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How Not to End the War in Afghanistan

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A rather disappointing article in The New York Review of Books by British Labour politician David Miliband this week entitled “How to End the War in Afghanistan” prominently displays all the hang-ups our ‘coalition forces’ suffer when contemplating that quagmire of a war. It would be interesting to discuss this article because it contains within it the genealogy of orientalist Western thought toward that unfortunate desert; from British gamesmanship during the 19th century to hedge against Russia to the 21st century Anglo-American occupation of the same desert, ostensibly to hedge against Iran and China. Astoundingly, it seems we have learned nothing of imperialism, of cultural imposition and brute coercion in the intervening centuries. Then, as now, we marched in and expected the Afghans to listen to us because, after all, it was in their best interest to do so. Then, as now, we expressed our bewilderment that they could not grasp so easy a concept. And then (as now) we wrung our hands and lamented that we wish there were another way, but we must, unfortunately, continue our occupation until we achieve a “stable” “friendly” “democracy” in that far-off, warlord-plagued desert.

For an article with such a direct title, Mr Milibrand chooses a roundabout method of answering his implied question. After all, “How to End the War in Afghanistan” could be summed up in about a paragraph: NATO-led coalition forces should immediately cease all combat operations, issue an apology to the Afghan people for using them as pawns in macabre game of geopolitical chess, withdraw all troops and war material, and extend some manner of reparations for the thirty years of horrific destruction the US and Britain collectively wrought upon their land.

From the first sentence of his article, we can see Mr. Milibrand rejects that method of “ending the war”. He repeats, with no sense of irony, the prevailing narrative which brought us into the war in the first place, a narrative which has been shown to be false, and which goes directly against the stated aim of Milibrand’s article (‘ending the war’). In his opening paragraph below, I have bolded the most dubious claims:

In the 1990s that country’s Taliban government provided a safe haven and support for al-Qaeda. In return Osama bin Laden provided the Taliban with money and fighters. Afghanistan became the incubator for the September 11 attacks. The international intervention in response to those attacks had widespread support around the world. But we never meant for our militaries to be there forever. Eight years later, with al-Qaeda pushed into Pakistan, it is not enough to explain to people why the war started. We need to set out how it will be ended—how to preserve what has been achieved and protect South Asia from a contagion that would affect us all.

Now, it is clear that one would not begin an article with such fantastic mendacity if one were serious about “ending the war”. As Milibrand well knows, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan; the US provided far more dollars to the Taliban than Osama Bin Laden (and continues to do so); the 2001 invasion saw massive, worldwide protests that were the largest yet seen (but were surpassed two years later against the Iraq War); and the so-called “contagion” that would “affect us all” has neither been defined nor genuinely demonstrated.

And so on. The article continues to detail the pernicious “insurgent” problem that threatens the “stability” of Hamid Karzai’s US-imposed dictatorship, the opium which continues to be a “major problem” for Afghanistan (even though the premier opium kingpin in Afghanistan is on the CIA’s payroll), and the problems of “corruption” (even though the US-supported Karzai regime is widely considered to be one of the most corrupt in the world.)

The mendacity displayed here is astonishing, but it is the natural result of the inherent contradictions in Mr Miliband’s position. On one hand, like all politicians seeking election, he wants this unpopular war to “end”. On the other hand, like all geopolitical power players, he wants a US-friendly regime in Afghanistan, one which will act precisely as we wish it to act and will acquiesce to the permanent stationing of US troops, should China, Pakistan or Iran begin to act uppity. Now, obviously, imposing an illegitimate, unelected government like that of Mr Karzai would tend to make a few of his citizens upset, and just as obviously, the US would have to use force, perhaps indefinite force, to defend its client. Hence the contradiction. “Ending the War” implies letting go of our client state in Afghanistan, something which Mr Miliband and our US policy planners are evidently unwilling to do.

Hence the vague threats of “contagion”, the constant apology for the Karzai dictatorship (He has, after all, “promised to tackle corruption”), the rancid bellicosity toward “extremists” (“They must be beaten back”, says Miliband, which sounds pretty “extreme” to me), etc.

The most astounding line in the whole essay comes when Mr Miliband says: “The idea of anyone reaching out to political engagement with those who would directly or indirectly attack our troops is difficult.” The lack of self-awareness in such a pronouncement is almost too much to be believed. Let us imagine that Britain had been invaded by Germany in 1940, as was then thought to be a serious possibility. The British had been preparing for guerrilla warfare to repel the Nazis, but, under Milibrand’s logic, any British resistance would have been illegitimate! After all, the German general could say, “The idea of reaching out to those who would attack our troops is difficult.” How dare those British attack good German soldiers? And likewise, how dare those dastardly Afghans attack our stalwart American forces, who only invaded their country and installed a corrupt and unpopular dictator in order to bring them Peace™ and Democracy™ !

So, in the end, despite a confused list of policy suggestions that happen not to make a lick of sense (how the hell does he expect to “eradicate corruption” while supporting stolen elections and massive payments to drug kingpins?!), Mr Miliband’s essay argues cogently in favor of the Afghan war. If there is one thing we are meant to take away from this essay, it is that these desert wogs simply have no idea how to govern themselves and need constant oversight from their best friends in the United States and Britain. Doing so, of course, requires a long-term military presence (something which Mr Miliband curiously appears to support). He ought to have titled it “How not to End the War in Afghanistan”.

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Written by pavanvan

April 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Talkin’ Taliban

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Kai Eide is the UN “special representative” in Afghanistan, and his former student, Peter Galbraith, has repeatedly accused him of corrupt influence within the Karzai administration, including allegations of vote rigging in last year’s elections (which were widely seen as a fraud). Galbraith was later fired for his accusations.

Now the Times reports Mr. Eide has engaged in high-level talks with Taliban leaders.

Kai Eide, the United Nations’ special representative in Afghanistan, met with a group of Taliban leaders in the days leading to this week’s international conference in London, where President Hamid Karzai invited the Taliban to enter peace talks.

It’s unclear at this point what sort of game Mr. Eide is playing, especially since no details of the meeting (where/when it was held, who represented the Taliban, what was said, etc) are available. But I think it’s pretty clear that the UN – and by extension, the US – are rapidly shifting their strategy from “we don’t negotiate with Terrorists” to “Hey guys, let’s talk about this”.

The plan seems simple enough. To use the overwrought war-as-football metaphor, the US would seem to have “moved the goalposts”. It now appears that we are resigned to some portion of Afghanistan being ruled by the Taliban – perhaps even most of Afghanistan – but at the same time we are unwilling to let go of Hamid Karzai. If I could divine the strategy of our oh-so-wise policy planners, I would think they envision some form of power-sharing arrangement wherein the Karzai government controls Kabul and the heroin-producing regions of Afghanistan and the Taliban take the outlying desert. That way the US can extricate itself with some “credibility” left intact while leaving in place its “stooge” for whatever future plans they have for Afghanistan (permanent military bases, of course, but perhaps a natural-gas pipeline as well).

Eide’s role in all of this is still a bit mysterious. It is clear, from numerous previous statements, that Mr. Eide is very close to the Karzai regime and is willing to invest quite a lot to see it saved. That he fired his subordinate for leaking the Afghan election fraud is further evidence of this. It seems likely Mr. Eide is using his role as a UN envoy to prop up the Karzai regime and shield it from international criticism.

It’s still unclear whether the Taliban will be willing to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. This must be a very difficult decision for them. On one hand, the Americans are on the run and lack the resources to prosecute their effort for more than another year. Just holding out for a few more months can get them a better deal – and if (as our planners fear) the Taliban have the resources to resist indefinitely, control of Afghanistan is almost assured to them. On the other hand, if the Taliban find themselves running low on resources, morale or income, the smart thing to do would be to negotiate now. They might not get a better deal later.

But given the string of audacious attacks on Kabul, I think it safe to say the Taliban’s operations proceed unhindered. So I expect they will reject the offer of negotiation and press on.

The Karzai regime is immensely unpopular, and the only thing between him and an angry mob are American soldiers. Unless he can secure some sort of deal with the Taliban, it looks as though his days are numbered.

Written by pavanvan

January 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm