Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Afghanistan and the reason why*

News that the 100th British soldier has been killed in Afghanistan this year. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has cautioned us not to become distracted by the casualty rate and to concentrate on the progress 'we' have made in Afghanistan: Personally I find this far more callous than any gripes about Gordon Brown's handwriting but we will let that pass for a moment and have a look at the balance sheet:

• After two dodgy elections the people have the corrupt Karazai government

• Probably linked to this, 40% of the promised Western aid has not reached the people it was intended for.

• 77% of the population do not have access to clean water.

• In rural areas 80% of the population do not have electricity.

It is tempting to conclude that the US and British governments simply don't have a fucking clue as to what the objectives are. But that actually lets them off the hook too lightly - the strategy is both knowing and cynical.( And forget the blustering humanitarian fig leaf, by that logic British troops would be dying in Darfur).

The allies  may have gone into Afghanistan to fight Al Quaida but couldn't find them so ended up fighting the Taliban instead - but there was some grand strategic vision too. A grandiose idea of retaining influence in a zone that, judging from instability in Pakistan, was rapidly slipping away from their control. A zone of immense productive importance to them - the oilfields of the Middle East - at which the otherwise desolate region of Afghanistan stands at the gates. And of course the country also sits on top of a strategic pipeline. This is nothing more than good old fashioned imperialism.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of colonial history, or even of the Flashman novels, will know that this is nothing new. In the Nineteenth Century the competing superpowers were Britain and Russian, and it wasn't about about protecting oil fields but trade routes - again Afghanistan had the misfortune to be in exactly the wrong place. The struggle then was played with rather more sophistication, as a war of espionage, diplomacy and outright bribery of local factions. When direct military intervention was required the Western forces invariably got their arses royally kicked by local forces.

From a military point of view the current strategy is that of every imperialist power since the Romans - control key towns and strong-points and police the surrounding countryside by patrols. And from the Teutoburg Forest to Dien Bien Phu or most appropriately the 'North West Frontier' it hasn't worked. In the long run, time, logistics and geography are not on the side of empires. And neither usually is justice.

* 'Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die' -
Alfred Lord Tennyson - 'The Charge Of The Light Brigade'

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