaches of civilisation and Afghani cultural history identifies with this border mentality. The land is at the crossroads of the routes which lead from the sub-continent, to the steppe, and from the orient to the occident. The people have seen everyone come and everyone go.

From Alexander the Great to Ashoka the Great, from Buddhist reconquest to Islamic reconquest, from Mongols to Mughals, to the British Empire and the Soviet Empire and pretty much everyone in between: Afghans have seen them all. The one thing which they know is that everyone leaves eventually.

This singular fact cannot be emphasised with sufficient strength.

It's not for nothing that the country is known as the graveyard of ambitions: it is strategically impossible to hold militarily for any protracted period without a supporting global political solution, simply due to its location and geography. Their land has been ruled by everyone, but it is still their land. They know all alliances are temporary, as a man's word is nothing without a knife at his throat - you simply cannot trust someone you cannot look in the eye. The only people you can really trust are those who stay by your side - whether they are your brothers, your cousins, or your guests.

Because it is a land at the limits of human survival and everything is subordinated to the ability to endure.

It doesn't matter whether that means taking the sides of people you disagree with for temporary advantage and doing their bidding today only to turn tomorrow, or practising utmost flexibility while promoting absolutism: Afghan society is the realisation of the influence of power politics, just as Afghanistan is the realisation of the influence of surrounding powers.

Ultimately Afghans must take charge of themselves and Nato efforts to build an Afghan National Army are the first vital step to achieving this. But the corollary is that Afghanistan must also be integrated into the international order for the same old independent and rebellious nature not to resurface and turn either inwards and devolve into another civil war or become infested with a deeper sickness and become entangled in a new 'Great Game' by seeking alliance with those of more sinister motives such as represented by Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The west would be wrong to indicate in any manner that 'we' are ever set to abandon them. We must convince them that they cannot settle for what they have, and we will not leave them to fight over what they've built until it is completely destroyed; we must convince them to join us on humanity's shared journey because we won't reach the destination without them. We must convince them and ourselves that our fates are intertwined.

But that doesn't mean that Afghanis should fear the prospect of a permanent occupation, on the contrary, it should allow them to reach a point of understanding in which various military installations can become a strategic bargaining chip in much the same way as former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev has used the Manas Air Base north of his capital Bishkek (a vital supply route into Afghanistan) to extract concessions from the international community, ensuring a basic level of political stability - and in return acknowledge that there are universal standards which are to their advantage to move towards.

Because the Afghan question is not so much 'what does the West do about Afghanistan?', it is more a matter of 'how do we find the means to explain to ordinary people in every corner of the world that our similarities are greater than our differences?'

It is a question of resolve. It is a question of political will. It is a question of humanity.

With Karzai promising to stand down in 2014, coinciding with Obama's promised withdrawl date, this question is being posed again. And Afghanistan once again stands at the crossroads.


There is an interesting comparison to be drawn between British and American attitudes towards policy which leads to protracted intervention.

Every week at PMQs the Prime Minister and party leaders metronomically recite the names of military dead. Initially it was as if by rote, seemingly ordered by the military command to issue a budgetary reminder, but later as the list grew and the memory began to persist so the human investment began to dwarf any pecuniary measure. Meanwhile in the US, Congress and the President are silent, GOP candidates are silent and the debate revolves around bringing 'our troops' back and 'nation-building' at home.

But there is a problem with using Libya as a model for regime-change: it legitimises civil war as a tool of foreign policy, creating a global ballpark dynamic where smaller powers become fielders for a new 'great game' of international diplomacy, and thereby encourages destabilisation of weaker nations - the exact same thing Nato went into Afghanistan to put an end to in the first place. Flip-flopping from one extreme to the other does nothing but create a circular and self-fulfilling argument of greater destruction and greater polarisation.

Ultimately this is debate which can be reduced to the academic simplisms of liberty, authority and security - it is about finding the correct prescription for the correct diagnosis, not about emphasising one to the exclusion or neglect of another, but equally and more importantly it is also finding the means for the international alliance to agree and work in concert to the same ends.

Because if the world order cracks on the back of domestic politics then those ancient Afghan sages who are prepared to simply outwait outsiders will be proved right again; Nato will fracture into dissent, turn inwards and spend its time fighting against itself. And the futile adventure will resemble evermore closely the vanity project of its' critics descriptions.

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