Thursday, 12 November 2009
Afghanistan: does defeat go away if you refuse to accept it?
'The key is knowing when to call it a day' said my great uncle.
Although he was talking about drinking and not troop deployment to treacherous war zones, the rule applies. And the rule is this: if you set out to achieve something within a given time frame, and the time frame has elapsed many times over, and what you set out to achieve still eludes you then you have failed and the one thing that is guaranteed to not make the situation any better is a determination to carry on doing what you have been doing because, well, that's the bit that failed.
Modern warfare is nothing like old school sieges. Battering the wall until it cracks worked against medieval citadels but doesn't take you very far as a parable for modern war tactics.
What am I talking about?
I am talking about the front page of yesterday's Times.
I quote: 'President Obama is to ask members of NATO to provide up to 4,000 more troops to help break the deadlock in Afghanistan'. And a good morning to you too.
Although Obama's appeal is expected to go largely unheeded, 35,000 additional US troops are expected to hit Afghanistan before long with supplementary units from Britain and Turkey possibly joining them before long. Possibly.
Talk, of course, is around credibility: the credibility of the alliance if no troops are forthcoming... the credibility of President Obama himself, if his request is ignored... the credibility of the AK party government in Turkey if they send a few hundred more troops... and of course the credibility of our own superhero, Gordon Brown, whose willingness to send more troops is going down with the voters like a proverbial lead balloon. As is his explanation, that he's staying in this war to keep Britain safe.
The war rhetoric has no mileage in it any more.
Democracy for the Afghans peace for the world. Nice idea. Pity about the outcome.
Democratisation sounds good. But after last month's election debacle, I am surprised world leaders still mention democracy and Afghanistan in the same sentence without dying of shame.
'Indelible ink that washed off, voters walking home with whole ballot boxes, election monitors who didn't dare leave their NATO base'. You don't believe me, fish out your back copy of the Guardian (20.10.09) and see for yourself.
Is this our fault? I hear you ask. Hell yes. Have you forgotten the rhetoric? The promises? The democracy banners we waved the world over to justify the invasion and continued presence of allied troops in Afghan provinces up and down the country? Democracy is what we were there to give. Allegedly. Elections were the West's idea and were supposed to take place under our tutelage and protection. Go us. And by this time round the Afghans were supposed to have picked up a few tricks, willing and able disciples of worthy tutors.
As it turned out, the election was not exactly a showcase of democracy in action.
I am not suggesting the allied troops had anything to do with rigging the election. Karzai and his cronies did that all on their own – although their ineptitude even at that suggests they could have used some help, with hindsight. But then again, Karzai could not have had any more help, realistically: from being hand-picked and propped up every step of the way, to being given trust he had not earned as he repeatedly refused there was a fraud problem of any real magnitude on American TV. Not to mention the international community simply not intervening at any point during proceedings, trusting, cowering. Stalling. Failing to pre-empt, failing to prevent, failing to end the abuses.
Failing at delivering democracy to the Afghans and peace to the world.
And while the democratisation experiment is clearly not working (yet), more troops are needed in the name of peace, we are told.
Only UK voters are not buying any of this any more.
According to a poll published in yesterday's Independent '4 out of 5 of those questioned do not believe that British involvement in the conflict... is keeping the streets of Britain safe from terrorist attacks'.
So. If by being in Afghanistan we are not helping them and we are not helping ourselves, why exactly are we there still and how will 35,000 additional US soldiers and another 4,000 allied troops help achieve what we are failing at?
Put it this way: How will more troops prevent future killings from corrupt Afghan police officers? I'll tell you how. By taking patrolling away from them and putting it back in the hands of allied troops. By entrenching their presence even further.
But what else can you do? When you have failed but cannot stop doing the same thing... partly because you have no other ideas and partly because you have unleashed forces you cannot control and have managed to leave yourself no way out. What else can you do? Because when you went in, it did not occur to you that an exit strategy may be needed. Because it never occurred to the leadership that it may just be essential to call it a day at some point.
More troops then.
Because we have worked our way clean out of options. More troops.
Because we have ran out of ideas and need to be seen to be doing something.
Even though that does not change the fact that refusing to admit defeat doesn't mean you are winning.