At Large

The Fools’ War

The Afghan campaign is pointless, but something could be saved from it.

By 8.21.12

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We know America and Britain have made a commitment to pull out of Afghanistan by the end on 2014. It is high time some more thought was given to what that means, in particular to the Westernized Afghanis.

It is a mystery why these and smaller countries like Australia continue to waste treasure and the lives of their best troops in a war whose futility has become obvious.

The Crimean War, resulting in such incidents as the Charge of the Light Brigade, had its origins, according to popular mythology which may be true, in the fact that the British Cabinet was drunk at the time. Yet it can be said to have at least achieved a strategic objective in cutting back Russia's Turkish ambitions.

The same cannot be said for the present Afghan war. It would have made some sort of sense -- admittedly perhaps not very good sense -- if it had been restricted to a punitive expedition, a quick get-in-get-out affair. Instead, under Obama, it has become vast, unwieldy and purposeless. It is an intriguing question for the political scientist why the war goes on when no one expects victory or anything like it, and when continuing the war does nothing for Western interests. Where, one may ask, is the anti-war movement of yesteryear? Still waiting for the Moscow gold to finance its marches and teach-in?

It does not need to be labored that almost every week brings news of Western soldiers being murdered by Afghanis they were allegedly trying to train. If there was a real possibility of Afghanistan becoming a modern, democratic State, such sacrifices might be justifiable in realpolitik terms (it was worth saving South Korea from becoming North Korea, and worth stopping Communism in Indochina before it destroyed the ASEAN countries). But that is not going to happen this time.

George W. Bush appeared to have some kind of a policy, if not a very clear-headed one. However, Western policy-makers have from the start of the Obama administration appeared to be sleep-walking to disaster with no plans in the event of the near-inevitable Taliban return in force as soon as they leave. The obvious raison d'être for the Western military presence -- punishment for 9/11 -- ended before the execution of Bin Laden. This was itself carried out in a way -- not the fault of the troops concerned -- that turned it into a demonstration of weakness rather than strength in a culture where strength is what is respected.

It is not easy to see how killing a few more Afghans with either drone attacks or foot soldiers will do anything to create or strengthen Western democratic institutions there. No doubt on those occasions when he wears a shirt, Mr. Putin is laughing up his sleeve at the spectacle of the Western countries further wasting their strained and cut-down militaries in a campaign that suits Russia's geopolitical interests very well.

The leading Anglosphere countries have all made deep and unprecedented cuts to their military budgets, making the war in Afghanistan not only a disproportionately heavy drain, but leaving them less able to offer one another mutual assistance. The whole picture is coming to look like a house of cards.

The announcement of the 2014 withdrawal date not only underlines the futility of the Western campaign: it looks like a piece of military idiocy. How difficult is it to grasp as a principle of war not to tell the enemy your plans?

British ex-services chaplain Peter Mullen wrote recently, making what seems an unanswerable point: "Can you imagine Mr. Churchill getting on the phone to Hitler at the back end of 1940 and saying: 'As you know Adolf, we're going to surrender in 1943. In the meantime we will engage our troops in this useless campaign and I dare say many more of them will be slaughtered'?"

Further, one of the classic moral requirements for a "just war" is that there be a reasonable chance of success. This is plainly not the case here, now that the withdrawal date has been announced. No one in his or her right mind believes that after the NATO and associated forces withdraw Afghanistan will be a liberal-democratic State.

Unless some kind of miracle happens, the Taliban will come storming back before the last Western plane takes off from Kabul airport. One remembers George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant novel Flashman, closely based on fact, which tells of the retreat of the British Army from Kabul in 1842, with the tribesmen swarming in and cutting up the rear of the retreating column of the Army of Afghanistan before it was out of its compound. British war artist Lady Elizabeth Butler painted a famous picture of the return of the Army from Afghanistan -- one man and one dying horse.

This leads to another vital point, and the one possible justification for continuing the war: what will happen to the Afghans who, have allied with the West and the larger number who, in the Taliban's eyes, have been contaminated merely by contact with Western ways and education? The puppet president during the ill-fated Russian occupation, Mohammad Najibullah, was castrated and dragged from the back of a truck before being hanged when the Russians were no longer around to protect him. His brother was shot. Eyewitness Terence White wrote of the events the next day:

Next, the religious police from the soon to be dreaded Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice appeared on the streets.

Their sole business was punishment. Their first victims were women, whom they beat with wire cables and hose-pipes when found on the street in violation of the Taliban's first decree, which stated that women could no longer work and must stay at home.

In another foretaste of what may be expected this time, Razia Jan, founder of a girls' school outside Kabul, reportedly said recently, "[T]hey threw hand grenades in a girls' school, and 100 girls were killed. Every day, you hear that somebody's thrown acid at a girl's face ... or they poison their water."

According to the United Nations, there were at least 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan last year. The majority of the attacks were attributed to "groups opposed to girls' education," and to women engaging in such occupations as medicine or nursing.

Afghanistan has a small Westernized elite, centered on Kabul. There have been some moving stories of the bravery of those who tried to preserve some artifacts of culture from the Taliban. If the Western powers were interested in doing something humane and constructive, they would be making plans to get these people out -- particularly professional women and school-girls -- and arranging re-settlement for them.

Once the Western forces are gone, if they are left behind, fleeing over the desolate mountains to, say, Pakistan, will hardly improve matters for these desperate people. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan can be expected to finish off the beleaguered democratic institutions in the failing State of Pakistan as well. Other neighbors -- India and China -- are unlikely to give refugees a warm welcome. Neither wants more Muslims, Westernized or not.

Selecting the people to be given refugee status and evacuated, as well as finding countries willing to give them refuge, and even organizing transport, will be a long and complex task, calling for a major international administrative effort, and an effort against the clock at that. However, there is at present no evidence that anything along these lines is being done.

 

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.