Failure in Afghanistan?

Don’t miss Hugh White in this morning’s Fairfax papers on the Australian withdrawal from Afghanistan. His conclusion is unambiguous: “Australia’s military operation in Afghanistan has failed. It is important to face this uncomfortable fact and learn from it what we can.”

White’s argument is that instead of leaving Afghanistan with a stable, functional government that would keep out the Taliban and al-Qaeda, “we leave Afghanistan with a deeply corrupt and incompetent government exercising little authority over most of the country and people it is supposed to govern, and no serious prospect that a better government will emerge.”

He is particularly savage on the fashionable notion of counterinsurgency:

The formula has been tried in many places since the Western empires collapsed, and it has always failed, just as it has failed again now. Even 200,000 Western troops were far too few to make it work in Afghanistan, and even three times that number could do nothing to make the government in Kabul look good to the Afghan people.

Yet again, [counterinsurgency] has stumbled on the inherent contradiction that lies at its heart. Any government that is too weak to win a counterinsurgency without massive outside help is too weak to be worth supporting.

I think this is absolutely right. But White leaves out a major part of the Afghanistan story, namely the invasion of Iraq.

It’s commonly accepted wisdom now that the Americans “took their eye off the ball” in Afghanistan by being diverted to Iraq. From the point of view of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the diversion made sense: Afghanistan was a mountainous backwater, whereas Iraq was potentially a very wealthy country at the crossroads of civilisation. If you wanted to make a statement as an imperial power (and they did), Iraq was the place to make it.

By the time attention returned to Afghanistan, it was much too late – the government of Hamid Karzai had thoroughly discredited itself and the Taliban had had the opportunity to rebuild support.

But it wasn’t just the lack of attention. The Iraq war poisoned the well of support for western intervention generally. Having started with massive international sympathy and support following the 11 September attacks, the United States threw it away by behaving like an international outlaw. For the project of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan (or pretty much anywhere else), that was fatal.

And that problem bears on White’s subsidiary point, that “the real reason the government sent our forces to Afghanistan and have kept them there” was to support the Americans. Loyal support for the US alliance has been the cornerstone of Australian foreign policy for more than 60 years, but Iraq exposed the flaw in it. As I wrote a few years ago, “it had been based on a premise that American policy would not exceed the bounds of sanity, and that turned out to be mistaken.”

It also raises the question of whether our presence in Afghanistan in recent years has not just been a failure but has actually been making matters worse. Without western military assistance, perhaps Karzai’s government would have been forced to behave better and to reach some sort of accommodation with its rivals. We don’t know, but we may yet find out.

That’s the one ray of hope in the otherwise bleak Afghan prospect: that the Afghans might eventually be able to do for themselves what our bombs and tanks were so manifestly unable to do for them.

5 thoughts on “Failure in Afghanistan?

  1. Wouldn’t the Taliban still be in control if it were not for Western intervention? I mean, what exactly would equate to a victory in a country that has been historically so corrupt, inept and cracked right down the middle? What sort of progress would no intervention have achieved there, factoring in the instability of the entire region and the importance in eradicating the Taliban threat from provinces? The Pakistani government is to blame for Taliban influence still have prevalence. They are far, far, FAR more at fault than any Western intervention. And it’s not up to the US to establish a government void of corruption: had the US instilled, say, a US-controlled government, the Left would be throwing its arms about screaming to high heaven about how it’s trying to take over the world!

    Christopher Hitchens was right when he said there was more to the whole anti-intervention sentiment then we’re made to believe. This has more to do with anti-US sentiment than any real sentiment of morality or peace.

    Our “bombs and tanks” gave the Afghanis a better chance, a CHOICE, more than any amount of words the author of this article has sprawled out over the years.


  2. Had Tony Blair refused to send British troops to the Bush invasion of Iraq the western governments except Australia would not have to follow. Blair was a very unusual PM in the UK being Labor and a devout bible basher. The people of the UK must be scratching their heads having elected him three times, when it turns out he was clearly unhinged


  3. Sorry IC, I probably should have made that clearer: I wasn’t talking about the original western intervention in Afghanistan, but the subsequent occupation. I think the intervention to help remove the Taliban was justified; my suggestion was that maybe Afghanistan would have been better off if the west had just done that and left. (Agreed also that Pakistan is much more at fault.)

    gapot – I’m not sure how significant Blair’s religion was, but I agree he was the one person who had a chance of stopping the drive to war in Iraq, and chose not to. I think that will forever blight his reputation.


  4. What a whitewash, near-failed states are what we (US+clients) do. Near-failed because a state wont be completely collapsed if theres anything to profitably extract and export, eg. Vietnam, Columbia, Iraq, Panama, Libya, Chile; other countries can be let go altogether, eg. Haiti, Congo. The scary thing is that anyone would be ignorant enough of history to believe otherwise.

    The best we could do for Afghanistan is stop killing them (get out), stop arming our chosen warlords, and start seriously hunting the banks that profit from heroin trafficking. They might like some war crimes trials too, starting with Howard, Blair & Bush.


  5. That’s a nice theory Liamj, but it just doesn’t fit the facts – the imperialist instinct doesn’t obey rational economic motives, or rational motives of any sort. There ar much easier ways to make money than by going to war. Nonetheless we agree that the best we can do now for Afghanistan is get out. And I share your hope that the perpetrators of the Iraq war will one day have their day at The Hague.


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