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The Afghanistan Muddle

The Afghanistan Muddle

William Pfaff

Paris, January 15, 2008 – Britain's defense minister, Des Browne, says that the British military contingent in Afghanistan could remain there for "decades" to come. "One can't take the risk of seeing this country again become a training ground for terrorists threatening Great Britain," he recently declared.

There are two inanities in this statement, both common enough when western officials talk about terrorism. The first is that terrorists and guerrillas need a "training ground." Why? The suicide bomber needs motivation and nerve, but training is wasted on him or her. The bomb-maker can learn the techniques of bomb-making and the characteristics of explosives on the internet, and buy the ingredients locally.

Explosives lore, bomb-setting advice, and other counsel useful to the novice can be had from old hands in the game in conversations, informal meetings or classes, for which you don't have to go to Afghanistan.

A farm in the Midlands or Scotland (or better yet, Utah!) serves nicely as a training ground on which to do your physical training exercises. In the evening, after prayers, you can sit around the farm kitchen table and listen to ideological lectures. Or you can do the same thing in a city apartment. All Britain's bombers thus far, so far as I know, were British-bred.

"Guerrilla tactics," if the terrorist recruit wants to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight Americans or NATO, are no more than a version of small-unit infantry and ambush tactics, which anyone with basic military training is supposed to know and be able to teach -- plus the iron rules of guerrilla warfare: strike and run, never stand and fight, never try to hold ground, always fade away so as to fight another day. Ask anyone who has been trained by British or U.S. Special Forces.

What such politicians as Des Browne are actually saying when they talk about terrorist "training grounds" and decades-long wars is simply that they want to prevent a radical regime from taking power in Afghanistan, since that would be a political blow to the NATO powers committed to the action in Afghanistan. But it would certainly not be a military or strategic threat to Britain or any other NATO member.

Browne may pledge that this and future British Labour governments will fight for "decades" to defeat the Taliban, but he's wrong. Long before decades have passed, the British public, like the French, German, Canadian and Dutch publics – and one day even the American public – will decide otherwise. None is that interested in what happens to Afghanistan: nor need they be.

Afghanistan is currently the scene of a struggle for power among indigenous forces – the Pathans or Pashtuns, among whom the Taliban radical religious movement is currently a dynamic force – and the Hazara and Tajik peoples. None have the slightest interest in Britain, other than to be left alone (or put into power) by NATO. Three neighboring countries, Pakistan, Iran and India, have important interests involved in how this struggle for control of Afghanistan works out, but that is another matter.

The country most interested is Pakistan, since it initially was responsible for promoting Taliban control of Afghanistan, and consequently was forced into the conflict by the U.S. after 9/11. The resulting conflict in Afghanistan has caused Taliban-like political and religious radicalism to spread in Pakistan and jeopardize the survival of the existing secular government in Islamabad, as well as dividing the Pakistan Army, for sixty years the sole reliable structure of national authority and integrity in the country. Any more western interference in Pakistan, provoking nationalist reaction, could be fatal to that country's stability.

The British and NATO governments have the formal objective of making Afghanistan a safe, democratic and prosperous nation. A British (Scottish) observer, the writer and former official Rory Stewart, who heads the Turquois Mountain Foundation in Kabul and has long and intimate experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in Asia, supports reconstruction efforts in Kabul but also says what nearly all experienced people say: that the western powers "should accept that we don't have the power, knowledge or legitimacy to change those societies."

Many current objectives of the foreign governments operating in Afghanistan are not merely difficult "but dishonest and impossible." Stewart adds (in the current issue of the British Prospect magazine) that "the rural areas are far more isolated, conservative and resistant to change than we publicly acknowledge.

"War has eroded social structures and entrenched ethnic suspicion....Power is in the hands of tribal leaders and militia commanders. Much of Afghanistan is barren and most people cannot read or write....The local population is at best suspicious of our actions. In [the province of] is more dangerous for foreign civilians than it was two years ago before we deployed our troops."

This is common sense reinforced by experience. There is a limit to what can be done to repair a nation shattered by nearly thirty years of foreign-sponsored war, during which Russians, Americans, and Pakistanis all exploited the country's internal divisions to what each conceived to be its own advantage.

To do what can be done in the way of peaceful reconstruction is one thing. To perpetuate foreign war on the pretext that Afghanistan in Taliban hands threatens the NATO powers is grotesque. The only serious response is NATO promotion of negotiations among the contending Afghan groups and their immediate neighbors. That would leave the future in their hands, where it should be.

© Copyright by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

This article comes from William PFAFF

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