“Whatever decisions were made, there would have been no happy ending. A foreign army, isolated in Kabul, propping up an unpopular ruler in the face of a growing insurgency could not succeed. To maintain security, they needed to create a new Afghan army, which required taxation and expenditure. This created enemies and required a resource base, which Afghanistan did not have. They therefore relied on enormous – and unsustainable – amounts of foreign funding (which in turn fuelled corruption.)”
So writes British author, MP and Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart in an essay about the latest book concerning Britain’s catastrophic invasion and occupation of Afghanistan – 1838-1842. Apart from the bit about troops being isolated in Kabul, everything else applies to NATO in Afghanistan today: a foreign army (us), an unpopular ruler (President Hamid Karzai), a growing insurgency (in the southern Pashtun areas the insurgency is not necessarily growing but it is far from dead), the need to create an Afghan army, the occupying army as the enemy, a resource base (Afghanistan’s own revenues amount to a small share of the country’s budget) and foreign funding (in abundance from NATO countries) fuelling corruption (which aid does).
The latest Afghan War, in which Canada played a part, is now in its 11th year. It will end, as Afghan wars do, with the foreigners/liberators/invaders eventually departing, having accomplished little or nothing by way of changing Afghanistan, but having spent a great deal of treasure trying.
When that day comes, there will be the return of more intensified ethnic and religious conflict of the kind that characterizes the country. In very different contexts, to be sure, we are witnessing these conflicts throughout the broader Middle East – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and especially Iraq and Syria. These are essentially ideological, political and doctrinal struggles within Islam (not the verbal jihad of a “clash of civilizations”), with the United States as surrogate enemy having interests, at least as defined by Washington, that exceed the country’s real ability to influence events.
Last week, Taliban forces (reportedly wearing U.S. Army uniforms) launched a well-orchestrated and effective attack on a massive base, Camp Bastion in the southern, Pashtun-dominated province of Helmand. The attack killed two U.S. Marines and inflicted an estimated $200-million in damage to aircraft at the heavily guarded base, which was thought impervious to sustained assault.
This attack followed a string of attacks by Afghan soldiers against NATO forces, especially Americans. Afghan police have also been involved in such attacks. In response, NATO is curbing joint patrols with Afghan forces. Clearly, the Taliban and its sympathizers have infiltrated the Afghan police and army, believing it to be in cahoots with the invading foreigners, namely NATO. And U.S. airstrikes on military targets continue to kill innocent civilians, which brings condemnation from Mr. Karzai.
The U.S. is withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan, a point of political help to President Barack Obama in his re-election campaign. Americans (and people in other NATO countries) are anxious for their sons and daughters to come home after all these years. Polls everywhere in NATO show the war to be unpopular, a result that has not been lost on the Taliban and its supporters. It has been said, correctly, that although NATO forces wear watches, their opponents have time, meaning they will remain after NATO has left.
But, of course, the U.S. is pledged to keep personnel in Afghanistan after combat forces have withdrawn. They will be fewer in number, so what good they will do can only be guessed at. The U.S. (and NATO ) dilemma of leaving and remaining recalls another Rory Stewart observation of the British in Afghanistan circa 1840: “To reassure the nationalists, the foreign force had to convince them [the population at large] they were leaving; and to reassure the supporters of the British, the foreign force had to convince them they were staying.”
Canada, having ended its combat mission, remains to assist in the training of the Afghan army, into whose hands much of the country’s security will be placed when NATO forces depart. It is hard to imagine a less enticing prospect for security success; it is even harder to imagine any other prospect. As former British prime minister Harold Macmillan used to say, rule number one in politics: Never invade Afghanistan.