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Monday, October 6, 2008

To be or not to be: that is the Afghan Question

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TO BE OR NOT TO BE, THAT IS THE AFGHAN QUESTION.

If you want to see wars of political idealism carried out as they ought to be- look at the Napoleonic Wars, look at World War Two and the Marshall Plan. Look at the defeat of the Kaiser in World War One, and General Sherman's march in the American Civil War. These were immense undertakings. After the smoke cleared, the message was stark: do it on the grand scale or don't do it at all.

by Hugh Graham.

Could the world tolerate another Taliban government in Kabul? That is becoming the only realistic question about Afghanistan, the question no one wants to ask. There is a school of diplomacy, however, that might consider a Taliban government to be the answer.

Two highly placed British officials, Ambassador to Afghaninstan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles and British military commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith have said that the war against the Taliban is not winnable by military means. If they didn't go into much detail about what other means might be used, it is most probably because the answer is embarrassing.

The messy compromises murmured by western leaders- power-sharing, withdrawal dates, negotiation with the Taliban, improving the infrastructure, anti-corruption and anti-drug strategies, humanitarian assistance and the building of the Afghan army- serve only to mask a central fact: there is no real middle ground. None of these stop-gaps can withstand the slow, steady assault by the Taliban. Either Afghanistan will be ruled in a state of war by the Western allies through a local figurehead like Karzai or it will be ruled by a Taliban junta.

Political power-sharing with moderate Taliban would merely split off those Pashtun tribesmen who, for the time being, would see more advantage in taking sides with Kabul. They would then be targets for the hard core and Pakistani Taliban whose numbers are increasing by leaps and bounds. All it would mean, in the end, would be a realignment in the civil war. A fully trained Afghan army, supported by vestigial western troops, might win the war in ten or twenty years; however history tells us that in the absence of strong, inspiring, or even terrifying national leadership, the provinces, by dint of the tribal networks and medieval infrastructure, have the advantage over Kabul. Afghanistan, during the times it has held together, has always been ruled through complex deals and compromises between Kabul and the provincial tribal networks where the Taliban presently has a lot of control. Compromise but also terror.


The long-term low-level insurgency which is now being hinted at, would almost certainly be won by the Taliban because that's what they are good at. Moreover, insurgencies usually win. The guerrilla movements in Latin America, for example, ended only because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet aid to Cuba. It would take a similar world event of tectonic proportions to end the advance of the Taliban.

In this poor, beleaguered nation, the dilemma is becoming steadily less strategic and more philosophical. The question is being begged daily: can we coexist with countries ruled by systems which we consider malignant and dangerous? There is an argument that we can. This is a radical version of the realist, as opposed to the idealist school of international diplomacy. The realist school suggests that hostile or non-democratic regimes should be dealt with gradually, using trade, persuasion, incentives and sanctions, the carrot more than the stick, even if it takes a lot longer. This would all have to be backed up, of course, by force, but with the threat of force held in abeyance.

The idealist school, by contrast, insists on planting progressive, democratic systems in hostile countries wherever possible and using force sooner rather than later. It's the idealist school that has got the US into so much trouble in Iraq and, to a lesser degree has mired the rest of us in in Afghanistan. They are different cases to be sure. The 9/11 attacks were conceived and approved in Afghanistan under the protection of a sympathetic Taliban government. The elimination of any further threat from that place was absolutely necessary. It was only after the invasion that American, neoconservative idealism crashed to ground. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to do it on the cheap. In Afghanistan that meant withdrawing as soon as the Taliban were routed; in Iraq it meant going in with too few troops and without post-war planning. Both messes can be traced to a policy of Neoconservative missionary democracy on five dollars a day. After all, we live in an age when tax paying voters in democratic countries don't want big wars, long wars or expensive wars. The alternative has been an attempt at bargain-basement empire-building. Needless to say, it doesn't work,

If you want to see wars of political idealism carried out as they ought to be- look at the Napoleonic Wars, look at World War Two and the Marshall Plan. Look at the defeat of the Kaiser in World War One, and General Sherman's march in the American Civil War. These were immense undertakings. After the smoke cleared, the message was stark: do it on the grand scale or don't do it at all. This is the Powell Doctrine: it's more effective and more humane to go in with overwhelming force, get it done with quickly and occupy the country for a long time with something vast and systematic like a Marshall Plan. Cobbling together a squabbling coaltion on a small scale, with a constant ear to polls and tax payers, is a receipe for a long, miserable and unpopular counter-insurgency.

We don't live in a kind world where implacable enemies can be defeated by UN blue helmets with complicated rules of engagement. If the end of the Cold War taught us anything, it's that the fierce world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has rushed back into the vaccuum and there is still a frontier to our notion of civilization. Either we apply Idealism on the grand scale and spend the money and lives to do it ptoperly. Or we resort to the hard-bargaining diplomacy of Realism. It seems that the middle road, presently entertained by the West in Afghanustan, is the most costly of all.
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