Monday, 2 November 2009

Time to leave Afghanistan ?

In recent weeks, the previously solid political concensus on British involvement in Afghanistan has begun to fray and while the leaderships of the main parties remain supportive of the mission in Afghanistan, more independently-minded figures are starting to ask some difficult questions about why we are there and what we are trying to achieve.

In the autumn of 2001 it all seemd so simple - the Taliban had provided support and shelter for Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden who had just murdered 3,000 people in the US. Toppling the Taliban and replacing them with a more pro-western Government would shatter Al Qaeda and decisively win the War on Terror.

As we all know, of course, it didn't...

The Taliban were driven from Kabul but regrouped with the tacit or otherwise support of Pakistan. The administration of Hamid Karzai has been shown to be ineffective and corrupt and the farce of the Presidential election only illustrates how far along the road to mature plural democracy Afghanistan still has to travel.

Belatedly, Pakistan has come to view the threat of the Taliban and has engaged them militarily in Swat and now Waziristan in fighting which although largely unreported in the West is arguably of far more significance than anything happening in Afghanistan itself. The West knows that a Taliban-dominated Pakistan is too awful a nightmare to contemplate but the alternative is more corruption and political in-fighting and a slow deterioration in the security situation.

One might therefore argue the REAL battleground is Pakistan, not Afghanistan and even recent border incidents between Iran and Pakistan show that the Taliban might yet find a new safe haven even if their strongholds in Pakistan fall. The truth is that countries like Iran and Pakistan are of far greater geopolitical significance than Afghanistan.

So, why are we in Afghanistan ? To stop terrorism - well, that may be true that all that the western interventions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq achieved was to make the terrorist movement more diffuse. The July 2005 suickde bombings on the London Underground were carried out by home-grown terrorists albeit trained and supported by Al-Qaeda. The larger-scale networks have been broken or weakened and that's probably why we've seen no large-scale attacks of late.

However, in many ways, the damage has been done at a political and cultural level. POlitically, the concept of liberal interventionism lies in ruins and it will be a long time before public support for similar actions can be justified. Culturally, a large tranche of muslims may now feel alienated from the rest of society - there is little doubt a significant anti-muslim undercurrent now exists in Britain and elsewhere. Muslims have beome more inward-looking and remote from society and that does not augur well for the future.

So, should we just give up on Afghanistan and bring the troops home ? It's tempting to say yes but we would leave behind a country which will either descend into protracted civil war as has Somalia or revert to a quasi-Taliban theocracy. I don't know which way it will go but the actions of Karzai and his minions have shown the ineffective nature of so-called democratic politicians in a country with little or no history of democracy. As we saw in South Vietnam, propping up a corrupt regime just because it supports you isn't a long-term solution.

As good Atlanticists and neo-Cons, William Hague, the next Foreign Secretary, will doubtless continue to support the British deployment and indeed the future of Afghanistan is as likely to be decided in Washington as Kabul. A troop "surge" worked in Iraq but Afghanistan is fundamentally different and the same strategy would only mask the problem for a while. I suspect Obama is looking for a way out that won't look like failure. He won't be the first foreign leader forced to recognise that Afghanistan isn't worth it - he probably won't be the last.

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