Saturday, September 12, 2009

"We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending."

Eight years since the horror in New York and Washington forced the civilized world to face up to its obligations in Afghanistan, a recurring and predictable pessimism is abroad in the world's comfortable classes, coinciding, as it absurdly and routinely does, with a revival of pluck and optimism among ordinary Afghans.

The Americans, who appear to be paying attention, are engaged in an elaborate exercise in enumerating and evaluating "metrics of success." The Europeans are looking at benchmarks and timelines. All good.

In Ottawa, the whimpering is the thing, and it's ably represented in Liberal Senator Colin Kenny's widely noticed opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen. Kenny is the long-time chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, which is why we're supposed to take him seriously. It doesn't help that Kenny's committee is "a dysfunctional public spectacle" that he convenes whenever his committee adversaries aren't available, and if they find a way to show up he calls them "names that can't be repeated." But let's take him seriously.

The gist of Kenny's argument is basically this: The British empire couldn't hold Afghanistan, the Russian empire couldn't hold Afghanistan, the "western world" has been horribly let down by Karzai because he's failed to capture the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people and besides, he's a corrupt auld slag, so we should skedaddle elsewhere to "countries where we are wanted." So, time to talk retreat.

Well, no, it isn't.

Firstly, if this were merely about the "west" colluding with Hamid Karzai to impose its imperial designs upon a people who do not want us around, then we would not merely deserve to lose. We would deserve to suffer the most ignominious and bloody defeat, and politicians like Kenny, who wait for a convenient moment to plead that really, they were "wary" about the enterprise all along, should have their heads on pikes.

This is not merely a "western" project. The countries that devised the Afghanistan Compact and the Bonn Agreement in the first place include several Islamic republics, along with western democracies. This is a United Nations mission, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan includes soldiers from such places as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. That's who "we" are.

And "we" are not there to prop up Karzai. We never were. We are there to build from scratch and savagery a nation-state where there was none. We would not have to be doing this now had it not been so stylish in "the west" to mince and primp around for all those years prior to 2001, just as Kenny preens and flatters himself now in a show of moral exhibitionism masquerading as an exercise in sober analysis.

Worse, it would be one thing for some bloke in the street to think that "we" are not wanted in Afghanistan. But Kenny is the chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Here's something Kenny should read: Global Poll Finds Widespread Belief That Afghans Want NATO Forces Out. They don't, they never have, and Kenny should pay particular attention to the findings that show that this widespread misapprehension - which Kenny himself harbours and counsels on the rest of us - is a key reason people get it wrong and end up thinking that "we" should "retreat."

Quite properly, everyone of good will is watching and hoping for the best and cleanest result from the horribly bollocksed Afghan presidential elections, not least the millions of brave Afghans who defied Taliban threats and voted. But can we at least agree to avoid juvenile comparisons with the recent Iranian sham? We might take the time to remember what Iran is, and what it is not. We might also remember what Afghanistan was eight years ago, and what it is now.

In the days before September 11, 2001, Pakistan's ISI was still sending convoys of free supplies and armaments to Taliban training camps, which regularly produced thousands of jihadist mercenaries for assignment to the Maghreb, the Caucusus, Central Asia and Kashmir - Arabs, Algerians, Chechens, Filipinos, the lot. Al Qaida was operating openly, flush will Arab oil money, and Osama Bin Laden was celebrating the success of his agents' assassination of Ahmed Shah Mahsood, the last great hope for unifying the Afghan resistance under progressive leadership.

Several million Afghans were refugees, wandering the far corners of the world or rotting in refugee camps. Roughly two million Afghans had already been slaughtered in the country's abbatoir of war, and by the summer of 2001, five million Afghans were on the brink of starvation. In the northern provinces, people were reduced to eating grass and rats. Women were slaves. Music was banned. Even kite-flying was banned. The Taliban had shut down the UN's polio immunization program. Aid workers, foreign doctors and UN food program officials were routinely harrassed and arrested on charges of spreading Christianity or consorting with Afghan women.

Eight years later, millions of girls are in school. The country has a constitutional government that reserves a quarter of its parliament to women. There are a dozen universities, several dozen newspapers, radio stations and television stations, and one in six Afghans owns a cellular phone. Five million refugees have returned. More than 80 per cent of the people have access to basic medical services. Almost all children have been immunized against polio and childhood diseases. The big debate in Afghanistan these days is whether the incumbent president, who was elected peacefully four years ago, has earned enough votes in a scandal-plagued run for a second term to avoid a runoff against his nearest rival.

Somehow, none of this sounds like "a Vietnam ending" to me. It certainly isn't evidence for an argument to "retreat."


Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/14/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

as ever, well said, especially the last 2 paras, terry. i guess you have to have been there to appreciate what is being said ('struth" it is). and what is not said, is best left unsaid...

10:20 PM  
Blogger Jay Currie said...

Wow...quagmire! Knee deep in the big muddy and the old fool says to push on.

Thank you for this Terry.

10:39 PM  

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