A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

The Worst Is Yet To Come

In Foreign Affairs on September 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm

As I was reading Ewan’s well written article on why we should stay in Afghanistan, I felt compelled to write a response arguing the other side. In the last months we have seen the British death toll in Afghanistan pass the 200 hundred mark, we have seen wavering support from both the media and the people, yet people still make the argument that we are accomplishing something. Are we winning the war? The simple answer is no. The outgoing commander of the US forces in Afghanistan David Mckiernan told the BBC that “We are not winning” in the struggle against the resurgent Taliban, a member of the British leadership went further: the then commander of the British forces in Helmand Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said “We’re not going to win this war.”

The war has not brought peace to the region; according the latest UN figures, violence has reached it’s highest level since the regime was toppled in 2001, and the number of civilians killed so far this year is 25% higher than the same period last year. So we have spent 8 years fighting, and squandered billions of the tax payer’s money and all we have done is hit a dead end. We haven’t solved the problems, we have made it worse. The people of Afghanistan have proved time and time again that they can repel foreign invaders; they stood up to the Soviets in the 70’s and now to the west.

“I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”

The confusion I and I’m sure many other people have is what  are we fighting for? To end terrorism in the region? A war on drugs? To liberate women? Or the classic American excuse of spreading democracy? If it’s the first reason has it worked? Has destroying the secure base that the Taliban stopped the spread of terrorism? The 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 (4 years after the Taliban was toppled) seem to suggest not. The make up of the Taliban has changed it has gone from being a hierarchy to being made up of a number of self sufficient operations; the bombs that killed those commuters that morning weren’t made in Afghanistan, they were made in Britain. Why has Afghanistan been targeted, why have countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or any other country accused of harbouring terrorists not been subject to an indefinite military occupation? Leaving troops in Afghanistan makes the problem worse: it does nothing but fuel Islamic terrorism; it can then be used as ammunition against the west. It’s used as an effective recruiting tool that jihadists have been quick to exploit. If it’s a war on drugs; why Afghanistan? Why not a full blown war with Columbia? Or any of the other countries which grow drugs?

Why does liberation of the women in Afghanistan come above those of Saudi Arabia? Or Pakistan? (Which is also of vital importance to al-Qaeda) Does the US not see itself as slightly hypocritical bringing up lack of women’s rights when the US hasn’t itself ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women? I agree with Ewan that every person in the world deserves basic human rights, but short of invading and forcing our own view of democracy and rights upon every faltering country in the world we cannot gain this through war. We should be negotiating, educating and encouraging countries such as Afghanistan to move away from oppressing women, but we cannot force them. In the words of the great John Stuart Mill: “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”

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  1. Hi

    Thanks for the reply, I appreciate the stimulation of debate and always welcome those whose opinions differ from mine. I do have a few issues with your article, I will mention them below.

    My greatest concern with your argument is your failure to offer an alternative solution to the threats which I mentioned. If NATO were to withdraw from Afghanistan, what should we do to counter the Taleban threat? Should Pakistan be left to defend herself, despite the huge price the world might pay for a Taleban victory? If only Britain were to leave NATO, might that alliance not crumble? We cannot predict the future and NATO provides security in a potentially uncertain world. Britain contributes more than any other country except America to NATO, with foreign office officials likely well aware of the benefits which the maintenance of the alliance brings. If Britain abandoned all responsibility, a disheartened America might well withdraw, heralding the end of the alliance, a scenario which would leave Britain looking extremely vulnerable.

    In order to avoid accusations of hypocrisy I will answer the points you made in a direct fashion. You raise some familiar criticism of the Afghanistan war and Western foreign policy which I feel able to counter, aided as I am by a comforting recognition of the challenge which you have offered me.

    Your first point mentions victory, or rather lack of it. Tactically, NATO forces have consistently proven themselves able to overcome the Taleban in direct battle, hence the latter’s resorting to the use of roadside bombs. Victory of course constitutes far more than tactical victory, the threat the Taleban pose must be eliminated and a stable and moderate government must prosper in Afghanistan. It is in this sense that ‘we are not winning’, but NATO commanders are aware of what must be done to attain victory and it is a weak hearted army indeed that forsakes battle at the merest sight of adversity. Remember we are not losing either, rather NATO is failing to meet its strategic objectives, a concerning situation but not one which merits mass panic, in contrast to many amongst the general public seem to think. The Taleban are relying on the excess pressure of an electorate, whose constitution is not well suited to war, to force the allied governments to withdraw their troops, this is their only hope of victory. I cannot overstate my admiration for the democratic system of government, but we must here recognise its weakness and avoid becoming party to the Taleban’s objective.

    I struggle to understand your confusion regarding the objectives of the Afghanistan war. Either you have not researched the topic enough or you are wilfully adopting a position of misunderstanding. The objectives of the initial invasion were clear; the Taleban were providing a secure base from which terrorists such could prepare to attack the west and it was believed that Osama Bin Laden was to be found in the country. The most important of these objectives was the former, and it was accomplished. Despite your assertions, Al Qaeda have failed to launch another attack on US soil, something which they no doubt wished to do and 7/7 amounts to the worst that Islamist terrorists have been able to offer in terms of hostility. Now the Taleban, having experienced somewhat of a resurgence, must be decisively defeated in order that they might not return to power in Afghanistan or indeed Pakistan and once more threaten the western world. All other issues are secondary, they form part of the grand strategy in Afghanistan but are not of crucial importance in order for the war to be won. It should be hoped however, that a NATO victory should bring about the meeting of many of these objectives, particularly those regarding women.

    Your points regarding US hypocrisy regarding women is thus moot, the war is not on behalf of these women, but nonetheless it is hoped that they will benefit from its prosecution. Saudi Arabia is indeed a despotic regime and if it were possible, no doubt the west would do their utmost to forward a degree of liberalisation amongst the women of the Arabian peninsula. Unfortunately it is not, any invasion of Saudi Arabia would send oil prices spiralling and throw the world into chaos. Perhaps the colonialists of old, determined to spread their own idea of society to all before them, might not have taken heed of such dire consequences. Fortunately America does, the reality of human fairs taint even the most benevolent of ideologies and force us to stand in silence as we witness injustices suffered by others. This does not mean that when opportunity presents itself we should not act; I fundamentally disagree with John Stuart Mills, free society, where men are encouraged to think as they act, has contributed the most to the expansion of the human mind and is most beneficial to the human condition. It is one of the great ironies of human history that such free society has tended to accompany expansion and the annexation of foreign territory. Athens, Rome, London; all exemplify this principle. Now consider; Europe, America and Oceania, the expansion of various powers was of fundamental importance to the development of these liberal areas of the world. Perhaps a community does not have the right to force another to be civilised, but equally, neither can the benefits which such action has had on the development of our own freedom be dismissed offhand.

    These musings of course, have little to do with my assertions regarding Afghanistan, to which you should refer to my penultimate paragraph and to my previous essay.

  2. Please excuse typos, having gone back over after posting I realise I’ve made several, I hope you wont allow that to detract from your reading of my reply.:)

  3. The President has not issued a mission statement. He wants to have political leverage for some obscure reason he can’t explain to anyone. Wars are won or lost. Political goals are not the mission of the military, and right now military goals are not important to the President!

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