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Monday, July 26, 2010 

History, madness and the war in Afghanistan.

I'm a strong adherent to the school of thought which regards all war, and indeed all violence, as a manifestation of our own madness. On this basis, while all wars are inherently crazy, some are less insane than others. Using this measure, subjective as it is, the second world war inevitably is the closest in recent memory to even come near to being rational, to being a truly noble venture fought for the right reasons against an implacable genocidal enemy. The downside of this is that every new "threat" that now arises is endlessly and almost always fatuously compared to the scourge of Hitler and the Nazis. History is meant to be something to learn from, drilled into us to ensure we don't repeat the mistakes of the past, but which we resolutely continue to misunderstand.

How then do the latest two wars in which this great nation of ours has involved itself in measure up on the sanity scale? The last, the war in Iraq, was, it almost goes without saying, foaming at the mouth, carpet-chewing, eyeball-spinning, shaving only one side of your face style crazy. Or was it? Sure, every single thing said to justify the war in Iraq was either a pack of egregious lies or subsequently proved completely and utterly wrong, but perhaps all of these things were taken into account before the invasion was launched. Iran, by any independent measure, is far and away the biggest threat in the Middle East, possibly developing a nuclear weapons programme, sponsoring terrorists and led by a man who continues to make statements about wiping other countries off the map, even if they're allusions to past utterances by deceased religious/political leaders and not necessarily an indication of what he would like to do (he also denies they are any gays in Iran, which is even crazier), yet here we are still going down the sanctions route while it continues to defiantly do whatever the hell it likes. Perhaps the very fact that Iran is developing that nuclear weapon while Iraq had dismantled its own programme years before has something to do with this state of affairs? Or is it that Iran's military is well-funded and a force to be reckoned with, unaffected by sanctions, unlike Iraq's?

The Iraq war, in other words, made sense in that its initial stage would be all but a cakewalk, and was therefore not crazy from a purely military point of view, even if it was definably so from a civilian one. Where it went wrong wasn't in the planning or in the intelligence about what would happen afterwards, it was that both were completely disregarded, the first as being unnecessary and the second as being wrong or irrelevant. Attacking Iran, when you couldn't even begin to know how she would respond and how many lives would be lost as a result, would be beyond mad; it would be boneheadedly moronic.

Where then does Afghanistan fit in? Compared to Iraq, at first look on both the military and civilian scale it was closer to sanity than you could now ever imagine. The argument for action was fairly strong: here's the man ultimately responsible for 9/11, being effectively protected by a regime of unbelievable barbarity and inhumanity, and he needs to be brought to justice and his safe haven destroyed. On the military sanity scale it was also close to being a slam-dunk: the Taliban were unlikely to put up much of a fight and by joining forces with those already battling against them in the Northern Alliance they could use their resources rather than put too many boots on the ground. The problem was that this ignored almost everything we should have known about Afghanistan but had either forgotten about or never knew. By all but intervening on one side in a civil war that had been raging for 20 years already, we cast the die for ever continuing resistance right from the off. While bin Laden and al-Qaida may well have been in Afghanistan as the guests of the Taliban, by declaring war on both we forced them together as they had never been before. We equally ignored how the Taliban had been funded and nurtured by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and how Pakistan's paranoia about everything Indian comes first, regardless of the other consequences. More than anything, we walked straight into al-Qaida's trap: they knew better than anyone else how operations such as 9/11 would be incredibly rare, if not one offs. They were instead relying for their aims to be achieved on exactly the blunderbuss approach which we adopted, ensuring that a jihad for the 2000s to rival the one in the 80s against the Soviets would take shape, radicalising a new generation, spreading their extreme takfirist ideology, and creating a whole new set of potential safe havens in different parts of the globe.

Even if all the above had been taken into account and we had a firm plan on what to do once the Taliban had been overthrown, which we didn't, we were relying on the full co-operation of Pakistan, which has simply never been forthcoming. Instead of al-Qaida having a safe haven in Afghanistan, it now has one in Pakistan, even after the campaigns fought following the siege of the Red Mosque and the bloodshed on both sides. We've installed a democracy in a nation split along ethnic and tribal lines, where our tame chosen leader dares to show signs of independent thought even after the massive fraud which resulted in his election. The whole nation floats upon endemic corruption, with a drug trade which has as much impact on the insurgency as ideology probably has. Troops are fighting not just those who think they're waging a holy war, but criminals, drug traffickers and those paid a better wage than they'd get anywhere else to take up weapons.

The release of the war logs then, or the war diaries, or whatever they're being called, doesn't really tell us much, on first examination, which we shouldn't have already known. Amazingly, our brave boys and girls are still killing and injuring far too many innocent bystanders, often as a result of the "fog of war", incompetence or recourse to lethal weaponry as soon as something even slightly threatening appears on the horizon. This, strangely, enrages the local population, therefore undermining part of the philosophy of counter-insurgency, which involves winning them over to your cause through both actions and words. The Americans are still running secret operations to mainly kill insurgent leaders, although insurgent leaders seems to mean almost anyone fighting against Nato forces, with over 2,000 on a database of those to be captured or assassinated. Impossible to verify and questionable parts of intelligence from the logs also suggest that the ISI is still working with and funding the Taliban in a minor fashion, as is Iran, although on a lesser scale and through intermediaries where it's impossible to know if it's sanctioned from the centre.

Dig further beneath the veneer and far more prominent themes emerge. It isn't just the "collateral damage" which is making reaching out to the LNs (local nationals) as they're referred to in the logs all but impossible, it's that they're simply not interested in fraternising with the Americans and ourselves, and it isn't because they're stuck between the rock and a hard place which is either us or the Taliban. It's far more to do with how they've always lived the way they have and in the past three decades have seen the Russians come and go, the Talibs victorious then defeated, and then ourselves impose upon them. Soon we too will leave as we shall have to, while they'll remain. Why take sides now?

This is the real reason why the surge is failing. It "worked" in Iraq because it was already building on the successes laid by the Awakening councils made up primarily of former insurgents, who found themselves under a tyranny far worse than that of Saddam's when the Islamic State of Iraq and aligned groups imposed their own flavour of Sharia law. Along with the buying off of much of the Mahdi army and an exhaustion at the carnage and loss of life which the short all but civil war had brought, the takfirist jihadists were deposed. In Afghanistan there are no similar groups who have already risen up, not only because the true situation is far more complex than we are ever led to believe, but also because the disincentives against doing so are far too high. Counter-insurgency theory has no response to this, and US servicemen have long been complaining that their rules of engagement are far too tight, something the architect of the co-in strategy, General Petraeus has already said he's going to look at. In other words, they're already resorting back to the overwhelming force which has failed so conspicuously in the past.

The war which looked sane at first glance is nine long years later only now starting to be widely considered as the stuff of nightmares, one where the perils of getting out are just as dreadful as the costs of staying are. If the war logs even just slightly ram home the point that casualties on all sides are only going to get worse, as they so poignantly illustrate, unless we recognise there is no military solution and that the only possible way out of this mess is a settlement which involves all those with even the slightest interest in the region, until we stop pretending that this is simply a war against the Taliban and al-Qaida which somehow affects our security back here, then we'll be stuck in the current impasse we've faced over the last half decade. The chances of leaving by 2015 as the new government has seemingly set as an aspiration are nil without negotiations. The release of the war logs is a perfect time to start setting things straight, shining a light as they have done on a war which has been fought for so long in the shadows. Instead it's of course shoot the messenger and cry treason time. History couldn't possibly have predicted it.

"What experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." - Georg Hegel

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I enjoyed your reading your analysis.

Afghanistan's fate has always been controlled by outsiders. If the US withdraws the India/Pakistan war could be fought by proxy.

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