Monday, November 09, 2009

Afghanistan 2

From where I'm sitting, I don't think it's possible, honest or meaningful to have an opinion about Afghanistan. It's not going well, our people are dying in a dubious cause and the Karzai government is corrupt; on the other hand, it sounds like a good idea to kill Taliban and withdrawal would be a regional catastrophe. I could stick a pin in 'fight on' or 'withdraw' and then get all columnistic about it. But why?
Anyway, I just heard this soldier on the Today programme. He drew attention to the standard, withdrawalist statement about the conflict - 'Of course, I support our troops, but I don't support the cause.' The soldier said the troops supported the cause and the best way to support them was to do the same. In other words, the engagement of our troops is co-extensive with the cause.
Now it's easy to question this argument by generalising it. Would a German have been right to support the SS guards at Auschwitz because they were 'our boys'? Well, no. But our troops are not SS guards and our rulers are not Nazis. We should be able to allow ourselves a reasonable degree of confidence that somebody, somewhere, has thought long hard and humanely about this deployment. Most don't because of contemporary mistrust of the motivation and wisdom of politicians and because of the intensity of the media focus. By historic standards, our casualties in Afghanistan are light, but each one is given maximum emotional impact.
Once we would have believed our cause was just on principle - simply because we are who we are - and, to some extent, the Americans still do this. Now we can't unless we are able to identify a clear case of national security. Brown knows this and his primary argument is that fighting the Taliban will keep the terrorists off our streets. This seems unlikely.
The point is that neither a universal cause - we are fighting for justice and democracy - nor a patriotic one - it will be better for these people if we, the British, sort this out - has any traction. Supranational bodies like NATO or the UN provide some cover but unity always seem to crumble when the going gets tough. This raises the question of whether we can fight any wars at all, any, at least, that are not immediately defensive of our home territory. Perhaps, you may say, that's a good thing. But I wonder.


  1. So few will admit that there are plausible moral and practical arguments on both sides that this one quickly becomes unbearably sanctimonious. Starts with the line: "Look, it's very simple... ". The editor of the Independent on Sunday was doing exactly that on Breakfast this morning. That applies to most 'debates' of course but, unlike say, religion vs atheism, this one matters.

    There are arguments for withdrawal but overall I think we should be there. Britain always takes up the burden and we should be more angry than we are about the feeble support from our favourite European 'allies' - but again, that we do take up the burden should be a source of pride too.

  2. Aren't we in the invidious position you describe largely because of Iraq?

    It Afghanistan had predated Iraq - if the comparison was with Kosovo and Sierra Leone, differing in degree rather than type - wouldn't we have very different attitudes to every aspect of the war? It's morality, the chances of it succeeding, our trust in its management and leadership, the ability to work through a coalition, and more, would all look very different to us.

  3. Excuse me, Brit. Religion vs atheism doesn't matter? Surely you know by now that religion has caused all wars? That's why the debate matters so much. (A little tongue-in-cheek, for those that didn't know they knew me.)

    As for the original post, an intellectual for once adds something to the wisdom of the soldier on the ground. I can offer no higher praise. Not least hitting the lazy and highly dangerous generalisation to the Nazi death camps exactly on the nose. That part really matters. But it all does. Thanks.

  4. Interesting, Richard. Incidentally, which religion was it that caused the Korean conflict?

  5. Unless you classify Stalinism or Maoism as a religion, as John Gray kinda does, you've got me.

  6. I am all for setting aside sanctimoniousness.

    Coming to the arguments. The soldier was totally wrong and the standard line of giving our armed services unqualified support in carrying out their mission (and I am a pacifist) while continuously reviewing their mission is by far the most important support we can give them. In any case they are slaughtering foreign villagers on our behalf so, irrespective of this, it is incumbent on us to do so.

    As to killing Taliban being a jolly fine thing--that to my mind translates into slaughtering Afghan villagers for doing what Afghans do best--repulsing over-weaning colonial powers and reminding them that Afganistan isn't worth the candle.

    As to why we are still there: myopia and pride, I guess. I can see no other reason from any of the analyses I have read. We are surely destabilising Pakistan; we are creating the kind of resentment that leads to terrorism and certainly doing nothing to prevent it (prevention must be focused at home, the staging posts of 9/11 & 7/7); we fuelling a civil war with terrible consequences when we are finally forced to leave; we are collectively spending a fortune on this occupation--many times the Afghan GDP; we are causing untold misery for Afghan villagers and our armed forces alike, who are understandably determined not to run out of Afghanistan with their tail between their legs after Iraq. But for how long can we continue to be mugged by reality, and for how long are the electorate going to put up with it?

    As is so often the case, the Onion says it so much better: U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort In Afghanistan.

    I have explained the above, with links, here.

  7. Bryan is right, Chris. There are good arguments to be made for both the stay and go points of view. However, when I do a likely worse case scenario for both, I find that the potential for Pakistan to implode if we precipitately decamp is too awful to risk.

    We need to stay, but we also need to make sure our war aims are clear: building a democracy and ensuring little Ayeesha has an education are highly laudable but are not the aims of our involvement. It is the confusion caused by the belief that they are, helped along immensely by foolish commentary from politicians who should be more realistic and know better, that has caused a large part of our current problems.

  8. Chris, to my mind, your position translates into publicly abusing our armed services. The fact you clearly say something different to that ... well, tough.

    I'm trying to make a point, which is ...

    Bryan wrote "it sounds like a good idea to kill Taliban". How does that 'translate into' anything but killing Taliban? As a pacifist you may object to his honest description of what our troops are doing. As a would-be pragmatist you might want to argue that we should be seeking to change the hearts and minds of the dear Taliban. But what Bryan wrote doesn't translate into "slaughtering Afghan villagers". He clearly admits the whole thing can go terribly wrong, as every British soldier is aware every day. Anyone who denies that is in cloud cuckoo land. But the job is to beat or at least greatly hinder the Taliban. Slaughtering villagers certainly won't help, as the survivors will be far less likely to help us. The British troops deserve respect and support in this grave task.

    Of course you may disagree with the war and with the soldier this morning. But (from Bryan's report) I agree with him. And, in case you haven't got it, I objected to the 'translates into'. That kind of sloppy verbal dexterity, typical of a certain kind of pacifist, isn't helping the guys on the ground one little bit. Nor is the Onion's biting defeatism. Well OK, the latter probably fits better the black humour of the army itself. Which takes us into Jimmy Carr territory. But we should take care in what we say, when we're trying to be serious, at such a distance, both physical and in terms of our daily experience.

  9. Recusant: let's be clear, if NATO's presence is necessary to prevent Pakistan imploding then for sure I can understand why people would want us to stay. That is at least a clear argument whose merits can be discussed.

    However, none of the foreign policy realists or Pakistan experts that I have read believe this to be the case at all. The people I do here this this kind of argument from are the usual suspects with their laundry lists of reasons that we must continue the good fight.

    Pakistan is not about to be overthrown by a bunch of villagers from the boonis. This is just crazy talk.

    Presumably folks are worried in some vague way about radical Islam working its way into the heart of the Pakistan state. If that is so then I think Christians first occupying and then pulverising Pashtunistan with UAVs in a 21st century crusade, and pressing Pakistan to collaborate, is not going to help but indeed worsen the problem.

    For myself, I doubt if the Pakistan state is in much danger of radicalisation, but if it is, I think it will be as a reaction to our corrupting influence--corrupting the Pakistani government into doing our (irrational) bidding rather than allowing them to pursue the interests of the wider populace. (But of course it is more complicated than that, our military aid feeding the Pakistani security complex, and distracting them from prioritising justice and social stability, with us getting blamed for the corruption and the festering mess. Our current actions are feeding this dynamic and creating the breeding ground for radicalism, just as we have seen so many times before.)

    The above-linked article has links to the analysis, though I didn't address the collapse-of-Pakistan issue; see, for example, Juan Cole.

  10. Initially the correct choice of enemy, now the incorrect theatre and tactics. As we are there acting as the Americans full backs only time will reveal who's actually calling the shots. Considering how many colonial wars and skirmishes that the British have been involved in you would assume that by now we would be the world authority on how to kill the baddies with one swift movement (oh, alright, we were the baddies)

    As for educating the Afghans in the ways of democracy, you are joking, aren't you? A cat in hell would have better odds and in any case, it has f..k all to do with us.

    Highlights the near impossibility of modern governments attempts to defeat determined killers with zero sense of morality by trying to bludgeon them with conventional forces.

    What was the final score again, across the Irish sea?

    The time for swift and forceful action was before the Pakistan's acquired nuclear weapons, as in the time of partition and what bunch of arseholes dreamt that one up, giving Jinnah his toy to play with. Go back further, why didn't we leave the world alone.

    You know what, this is probably our fault, we had better stay and sort it out, or else.

  11. Richard, I think you have missed my point, which is that there is no distinction between Afghan villagers and the Taliban, or the neo-Taliban as some commentators have been calling them to emphasise the point that the people NATO are fighting are Afghan nationalist with precious little in common with Mullah Omar and co. They are predominantly villagers--it is well known that the 35-year civil war is essentially one between the urban centres and various groups from the tribal heartlands.

    So, I am afraid that when we talk of killing Taliban being a good thing we are talking of slaughtering Afghan villagers, and it would be well to be clear about this. If we want to either co-opt or defeat them we need to understand them and what motivates them.

    I think you are conflating a few things--the 'translates into' was a reference to Bryan's point and nothing else. It is of course a widely-held view, but I think it is a good thing if these things are discussed.

    As to me or anybody else not criticising efforts to prosecute a war that appears to be entirely misconceived and, that none of its supporters can muster a coherent defence of, is inconsistent with my understanding of my democratic (and human) responsibilities.

    Believe me, if I thought there was a coherent account of this mission I wouldn't waste my breath with sophistic arguments. But when analysts of the calibre of Scott Ritter are posting fierce and coherent critiques--consonant with what I am hearing from so many different angles--of the total folly of this venture, then I feel compelled to speak out.

    So the troops get my unconditional support and respect for carrying out their task. They are carrying it out on all of our behalf. But I do reserve the right to criticize that mission, as I think we all should.

  12. I support it for more or less the same reasons Brit does, but it's been eight years and I know the name of no battle, have never seen a map of the "front", have not made or been asked to make any sacrifice in the cause, have no idea whether we are welcome there, don't have any clear idea of what victory would look like, have no confidence in either the Afghans or Pakistanis, can't identify any economic interest, have no realistic fear of risks to the home front, and worry about what Russia and China are getting up to while we are diverted. I really have to wonder how long a modern democracy can stick this out until it is cancelled due to ennui.

    What does amaze me is how a large majority of Allied troops have sustained such high morale and commitment to the Afghans for so long in such gawdawful circumstances. Honour to them, all the rest of their days.

  13. Surely we are all MISSING THE POINT here. We and the US and our allies however feeble cannot withdraw if we wanted to - it would signal a catastrophic decline in global clout. Cut through the crap - the war is not winnable. What would a victory mean? A stable Karzai government? More dead Taliban than living ones? WHAT?

    It's not war as we thought we knew it: it's about influence and American dick swinging. If the dick doesn't swing - then goodbye US power. That's it.

    How about campaigning to close Guantanamo Bay?????

  14. Anon, don't you know your Belloc?

    And always keep a-hold of Dick
    For fear of finding a bigger prick.

  15. I hold that on the USA side of things there was a good deal of revenge about going into the Afghani tribal lands. And on the side of the Allies, a realisation that if they did not join Uncle Sam things could really have become very bad indeed. If you remember that after the 9/11 attacks there was a good few loose cannon rolling about the deck.
    However, I believe that Drugs are the major issue. While they are being produced and sold to a illegal market then there will always be a necessity for a presence of armed force to act as police.
    Given, that the price of poppy resin is unbelievably low in the tribal lands, why not simply buy the stuff.

  16. Chris, I thought that's what you might be trying to get at but I wanted you to clarify that you weren't talking old women and babes in arms, as your original wording might have implied. I'd not heard the term neo-Taliban. Now that I have I'm not convinced it's that useful a term.

    I've also listened to Captain Andrew Tiernan from this morning's Today programme. Very impressive. His mother deserves a medal all of her own. Tiernan calls those that attack his troops the Taliban and I guess he knows. Of course such an grouping must have 'evolved', from the days it was in full power in Kabul. It's a lot weaker than it was, for one thing. Presumably you can join us in rejoicing about that?

    And so have British tactics evolved, in ways that sounded as convincing as I could imagine them sounding right now. I didn't realise for example that our troops and Afghan security forces in various areas would soon be sharing digs and ops rooms. That could go wrong, obviously. But I didn't feel that what I was hearing about was anything like a lost cause, as long as morale can be reasonably maintained. For the latter reason I'm not sure how publicly I would raise doubts if I had them.

    Which is where we may differ. You may be so sure of your superior intelligence (in both senses) to know that you have drawn the right conclusions from all the available data and that even though such talk is clearly reducing the chances of our success, those chances are already so low that it is your duty to speak out.

    The moral high ground may be yours, in other words, but for me reaching it there may be gullies and crevices of unknown dimensions, and that, well, would be the pits (morally, so to speak).

    I'm happier to trust those like Captain Tiernan that are there.

    As a pacifist, by the way, how do you view the actions of police officer Kimberly Munley at Fort Hood on Thursday? As her shots didn't in fact kill the guy, is that okay? Or should she have left her gun alone and tried to reason with him? And did the left's constant, cringing critique of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan influence this one Army psychiatrist to feel the way he did? Hard to know. And easy to sound superior. I just wouldn't want to take the chance.

  17. Alexander, Khan and the Soviets were skinned alive by the Afgans. Your soliders and ours are next. They have time on their side and all the technology in the world will not save us, it will only pospone the end. Have I made up my mind? From studying the American Revolution for thirty years. Looking at the mindset of both countries, yes.

  18. Richard -- there certainly are Afghans who want NATO assistance in dealing with the Taliban, and I have no doubt about the veracity of the commander's reports (there is no contradiction with them being rural Afghan nationalists), but there are also the reports of drone massacres too. I am struck by Matthew Hoh's characterisation of the conflict as a '35 year old civil war' in his resignation letter (see also Christopher Buckley); we are of course propping up the very same faction that the Soviets did.

    I have no reservations about the ability of the military to do their job--but those at the sharp end of this are precisely not the people we should be looking to formulate strategic decisions. They need stability and support to carry out their tasks. Also I don't entirely trust the military judgement on this; they understandably don't want another fiasco, but that can distort judgement and lead to what they wish to avoid.

    My point is that every other expeditionary force that went into Afghanistan had the same needs and faced the same problems. I have been struggling with persuasive stay-the-course arguments for some time, but now I can't get them to stand up. It truly seems to be a world of pain for everyone concerned with no end in sight. We need a much more intelligent strategy that focuses on a political process, building schools and buying up the opium crop rather than occupying and bombing villages from UAVs. Anything with a reduced military footprint will be vastly cheaper, less destabilising to the region, and a lot more humane for Afghan villagers and our armed services.

    But that will mean finding ways of talking to the Taliban not killing them, with a view to us getting the military out.

    As for Kimberly Munley, if I were in her position I would have almost certainly done exactly the same. I am not a stupid pacifist and will certainly countenance forceful action that reduces violence--the non-violent intention is the key.

    Incidentally, while I didn't shrink from discussing ethical issues, I never claimed any moral high-ground. I agree with Brit that the discussion needs clarity not posturing.

  19. It's worth noting what the Fort Hood base commander, Lieutenant-General Bob Cone, said of Munley on Thursday: "She happened to encounter the gunman. In an exchange of gunfire, she was wounded but managed to wound him four times. It was an amazing and aggressive performance by this police officer."

    Without knowing you, Chris, I question whether you would have done 'exactly the same'. Which of us can be sure that in the heat and danger of the moment our own performance would have been as "amazing and aggressive" as was demanded to save lives in that situation?

    That's the problem with our grandstanding. We owe much to those like Munley to whom we contract out the lethal confrontation of our enemies.

    Hearing the admiration in the voice of the Lieutenant-General for what this young woman had achieved in her moment of trial ... that was a highlight for me of the last few days' news.

    Respect for the tone of your replies also.