If you’ve any basis for optimism about Afghanistan, please share it

I’m up in Shepparton for work this morning, and won’t be able to do a full blog post as usual. So instead I’m throwing open the comments on the subject of Afghanistan, which we haven’t discussed for a while. Two questions:

  1. Do you honestly think we’re going to have the resources and will to actually establish a functioning democracy in the area?

  2. If so, how? If not, is there any point in not just cutting our losses now and pulling out now?

Given the last eight years, I’m inclined to suspect the answer to the first is “No”. I’d like to believe otherwise, but – kind of like my relationship with religion – I can’t just take it on faith. I need some realistic basis for hope, so I can overcome the fear that Believing would just be deluding myself.

And therefore, although it will make all the deaths and sacrifices made so far a complete waste, it seems to me that admitting we cocked it up and not making it worse – ie, leaving – would be the lesser of the two evils remaining.

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41 responses to “If you’ve any basis for optimism about Afghanistan, please share it

  1. Basis for optimsim – it can’t get much worse?

  2. Whatever you think about why we went there in the first place, it would be far too dangerous to withdraw now. Not only would you have the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, but potentially also causing the collapse of the Nuclear armed Pakistani state.

    If the Taliban gain control of Afghanistan, you can be sure they will persue their vendetta against Pakistan for being an ally of the US, and are in fact already doing so. When the stakes are the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists, then it’s not good enough to “cut our losses”.

    With a change in tactics the war ,can be won. Afghanistan is not a pretty picture, but the prospect of failure there is even uglier.

  3. I agree with Patrick. NATO can’t afford to leave yet.

    It is much better to fight Jihadists in their own backyard than to cower at home in fear of them.

  4. Not only would you have the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, but potentially also causing the collapse of the Nuclear armed Pakistani state.

    Hmmm – well that’s certainly the line being run by those who want the war to continue. We’ve heard this from Howard and it certainly seems to be the official message of the US military. In other words the people who started the war.

    But there are reasons to be sceptical about these claims Patrick. Reasons greater than just the obvious inference that those who advoated for the war will not easily admit that it has failed.

    More and more we’re hearing from observers in Afghanistan who are advising that the ‘insurgency’ is primarily not fighting for the Taliban, but for their local tribal groups. That the fighters’ goal is not to reassert Taliban dominance, but simply to expel the foreigners from their land. Foreigners who are supporting a deeply unpopular (and corrupt) government and who regularly kill innocent women and children.

    Just so I am not accused of the standard slobbering “you hate the troops” nonsense I should clarify: we may believe (even know) that those deaths are accidental – but that’s not the issue. The issue is how our behaviour is perceived by the local population.

    There actually is a strong argument that military withdrawal is fundamental to success in Afghanistan. Not complete disengagement, you understand, but an end to the military occupation. I don’t think you should take it at face value that “it is far too dangerous for us to withdraw now”.

    You’re basing that conclusion on ‘facts’ that are being fed to you by a bunch of people who have a long track record of making shit up to justify militarism. They might be right – but there’s at least an equal probability that they’re simply digging us into another hole.

  5. We should surrender, apologise, pay compensation, arrest Howard and his cronies and leave.

  6. Nice sarcasm, David.

  7. As the Russians in Afghanistan demonstrated, the fact of their presence was a cause of conflict.

    Nothings changed, including the response – there’s conflict, so we must stay and fight.

  8. It is much better to fight Jihadists in their own backyard than to cower at home in fear of them.

    Speak for yourself SB. I’m not cowering anywhere, no matter what happens.
    My belief from the start has been that Afghanistan saw off the British Empire and the Russian Empire, so the US Empire was unlikely to prevail. Nothing has happened to induce me to change my mind.

  9. Mondo I know we regularly do get fed bullshit by the powers that be about this, and I entirely agree that a significant number of the militants are fighting the US not because they agree with the radical islamist philosophies of the Taliban but because they are fighting what they perceive as a foreign invader.

    They are fighting because they saw a predator drone launch a missile that flew into a school, or hospital, becasue they saw an airstrike hit an oil tanker hijacked by terrorists but which also killed dozens and dozens of civilians, because US artillery fire destroyed their house and killed their families.

    So of course, these people will be quite receptive to the Taliban’s message, and that is why the focus must, and I think will, shift from bombing militants wherever and whenever we have the chance, regardless of some collatorel damage, to security and protection of the population. I think the only solution here is a hearts and minds one.

    But regardless of who the fighters are, there is a Taliban leadership and, although I don’t really know whats happened to them of late, an Al Qaeda leadership, and they will use these people to their own ends.

    The risk of Pakistan, and it’s nuclear arsenal falling to extremism is a very real prospect. If it isn’t the militants causing havot in the Swat valley it is the Taliban sympathisers in the Pakistani government and military itself. I am not a domino theorist, but still, a defeat in Afghanistan and a reversion to Taliban control puts an already fragile Pakistan in enourmous danger. The seriousness of that prospect cannot be underestimated.

    Although I disagreed entirely with the invasion of Iraq, and I don’t think it is by any means a done deal yet, it serves as an example that Afghanistan can also be won. If we had pulled out of Iraq around 2006 the country would have decended into a bloodbath that would make what was then going on look tame in comparison, it would have been worse then during the Gulf war when the US urged Iraqis to “rise up” against Saddam and when they did so, the US pulled out, leaving them to their fate and leading to a brutal massacre. If the Coalition pulls out of Afghanistan now, I think we condemn them, and possibly Pakistan too, to greater chaos, Somalia style, then what is currently going on.

  10. Patrick, My perception of it is that the current conflict in Afghanistan is the most significant destabiliser of Pakistan. The US, in its fervour, has demanded that Pakistan take action in the border region which dragged Pakistan into conflict with tribal groups more sympathetic to ‘the Taliban’ than any central Pakistani government. A stable, if fragile, situation in the FATAs has been disrupted.

  11. The problem here is that the Alliance are trying to bring a democracy to a nation that has never had one – Afghanistan has always been tribal, with each tribe having a “warlord” ruling a region of the country — that tradition isn’t likely to change any time soon.

    Even if a democratic government is set up in Kabul, its likely to “govern” only the area immediately surrounding Kabul, the rest of the country will remain under the control of the tribal warlords.

    The best the Alliance can hope to achieve is probably the eventual total defeat of the Taliban and hopefully a peaceful return to the way the country has always run. To achieve this however, winning hearts and minds will be more effective than winning battles.

  12. Question 1, we may have the resources, tho whether we have the resources to do that, and anything else at all – thats another matter.

    We don’t have the will, and whats more we don’t have a clue how to achieve it. The Afghan govt has no legitimacy, and even if Kharzai loses the run off election, they’ll still have no legitimacy.

    Cutting our losses and bailing may be the smartest practical move at this point, but it won’t happen either.

    The only way we can win in Afghanistan is how we “won” the surge.

    Make the counter insurgency open source. Pay local groups (tribal ones usually) that have some legitimacy to fight the “Taliban”. We probably have to accept the fact that we aren’t going to see a functioning democracy in Afghanistan, and that our presence there will never contribute to forming one.

    i think the best we can hope for is a primarily tribal decentralised rule for now. So what we need to be doing is trying to enable that process in a way that gives Afghanistan the best chance to build its own democratic institutions.

    We didn’t have our democratic institutions enforced on us from outside by some “superpower”, we developed them as the various societies we consider ourselves a part of evolved, and as power shifted from the hands of very few to the hands of a few more.

    I am wondering if we should even be expecting democracy to be the solution to the problems in Afghanistan, or an outcome we actually want there.

    Has anyone yet asked the Afghan people what they actually want?

  13. “Has anyone yet asked the Afghan people what they actually want?”

    That’d be democracy.

    So, no. Not really.

  14. Democracy can’t work in any country where tribal/family loyalties take precedence over society’s laws and rules.

  15. Afghanistan was never invaded to bring the country Democracy, it was invaded because the then rulers, the Taliban, refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the man respnsible for, or at least accused of masterminding 9/11.

    In hindsight of course, invading was probably not the best option, but who can blame anyone for that in the aftermath of 9/11? You can’t really even blame the Bush administration for acting the way it did, and no I don’t buy into any government conspiracy theories on 9/11, unless anybody has anything tangible with which to convince me otherwise. A Gore administration would likely have done the same thing, although it would never have carried on to Iraq.

    The US was pretty succesfull there for awhile too, but it took it’s eye off the ball, where the real fight against the very real threat of islamic terrorism was, so that the neocons could persue their obsession with Iraq.

  16. Patrick – I actually submitted a more detailed and direct response to your comment but for some reason it is being held in moderation . . . .

  17. It’s ASIO monitoring the content of this site Mondo.

  18. OK – so since the comment apparently is stuck in moderation I’ll post it again:

    So of course, these people will be quite receptive to the Taliban’s message

    That’s not quite what I meant Patrick.

    There is growing evidence that much of the ‘resistance’ in Afghanistan is completely unrelated to the Taliban. The hypothesis is not that these fighters are being ‘driven into the arms of the Taliban’ by US behaviour – it is that they are simply fighting independently to resist occupation. Their battle has nothing to do with the Taliban and everything to do with their will to re-establish control of their homeland.

    It’s arguable whether it’s even correct to characterise the resistance in Afghanistan as ‘the Taliban’ any more, since the majority of fighters appear to simply be independant tribal groups (each fighting for a Warlord) trying to drive out a foreign aggressor.

  19. I don’t know what’s going on with WordPress. It won’t let RobJ post here from work at all.

  20. “Democracy can’t work in any country where tribal/family loyalties take precedence over society’s laws and rules.” – Mondo

    Thats about the sum of it.

    However I think its loyalty to tribes/families and their associated rules. They might not be what we’d consider society’s rules and laws, but they are what those people consider society’s laws and rules.

    If there is going to be democratic change it will have to come fro the grass roots.

  21. “Democracy can’t work in any country where tribal/family loyalties take precedence over society’s laws and rules.”

    I don’t agree that should ever be the end of it. There is no legitimate form of government other than democracy, because other than democracy, by definition, the people have no say in the form of government. So how can we say “that’s the way they like it” if they’re not given a chance to express what they like?

  22. There is no legitimate form of government other than democracy

    Depends what you mean by ‘legitimate’. I certainly agree that it is a superior form of government to all others when it functions properly, but it is not necessarily the most effective form of government in all areas.

    I always refer to the example of a policeman who spots his brother breaking the law. Western cultural standards clearly madate that the policeman must arrest his brother, regardless of the family relationship, whereas I’m not so sure that other cultures would agree.

    How can a democracy function in a society that rejects the notion that all people deserve to be treated equally under the law?

    (BTW I’m aware that my argument is highly speculative).

  23. I’d settle for ‘legitimate government’ in Afghanistan at the moment.

  24. ….and I don’t think that means it has to be democratic, though that is clearly the most legitimate form of government.

  25. I repeat the question: how can a government not chosen by its people be said to legitimately represent them?

    If they haven’t chosen it, then by what right, by what authority does it impose its will on them?

    As for “a society that rejects the notion that all people deserve to be treated equally under the law” – sod it. It needs to grow the hell up. Because what you mean by that “society” is the people in charge who think they’re entitled to oppress other people. And there’s no reason why anyone should respect their “cultural” right to do so – because the people they’re oppressing have a much more compelling right NOT TO BE OPPRESSED.

  26. Jeremy some tribal people might disagree with you. They might say tribal “government” is as legit, perhaps more so than democracy. they might claim that the size of their tribal groups and the nature of them (ie everyone knows everyone else ultimately). If they have representatives at meetings they can look them in the eye after the meeting and say “WHy didn’t you do or say this like I asked you to?”.

    I know people in certain tribal groups who would definitely say that. (In that sense tho it may well be considered a democratic form of government anyway.)

    I dunno if thats what the tribal groups in Afghanistan would say. Tho they might.

    IIRC Josiah Harlan was very impressed with the gender equality, and general equality he encountered among the Hazara people of Afghanistan, around the time the British lost an army there. Although he may have noted that cos they were an exception rather than the rule.

    The trouble with tribalism is its parochialism tho, so if there is gonna be government over groups of tribes there will have to be a state, and at the moment democracy does indeed seem to be the only legit way of building a state.

  27. “I know people in certain tribal groups who would definitely say that. (In that sense tho it may well be considered a democratic form of government anyway.)”

    That’s the point. If they support it, then they can vote for it. That’s democracy.

  28. “I always refer to the example of a policeman who spots his brother breaking the law. Western cultural standards clearly madate that the policeman must arrest his brother, regardless of the family relationship, whereas I’m not so sure that other cultures would agree.” – Mondo

    Do they tho?

    Ok I accept that in theory they are sposed to, but do they in practice?

    And by the same token, what makes you so sure that in the non western situation you are referring to the cop wouldn’t arrest their brother?

  29. Jeremy,

    jules had it about right regarding democratic govt being the end result of a long process of developement. It would be great, but I don’t think we can expect that to quickly emerge from 30+ years of total chaos.

    Some form of legitmate govt in Afghanistan would be one that primarily owes its existence to local support. Govt’s that appear to be propped up by external actors will suffer in the legitimacy states.

  30. “I don’t think we can expect that to quickly emerge from 30+ years of total chaos.”

    Me neither. But that doesn’t mean we don’t owe it to the people of Afghanistan to make sure the structures are in place so that they can pick their government, rather than having it imposed on them.

  31. I don’t buy the idea that democracy will never work in Afghanistan. The people of that country have not ever lived under a true democracy, but it is not as though the concept is beyond their comprehension.

    I don’t like the idea of it being imposed upon them rather then their country evolving into a democratic state naturally, but I don’t think when presented with the option of choosing their own leaders that they would instinctively recoil from that.

  32. Democracy is the system which ensures that the populace have the choice between dictator A and dictator B.

    Cheers.

  33. Jeremy: “But that doesn’t mean we don’t owe it to the people of Afghanistan to make sure the structures are in place so that they can pick their government, rather than having it imposed on them”

    We’re the foreign occupation force, Jeremy. Nothing we do, creating structures or otherwise, is going to be perceived by Afghans as anything other than unwelcome foreign intervention. Would Australians regard any structures imposed by a foreign occupation force as legitimate?

  34. The people of that country have not ever lived under a true democracy, but it is not as though the concept is beyond their comprehension.” – Patrick

    Well, they have had 16 general elections. First one in 1948 I think.

  35. Patrick, I don’t think the Afghan people are recoiling from democracy. But look at whats happened there with these latest elections.

    The reason legitimacy rests with tribal groups is because the people in the tribal groups trust that at least those tribal groups will look after them.

    There is no legitimacy in the Afghan govt, Karzai is compromised by the ballot stuffing, at the least, and whoever replaces him will inherit a regime that supports the occupying force, and depends on it to maintain the little influence it has outside Kabul. There are some elected reps in Afghanistan who obviously represent the best in democracy and would thrive in a functioning one.

    But the majority appear compromised. How can we accurately judge whats happening there? What are our sources. You know what they say about war and casualties. Did the internet magically end that?

  36. I’ll actually answer your questions.

    1. No.
    2. Not applicable.

  37. AS Mandela said: ‘ It is the oppressor who dictates the tactics of the oppressed’ anyway who wants to see the countryside swamped with Yankee fast-food junk stores.

  38. “Democracy is the system which ensures that the populace have the choice between dictator A and dictator B.”

    No, that’s the US system. Not actual “democracy”.

    Real democracy (preferential, proportional, compulsory) gives all parties a reasonable shot, and all citizens a genuine choice of representative.

    Of course, that’s not what’s been presented to the Afghans. What we pretended was democracy for them was a sub-US system.

  39. We haven’t got the forces there to defeat the Taliban’s and other forces plan – that is, to target western nations centre of gravity – our public willingness to keep fighting. That’s the problem, we have to win, whereas they just need to keep fighting and inflicting casualties until western populations get fed up and the politicians follow the public mood.

    Forces required for fighting counter-insurgency campaigns are a lot more than what has been deployed. You need to protect the population first and foremost. That means clearing a village or population centre of insurgent forces and then preventing them from re-entering. That takes a lot of troops. You can’t expect the population to support your efforts if you come one day and leave the next. When the Taliban comes back they will be looking for the villagers who helped the military forces and its good night for them. It happens day in and day out over there now – villagers know not to help military or Afghan government forces because their security is not assured.

    To answer your questions, we don’t have the required forces over there to do the neccesary tasks. Either we correct this or leave. If we leave, Pakistan will become a risk to world peace – it’s too late to stop that now.

  40. Traditional CoIn won’t work in Afghanistan, as has been witnessed by history often enough.

    And the numbers required to do it properly are way beyond what anyone’s prepared to commit to anyway. What a mess.

  41. Jules, as far as my knowledge of Afghanistan goes (and I have studied the Russian involvement significantly) no one has employed CoIn properly or attempted to anyway. The Russians certaintly didn’t try to protect the population – they massacred (deliberately) them in many areas. Plus without U.S. assistance through Pakistan, the Mujahadeen would have fought a much longer war and taken far more casualties.

    You are right about the troop levels though. We fight for and gain control over an area only to then deploy to another sector to do the same and leave the cleared area for the enemy to infiltrate back into to exert influence again.

    What a lot of people are ignorant of is that the Aussies in Vietnam actually owned Phouc Tuy province by 1971/72. The enemy was sick of the losses, starvation due to the protection of the villages and population centres limiting their access to local supplies, and the SAS raiding their rear areas. A moot point as we were only responsible for one province and the war was lost at the strategic level.

    It all comes down to whether we are prepared to do what is neccesary to defeat the enemies plan. It can be done. But to quote a U.S. politician (can’t recall who):

    “If we have put our troops there to win then there are far too few. If we have put our troops there to get killed, there are far too many”.

    Very apt for the current situation.

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