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Afghanistan

A British military man who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq gave me his views on whether we should get out of Afghanistan or not, his argument was this in a nut shell:

We can still win in Afghanistan, if we are given enough resources; if we withdraw it will be a disaster of global proportions  and will allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda back in.

But what exactly are the right resources? In the middle of a financial crisis do you think the general public in Britain, the US or any of the contributing countries are going to pour even more money in? Take the US on its own, as Steven Walt has pointed out:

The United States has spent more than $223 billion on the Afghan war since 2001, and it now costs roughly $65 billion annually. The actual bill will be significantly higher, however, as these figures omit the replacement cost of military equipment, veterans’ benefits and other war-related expenses. Most important, more than 850 US soldiers have already been killed and several thousand have been seriously wounded.

The army guy responded to my arguments saying that this is the cost of war and the public needs to accept this if they are going to send us out there. I agree and which is why we have to get out. Over a 1000 British and Americans have lost their lives fighting a war that has a beginning but no clear end/objective not to mention the thousands upon thousands of Afghan civilian casualties.  I would love to here a clear argument for the stage in which the Western allies are wanting to achieve in order for the “job” to be done. Would a state of stability like Pakistan do? Or are we aiming for Saudi? Lebanon? So until realism sets in the lack of an objective will set in and ambiguous harmful policies will reign.

So what about the final objective in Afghanistan from the army point of view, what does he think we are fighting for? A liberal democratic state? Certainly not he told me, to sum up an elongated argument that he gave: he basically wanted a stable centralised authoritarian state, with the complete eradication of the enemy (i.e. Taliban/al-Qaeda). This was of course a personal view but I think can be seen as representative of a large segment of the army who appreciate that the establishment of a liberal democracy in Afghanistan may be a little of the mark. This view I think points to an important point: the public is being sold the utopian idea that the Western forces are setting up a liberal democracy when actually maybe without even fully realising it the West is actively setting up a military state to ensure stability.

Rory Stewart sums up this reality up brilliantly:

US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain’s). Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget…We should not encourage the creation of an authoritarian military state. The security that resulted might suit our short-term security interests, but it will not serve the longer interests of Afghans. ..We should not assume that the only way to achieve security in a developing country is through the restriction of civil liberties, or that authoritarianism is a necessary phase in state-formation, or a precondition for rapid economic development, or a lesser evil in the fight against modern terrorism.

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Nobel Obama is quite rightly taking a long time to think over what to do in Afghanistan. It has been over a month and a half since General McChrystal submitted his report to Obama that requested as many as 45,000 extra troops. The Washington Post have obtained the report submitted by McChrystal that outlines the strategy for the fight in Afghanistan. Rory Stewart in his article The Irresistible Illusion gives a brilliant argument for why the US should forget about this liberal utopianism that you can create a liberal democracy and stable state, with economic development, in Afghanistan  (the “irresistible illusion”). Stewart argues that:

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state. … The power of the US and its allies, and our commitment, knowledge and will, are limited. It is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban. The ingredients of successful counter-insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya – control of the borders, large numbers of troops in relation to the population, strong support from the majority ethnic groups, a long-term commitment and a credible local government – are lacking in Afghanistan.

The argument over Afghanistan is very much like that post World War One when realists, such as E. H. Carr, were lamenting liberal utopians who believed that if transformations in the internal order of states (i.e. to liberal democracies) were made a democratic peace would rule. However, even Kant (the father of democratic peace) realised that no state has the right to interfere in another and even if they did, if you are to argue the case for Afghanistan, it would be difficult if not impossible to impose liberal democracy or carry out a state building project and achieve economic development. Kant understood that the causes of war are both internal and external (Waltz). I wonder if the US and their Western allies realise this? That their actions alone are not enough to achieve their end objectives…

Even if they were able to achieve some sort of stability in Afghanistan what about the regional context? Would the elimination of the Taliban (and al-Qaida the actual objective of the war in the first place) be the end of the problems in Afghanistan? I am suspicious that even if the remarkable feat was achieved of defeating the Taliban was done that a stable and economically developed Afghanistan would result. The Taliban are not the root of all of Afghanistan “evils”.

What is the alternative, again I revert to Stewart who has a excellent suggestion:

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.)

Realities and realism is a harsh view of the world and sounds far off from the lyrical arguments for establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan. But after the electoral farce and its continuation; the continued failures after eight years…can any take seriously the suggestion by McChrystal that, “Success is achievable,” particularly when he never (quite wisely) defines when success can be deemed to have been achieved.

Borrowing from Walt’s blog I will also conclude with Robert Kaplan who actually argues against withdrawal but then sums up the argument with this:

“history suggests that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and airpower from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others.”

The only way is out.