Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discouraging reflections on Canada's war in Afghanistan

When I was a teenager I lived in the United States. Over in Vietnam, there was a war going on and Americans were fighting in it. For much of the time, however, it was hard to believe that there was a war going on.

Now it is equally hard to believe that Canada is at war in Afghanistan, most of the time. I keep thinking that it is somebody else's war. But we have bought into it, and Canadians are fighting and killing and being killed. I keep running into appealing young Canadians who are anxious to do their duty, or have already done it, and fortunately come back in one piece. I find it very hard to say anything much to them, except express good wishes, because I have a feeling that this war, like all previous invasions of Afghanistan over the past two centuries, is going to end badly for the invaders. And let's face it, we are invaders.

Though some people may find this a frivolous remark, I take my pessimism from my reading of George McDonald Fraser's Flashman, the first of a long and well-written satirical series about a fictional British soldier of the 19th century, on the surface a great hero of the Empire, in actuality a cunning cowardly opportunist who never did the right thing except for a bad reason. The novel Flashman is set in the first British-Afghan war, 1839-42. In it, Britain intervened in Afghanistan for reasons that seem sufficient at the time, sets up a friendly government in Kabul, only to see that government lose support and be replaced by much more hostile one, which first expels the British Army holding Kabul and then slaughters it down to the last man as it retreats to British India. In the novel young Harry Flashman survives; in real life it was somebody else and he was the only survivor.

I read this novel about 1970, and so it had a fair amount of influence. At least I knew something about the first Afghan war and how it went off the rails, even before the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and its occupation went off the rails. It has simply been for a long time a piece of my historical understanding then invaded Afghanistan is a bad idea, and setting up a friendly government there through occupation is unlikely to work. The Russian experience in Afghanistan and the American experience in Vietnam and the French experience in both Vietnam and Algeria are all in my skull, and though I think the Taliban are despicable, I have wondered from most of the past decade why anyone would think things would go differently this time.

The answer seems to be that policymakers in the Imperial capital live in dream world of personal or collective ambition where getting out a message of confidence and this time it will work out is far more important than the facts on the ground in the actual theater of operations. Next to nobody in Washington with real authority knows any Afghan language, or seems to see Afghanistan itself as anything but a stepping-stone to some greater goal. Canadian government circles have adopted the goal of supporting the United States and NATO while afflicted with a similar ignorance.

I am not passing myself off as some kind of expert on the affairs of Afghanistan. But I can say that every realistic and detailed discussion of the country I have read in recent years supports my pessimistic view that one day NATO and the United States will just have to leave Afghanistan, and Canada's Afghan war will be over. The resulting disorder in Afghanistan will probably be terrible-- it's terrible now -- but what Stephen Harper or Bob Rae think about things there will have absolutely no effect on how things work out.

If you feel like following this up, I suggest you recent discussions of the Afghan situation. One of them is by a well-known British-Pakistani leftist writer, Tariq Ali. He's been around a long time and knows something about how the world works. If a lefty critic who thought that the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake is too much for you, even though he was broadly right, why not go to one of the few nonpartisan American sources, the McClatchy news service, and read one of their recent articles entitled, very directly: Experts: U.S. has no long-term political strategy for Afghanistan.

After nine years. No long-term strategy. You tell me how it is going to work out.

Update: For more along this line, Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek says this (my emphasis):

As Barack Obama goes through one of his most difficult periods as president, you might wonder what it would have been like if the other guy had won. We will never know, of course, but in one area, John McCain provides us with some clues. He would have tried to overthrow the government of Iran. In a speech on June 10, later published as a cover essay in The New Republic, McCain urged that we "unleash America's full moral power" to topple the Tehran regime. The speech highlights one of the crucial failings of McCain's world view, one in which rhetoric replaces analysis, and fantasy substitutes for foreign policy.
Well said, except it's not just McCain's world view, and those failings include a distorted image of America's role in world affairs.

Image: Canadians in Kandahar


  1. Anonymous10:53 pm

    "Never get involved in a land war in Asia". Too late, dammit!

  2. Hee of my favorite lines from Civ 4.

    Time for a little bit of honesty, but we ain't ever going to see THAT from this government.