Afghanistan: making sense of the madness

The US and the UKĀ  have now been embroiled with the war in Afghanistan for ten years. To mark this less-than-glorious anniversary, BBC2 yesterday screened John Ware‘s film Afghanistan: War without End? Tom Sutcliffe, writing in today’s Independent, calls it “not a good choice as an anti-depressant, obviously” and goes on to say that “even after you’d made allowance for that the film still managed to lower the spirits.”

Apparently, the major mistake made by Donald Rumsfeld and friends was to prioritise revenge and the installation of a President friendly to their interests, rather than developing a long-term strategy for stability. Following the speedy defeat of the Taliban, Hamid Karzai suggested including them in the peace settlement. The US rejected this idea, and have reaped the consequences — a decade-long conflict with still no sign of peaceful resolution.

That they would take this approach, after a century of two World Wars, boggles the mind. Did they learn nothing from the punitive approach taken towards Germany in 1918? A reasonably bright GCSE student could have told them that alienating the defeated army is a surefire recipe for the creation of further violence. Nonetheless, they did. Just as they did in Iraq, they prioritised short-term, jingoistic interest over lasting peace and prosperity. The Cost of War website keeps a running tally of the financial cost of that decision. The human cost is probably incalculable.

The UK government’s approach appears to have been equally unrealistic. According to Sutcliffe:

Afghanistan was feudal, breathtakingly corrupt and fissured by tribal rivalries. In Helmand, even the director of education couldn’t read or write. And yet the plan was to turn it into hotter, dustier kind of Belgium in just three years.

How they proposed to do this is entirely unclear. Even the far more modest ambition of emulating Bangladesh in 30 years appears pitifully misguided in light of developments since then. Developments that could reasonably have been anticipated given the aftermath of invading Iraq.

Nonetheless, it does appear that the tide may be beginning to turn. Not in terms of winning the war, of course. Rather in giving up the futile and arrogant belief that it is possible to do so in any meaningful way. President Obama has announced that 10,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011, with another 23,000 out by next Summer.

This is, at least, some relief. At this point, we’re inclined to believe that any further engagement in the conflict is a waste of time and effort, and that all we can do for now is stop fighting. We only hope that the British Government is beginning to think along the same lines.

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