I am prompted to write by the news of the deaths of another six servicemen in Afghanistan. Are these ultimately pointless?
Of course logically it should make no difference if there had been six single deaths spread over the next month, but still the number in one incident does bring home the tragedy.
The only justification for sending forces to America is the protection of the interests of “the West” in general and the national interests of the United Kingdom in particular. After 9/11 that was in my view very simply the destruction of the Al Qaeda cells and leadership that had visited mass murder on the world. That was and is a legitimate aim. But then what? Did it in fact involve any protracted presence in Afghanistan at all?
The idea seems to have been that in establishing some form of democratic government with respect for the rule of law. This would, so to speak, dry up “the swamp” in which radical and aggressive Islamists could breed their own particular form of nihilistic terror.
I can see the sense, but I have always feared the strategy is fundamentally flawed. Having a passing interest in history, I have always taken the view that whilst the precise events are never replicated, history does repeat itself. That is because the human condition never changes. Each generation assumes that it is the only one to know anything, but of course the same blunders, urges, lusts and greed apply.
By the same token I would argue that there are certain rules, or laws, that can be drawn from history. For example, there will always be boom and bust. Like so many immutable psychological principles that is illustrated the Bible in allegorical form, in the story of Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cattle eating seven well favoured cattle, as interpreted by Joseph (Genesis 41 and following).
Hence the extraordinary hubris of Gordon Brown in claiming that he had abolished it. As ever the dread hand of ironic Fate was to prove him wrong as beneath his very feet the foundations of the banks were being gnawed away by the rats within…
But I digress…
Here are three other Iron Laws.
First, never fight a war on two fronts. Simple enough, but politicians have a peculiar love of doing it with other people’s sons. So, for example, no sooner had the West blundered into the quagmire that is Afghanistan than we were up and running in Iraq, thus making it unable to concentrate money, men and material on one problem.
Second, never invade Russia. It is too big and its people are too resilient. Napoleon tried, and failed. Hitler thought he knew better, He did not. He violated the previous law as well, of course.
Third, the Law of Unintended Consequences (sometimes referred to on this blog as SadButMad’s Law). Which is a rather open ended law, but valid. Please supply your own examples.
Here is the fourth law which I advance.
Never get involved in Afghanistan.
It is sometimes said that Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan, but I take that with a pinch of salt. It seems to me he marched an army about it in his usual peripatetic style, but that is not the same thing at all.
Afghanistan has always been a wild, backward, dysfunctional, violent and corrupt place. Its one uniting feature is an overwhelming hatred of the foreigner. It is a nation which is, as it seems to me, defined by being a place where nobody really wants to go to. I take on board all the usual geo-political analyses about it lying at an unfortunate confluence of Russia, China and India (formerly under British control, of course).
But, with an apology to those of delicate sensibilities, I will advance a slightly robust description of what Afghanistan is.
It is in soldier’s terminology it is not a country, it is a s***hole.
There have been 11 years of operations in Afghanistan now. That is nearly twice the length of the Second World War. Schools have been built, roads mended, sweets handed out. And what we have is a corrupt government which probably has no more authority in many parts of the country than does your humble scribe.
The drugs trade is still rampant and the backbone of the economy. Crazed men still rage about some books being accidentally burned, women still have their noses cut off for going to school.
When we leave – and it is a when – it will go on being a wild, backward, dysfunctional, violent and corrupt place. In short “the mission” will have failed.
What do I offer as an alternative?
Afghanistan is part of a wider problem, namely the rise of violent and aggressive strains of Islam across a region of the East stretching from Iran and to Pakistan and beyond.
It seems to me that the only threat this poses to the West is via its curious propensity to have porous borders and let in terrorists like Abu Qatada.
There was a strategy well known and understood in the grim Cold War times, called containment. It was simply making sure the Soviet Union was kept within its borders, and watch and wait until the unhealthy and unworkable structure ultimately collapsed. Perhaps we should consider the same. A policy of strict disengagement. Nothing in, nothing out. Awkward of course given the strong links of many citizens of this country with Pakistan, but there we go.
Keep out of the swamp until it is ready to be drained?
Gildas the Monk