Afghanistan has proved the deathbed of every imperial project that has sought to tame it. Sooner or later, the British will leave in defeat
There is one certainty concerning the British and western military presence in Afghanistan: it will fail. Only when is in doubt. It may yet stumble on for a few more years, but sooner or later there will be a general recognition that the mission cannot succeed.
This is one of the stranger military escapades of the past few decades. Without the attacks of 11 September 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan would never have happened. The United States needed to find a military outlet for its anger and desire for revenge and Afghanistan was the chosen target; the objectives were to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. This was the (always absurd and overblown) “war on terror”. The first objective has never been achieved, the second remains as elusive as ever, and meanwhile the Nato troops have become embroiled in a war without end against the Taliban.
Apart from capturing or killing Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, the aims of this war have never been clear. Over the years they have embraced such heady and forlorn ideas as transforming Afghanistan into a western-style democracy and liberating Afghan women from the chadri. Dream on.
The problem with military adventures such as this is that they are relatively easy to initiate, but extremely difficult to escape from. They develop a compelling logic of their own: no military command likes to admit that it has failed; no government wishes to confess that it has led the country up a blind alley. Yet by any of the criteria that have been used to measure the success of the Afghan mission, it has failed already and will not succeed in the future. Bin Laden will never be captured; al-Qaeda will continue to operate in Afghanistan and, more pertinently, elsewhere as well; and Afghanistan will not become a western-style state. Even more seriously, the Nato troops are now embroiled in a bloody and protracted war with a powerful indigenous force in which, ultimately, there can only be one winner – the Taliban.
The Obama administration has made the misconceived decision to intensify the war in Afghanistan, probably because it did not feel that, for obvious domestic reasons, it could withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. The price will be heavy indeed. While the Americans are involved so, too, to judge by Britain’s supine relationship with its ally, will be the UK. The most breathtaking feature of British foreign policy since 1945 has been the profound loss of any kind of independent will or initiative. This remains the most striking aspect of Britain’s post-imperial legacy: the need to hang on to America’s coat-tails as a means of affirming our continuing global importance and relevance.
Yet there is another dimension to our entanglement in Afghanistan. Under Tony Blair’s premiership, Britain became involved in two separate wars within two years: Afghanistan and Iraq. The credo was liberal interventionism. Once more, the role of the west (and the UK) was to put the world to rights by force of arms.
There was nothing particularly new about this. It was the imperial mission of old, the justification for countless colonial adventures. The new twist was the cause: the imposition of western-style democracy. In other words, old-style imperial ambitions were dressed in a contemporary, fashionable garb. Blairite foreign interventionism – always presented in excessively moralistic and sanctimonious language – proved to be a disaster. The Iraqi mission was an abject failure and is now regarded more or less universally as such. The Afghan adventure, always contentious, will in time be similarly condemned.
Liberal interventionism, like so much else typical of the Blairite era, was a fad and is all but a memory, as indeed are its apostles (does anyone remember the Euston Manifesto?). The so-called liberal interventionists stand condemned of a catastrophic misreading of the forces of history. If New Labour surrendered without a whimper to neoliberalism, so, too, did it submit to neo-conservatism and the old imperial refrains. For those concerned with the reconstruction of Labour after its coming defeat, there is a most formidable intellectual task confronting them. Above all, the party needs to regain its political courage and independence of thought.
There is no sign that this government will withdraw from Afghanistan. Gordon Brown has always lacked political courage and now he is a weak and wounded leader. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are concentrating their fire on the government’s alleged failure to provide the right kind of resources and equipment to fight the good fight. In other words, they are positioning themselves to continue the war. Those who a year or so ago were beguiled into believing that Cameron Conservatism might be a new and progressive beast have had a thoroughly bad time ever since. Only the Liberal Democrats have had the courage to question the pointlessness of the Afghan mission.
Fast-forward one year, three, five – or whatever. The lives of many more servicemen betrayed, the Taliban in the ascendant, the war already well over a decade old and seemingly destined to continue on and on: sooner or later, the balance of the equation will point irresistibly in the direction of withdrawal, and the futility of this absurd adventure will be abundantly and depressingly clear to a decisive and irresistible majority.
Afghanistan has proved the deathbed of every imperial project that has sought to tame it – the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, and the United States (with Britain now cast in the role of minnow) in the early 21st century.
We might have learned from history, but imperial hubris consistently conspires to prevent us from doing even that.