LATER today, Barack Obama will announce his plans for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
No doubt he will argue that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of al Qaeda justify any decision he makes. It is possible that most of the 30,000 Americans who constituted last year’s “surge” will be going home.
That will leave only 68,000 US personnel and 9,500 Britons in a country whose president, Hamid Karzai, has just told his people that foreigners are “here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that”. Karzai, in case you had forgotten, is on our side. At the time of writing, 374 British service people have died to maintain his version of democracy.
That was one story, at any rate. In another, earlier version British troops were fighting to rid the west of the scourge of heroin. Or they were denying a safe haven to terrorists. Or they were maintaining “regional stability”. Like their ancestors before them in numerous, pointless Afghan campaigns, they have not paused to reason why.
That’s probably just as well. Obama campaigned for office, you may remember, denouncing the Iraq adventure while defining Afghanistan as a necessary war. That seems to have had the required effect on Western opinion: there have been no vast marches against the Afghan war. Obama has been granted the benefit of doubts never allowed to Bush and Blair.
Yet here we are, almost a decade after the Taliban were bombed from power because they refused to hand bin Laden to the US. Now, with a campaign draining America of $2 billion each week – British costs, typically, are harder to quantify – there are “talks about talks” with those same Taliban. Obama is close to declaring the job done. Yet the question remains: which job? Among the now-forgotten reasons for war were the Afghan people, women in particular. When finding bin Laden looked like a lost cause, we often heard how wrong it would be to subject girls, their sisters and mothers, to the Taliban’s medieval theocracy, to subjugation and the denial of education. But that motive, too, has been forgotten. If Obama calls a halt, will anyone ask about the state of Afghan society in the aftermath?
Probably not, if history is a guide. Afghans are an all-purpose excuse in that not-so-great game. At one moment they are aching for our sort of democracy; at another, their “cultural differences” make them unsuitable. In intervening moments, they die nameless deaths: 8000 (at least) in the past four years, caught between the Taliban and western technology. That death toll is increasing, too, as best as anyone can tell.
Tonight, BBC2 will run a documentary with one of those provocative titles: Afghanistan: War Without End? The interrogative is intended, presumably, as editorial balance, but the question is fundamental. We have had almost 10 years of killing and dying in which the word democracy has been thrown around. Yet even Obama is not willing or able to say the episode is over, that all his troops will quit the country, and that Afghanistan is able to function without “support”.
That’s revealing, I think. It explains, first, that the phrase “mission creep” is more than jargon. These adventures acquire a logic and momentum of their own, even – or especially – when public reasons and causes are long since forgotten. We fight because we fight.
The second revelation has something to do with our presumptions. We presume to know what democracy is, and why Afghans have a crying need for systems akin to our own. But how impressive is our democracy, in reality, when 10 years of war can simply slip by without much in the way of protest, debate, the securing of a clear political mandate, or even – if you must – strategic thought?
In the beginning, in 2001, the US had cause enough. It was entitled to hunt down those who inspired and planned the attacks on the Twin Towers. Was it also entitled to kill uncounted thousands of Afghan civilians? Those 374 British deaths are more than bad enough, but a grim statistic takes no account of the many more who have been maimed and ruined psychologically.
We were supposed to have lost the habit of stupid, imperial adventures. Britain was supposed to know at least as much about Afghan realities as all the CIA operatives who assisted the fighters – bin Laden among them – against a Soviet invader. Historical memory was lost, or ignored. Now when it is asked “For what?”, no answer comes. The politicians and generals have learned their speeches by rote.
While unnamed Americans are “present” at those “talks about talks”, the dying goes on. Three British soldiers were killed last week. They will be honoured at Wootton Bassett and beyond. But will anyone explain to the bereaved that three young men died just to allow Karzai to cut a deal with his Taliban “brothers”, or to enable Obama to proceed with his re-election campaign?
Those accusations are easy. The fact is that the rest of us slept through a decade of murderous war whose justifications, threadbare to begin with, ceased to make sense after six months. Why Afghanistan? Before his execution – the rule of law having been suspended – even bin Laden was almost forgotten. Yet each year brought still another “fighting season” in the name of pacification and democracy
Even Wikipedia will give you a quick clue as to what has really been going on, lest anyone believe that “Nato withdrawal” means withdrawal. Thus:
“According to recent US Geological surveys... Afghanistan may [possess] up to 36 trillion cubic feet... of natural gas, 3.6 billion barrels of petroleum, and up to 1325 million barrels... of natural gas liquids...
“Other recent reports show that the country has huge amounts of gold, copper, coal, ore and other minerals. In 2010, Pentagon officials, along with geologists from the United States, announced the discovery of $1–3 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan.” They did, too. Karzai was also an adviser to the American interests attempting to drive a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, once upon a time. So what’s 374 into three trillion?
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