Monday, July 03, 2006

Ambling into a war - the UK in Afghanistan

Unless you are a Taliban supporter, there isn't really much 'politics' in the Afghanistan mission. The democratically elected, and UN-recognised, government of Afghanistan has asked for the presence of the international force to assist in security operations and nation building. Just about everyone accepts that the instability in Afghanistan prior to 2001 that allowed al-Qaeda to openly operate was not a good thing. There are 'war-mongering imperial and ex-imperial powers' (the US and UK) taking part in the mission alongside 'cheese eating surrender monkey euro-weenies' such as Finland and Germany, so everyone should be happy.

Except no one really cares anymore: Afghanistan is just "soooo 2002 darling!" And hence the fact that there is war on there seems to come as a surprise. I was listening to Christina Lamb, the Sunday Times correspondent, on the 8.1o interview from the Today Programme (get it through iTunes as a podcast or right click and "save link as" this) about her experience being ambushed and caught for two hours in a vicious firefight when the Taliban attacked the Paras she was with. Perhaps it was just her voice but it sounded like she was about to cry as she recounted the story; I most certainly would have been in a similar situation. What leaps out from her account (you can read her very good article here) is firstly the problems with communications that the soldiers had and secondly the inability for the British forces to be able to provide air support.

If this kind of thing keeps happening and British soldiers die as they did elsewhere in Helmand province that day, suddenly all support for the British presence in Afghanistan will start flowing away. I'm absolutely not a military expert, but it seems all through my life I've been hearing about the general rubbishness of the British military's communication systems. Why is this? Perhaps it is because once you actually do manage to call for help - they've got nothing to send anyway. As Alex, the Yorkshire Ranter, who seems to know a lot about this sort of thing, said in a recent post on the same subject:
"AAC Apaches are expensive, RAF Harriers are noisy, but not having to rely on the USAF for your air cover is priceless."


Petteri said...

A lot smarter people than me have analyzed to death why we should or shouldn't be in various hot spots all over the world. However, what good have been achieved by our "help" anywhere?

The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are arguably worse now than before we (Christian West) got involved. It doesn't help that the leading Western power and the leader of the free world is stewarded by the bunch of fatalist Christian neocons with the unshakeable convictions of their God given right to do as they see fit. There is no question in my mind that, the world would be a lot better place if only theocracies would go away and democracies would replace them. Question still remains; is it up to us to import democracy or them to find it by themselves? Using an agricultural metaphor - seeds sure aren't finding fertile ground.

helsinkian said...

I don't agree with the idea that instability in Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda to operate there. The civil war was won by the Taliban for all practical purposes, the little instability that was left was the only factor that *prevented* al-Qaeda from concentrating on their mission in perfect peace and harmony. No subjects in our century (Kim Jong Il is dictator lite compared with the Taliban) have been so cruelly repressed by their government as the Afghans under Taliban. The Taliban were in complete and total control of minor details of their subjects' lives and that is *stability* to 100%. It was that suffocating stability (which was a more fertile growing ground for terrorism than the supposed instability) that the war (US-UK invasion) was supposed to put an end to. Too bad that Taliban fighters still control some areas of Afghanistan and some Afghans still have to suffer that kind of horror but, as you put it, Afghanistan is "so 2002". My worst fear in 2002 (or late 2001) was that Afghanistan would be forgotten in a couple of years, if not in months, and Taliban would be allowed to regroup, and to some extent that horror of horrors seems to have happened. But Afghanistan is certainly not in a stable situation under the iron fist of Taliban, which would've been an even worse scenario than the current one (which would've happened without the invasion).

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Helsinkian - the "instability" was sloppy phraseology on my part as I agree completely with your analysis. Al-Qaeda was in fact semi in control of Afghanistan before Sept. 2001 because they were bankrolling the Taliban regime. Afghanistan wasn't a failed state at all, it was a totalitarian if non-internationally recognised state. This is why I remain very sceptical about the "failed states attract terrorists" argument. I'll do a blog entry on this argument some time soon.

helsinkian said...

Taliban Afghanistan was certainly not recognised by the UN or by major powers in North America, Europe and East Asia. But it is an interesting idea to ponder whether Taliban fighters themselves interpreted the recognition by three key US allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE) as recognition by the United States by proxy. In the local context recognition by these three nations was significant, not to mention continuing support from wealthy Saudi individuals and pro-Taliban elements within the Pakistani intelligence. All this international involvement made Taliban Afghanistan even less likely to fail as a state, if left on their own.

KGS said...

I'll have to interject with a dissenting view here as well. The Afghani state, IMHO, qualified as a "failed state", in much the same way as Somalia.

The fact that both states have
floundered for the past few decades with control ebbing and flowing from one war lord to the next, with the islamists finnally ending up in control of both, (the former having Osama as its CEO and the latter just getting theirs) does not lend credibility to the assertion that Afghanistan (nor Somalia) was successful state.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

But KGS, a "failed state" has a specific meaning within in International Relations. It isn't the opposite of a "successful state"; it is the opposite of a state with some form of government (normally recognised internationally, but not always) in the Hobbesian sense. Indeed there are plenty of "non-failed" states that must be some of the most unpleasent places on the planet to have to live.

But I'll leave the nature of sovereignty in a semi post-Westphalian world for another post!

helsinkian said...

Kgs, maybe you mean by failed state a state that has become the opposite of what a state is supposed to be and this is why you can see totalitarian states as failing per definition. But failed states usually mean states where there is no central authority and everyone is at war with everyone in a Hobbesian chaos.

Taliban Afghanistan was most certainly failing the citizens of the state in the most horrendous manner (reminiscent of other bizarre régimes such as the Khmer Rouge) but in some senses an iron grip of totalitarianism is the polar opposite of what is usually meant by failed states. I'm not advocating de jure recognition of states that represent pure evil but there should be a realistic de facto recognition of a state that is there and the leaders are clearly in control of what they are doing. The Taliban had things under their control and that to me was very scary indeed. In a failed state the Taliban would have had no overall control over their subjects except for the local level.

Ironically the Taliban would probably not even have aspired for complete control of the state apparatus and have transformed to pure totalitarianism from having been another armed gang among many had not their close associate Osama bin Laden seen the buildup of the totalitarian Taliban state as useful for his purposes and encouraged the Taliban to form the nation in their mold.

KGS said...

I guess I'll have to bow before that understanding of what defines a "failed state" in the classical sense.

But,... did Afghanistan really have a state in the classical sense? If so, why did the overwhelming percentage of the world (free/not free) consider it worth recognizing? I am just looking at it from this perspective, they lacked total and complete respectability and credibility ect.

How do we get past that?

helsinkian said...

Kgs, Communist China and German Democratic Republic also had for a long time after World War II a problem with getting recognition except for countries with like minded totalitarian systems and although the Taliban state was an even more extreme case, there are certain similarities in the case. China got recognition and the seat at the UN finally in the 70s because their power was recognized by foreign policy realists in the Nixon Administration, not because their state had become that much more humane and democratic. If the Taliban state had not been overthrown by the US-UK coalition, after decades they might have ended up recognised as well by everybody (although they are not geopolitically as important a country as China).