David Cameron, the beleaguered British Conservative Party leader, joined the debate on Afghanistan yesterday by reaffirming the government’s line that “we cannot afford to fail” in Afghanistan.
How is ‘failure’ defined? This is not so much losing the war, as no one is prepared to refer openly to the possibility of a rout such as that which the Afghan Mujahideen inflicted on the Russians or the Vietcong inflicted on the US in Vietnam. No, ‘failure’ is thought of as not seeing the mission through to the end: giving up on it and leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.
As Mr Cameron put it, “We need to look at how we’re working together with our NATO allies and with the Americans, to make sure there’s more unity in our command and in our purpose, and we also do need other NATO countries to do more”. In other words, we need to stick to our purpose and, in order to ensure that we don’t lose our morale and will to go on, there needs to be more commitment from America’s and Britain’s NATO allies. And underlying this, there is indeed the tacit fear that the whole thing could unravel and we could be staring military defeat in the face: “Britain is definitely bearing its share of the burden, but we need more helicopters, we need more support, and also we need other NATO countries to play their part”.
But while failure is giving up or (unspoken nightmare scenario) actual defeat, the politicians are not prepared to openly articulate what the nature and cost of ‘success’ might be. Mr Cameron merely alluded to this when he called for “gritty, hard-headed decisions” on how the international community operates in Afghanistan. This is code for being prepared to support an escalation of the US / NATO military campaign to defeat the Taliban. In other words, a new counter-offensive against the Taliban may be being planned, and we’re going to have to accept the brutality and destructiveness of this campaign, which may be the only means to avoid the afore-mentioned ‘failure’.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then real, human casualties are the first consequence of the warmongers’ deceits. One of the reasons why Western political and military will over Afghanistan may be wavering at the moment is that politicians realise the immense human cost that would have to be paid to secure anything reminiscent of a military ‘victory’ over the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies. A huge deployment of military personnel and firepower would be necessary: clearly, therefore, requiring the support of all the members of NATO. We’d be looking at a large-scale, probably long-term, intensive counter-insurgency / anti-guerrilla war waged on multiple fronts, including – most dangerously of all – across the border in Pakistan. And we’d have to be willing to undertake the mass killing of Taliban and Al-Qaeda combatants and supporters, including probably civilian sympathisers, suppliers and informers – difficult in a violent and fast-moving combat situation to make a clear-cut distinction between active terrorists (directly involved in acts of violence) and passive terrorists (those who provide the infrastructure, and moral and practical support vital for any insurgency to be prosecuted).
Are we really willing for a military campaign such as this to be waged on our behalf in Afghanistan? Would such a brutal war be morally justifiable, even apart from its uncertain prospects of success (see my opinion in the previous blog entry that we cannot achieve a military victory in Afghanistan)? Furthermore, if we enter into an all-out war such as this without our eyes being wide open to the scale of the conflict and the carnage that would be necessary, on our side as well as the enemy’s – and without being 100% behind the effort and prepared to accept all the human and economic costs – then we could well be heading for the even greater failure of military defeat, as opposed to the limited failure of abandoning the mission. We have to be aware and honest about what ‘success’ would entail in Afghanistan and make an open, conscious decision to embrace the measures necessary to achieve it. Then, at least, if (and I would say when) defeat came, we could at least say in all conscience that we took our choice and paid the price. But going into something like this without being honest about what’s involved entails accepting the casualties of war while lacking the will to take moral and practical responsibility for them – and making failure more certain than ever as our will and purpose is not set and definite.
And even if the unlikely event of military victory occurred, would this really constitute success? In two senses: firstly, by the brutality of our actions and the inevitable destruction of innocent lives, we would have demonstrated to those in the Muslim world who are inclined to be sympathetic towards extremist beliefs and movements that their hostility towards the West is justified, and that they should perhaps consider escalating their moral support for Al-Qaeda and other ‘Islamist’ organisations into practical and active commitment to the struggle. In this way, we would have strengthened the hand of the terrorists and ensured that the fight against them would last even longer. We would have won the battle but not the war. And if the Islamist cause was boosted in this way, how long would it be before we faced a new version of the Taliban and a new insurgency in Afghanistan?
Secondly, and related to this, we would have greatly damaged the moral credibility of our cause, with the possible consequence that our will to continue the fight against terrorism would be weakened at the very moment that our resolve needed to be stronger than ever, given the increased support for terrorism that our very actions had brought about. The ‘failure’ of the Americans in Vietnam and that of the Soviets in Afghanistan had similar consequences: undermining belief and confidence in the values and social structures of the defeated countries. Whether we were ‘victorious’ or – as is more likely – defeated in an all-out war against the Taliban, the demoralising effect could be the same – as could the ultimate outcome, in that the future and peace of Afghanistan would still be far from secure even in victory.
And this is precisely what the terrorists are striving to achieve: their long-term strategy all along has been to suck the US and its Western allies into a devastating long-term conflict that can’t be won; because as soon as the terrorists are thwarted in one theatre of war or tactic, they spring up in another war zone and come up with new terrifying forms of violence. Their ultimate objective is to sap the morale, the economy and the military power of the West – and to finally render us incapable or unwilling to resist their power grab in regions we can no longer control, and in societies where we have lost our credibility and influence.
Far better, then, to step back from the abyss that awaits us in Afghanistan. This would not be failure but a strategic retreat. The greater failure would be the long-term moral and tactical error that prosecuting war against the Taliban to the bitter end – victorious or not – would represent. And given that defeat in such a war would be the more likely scenario than victory, far better to carry out an orderly retreat while we can than to run into another Dunkirk.
If the Taliban subsequently seized back power in Afghanistan, this would regrettably be Afghanistan’s tragedy but not ours, which is what would result from going on in pursuit of a pyrrhic or elusive victory.
And this would not necessarily be the enormous setback in the war against terrorism that the politicians try to make out that it would be. Terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional military means. Terrorism springs from a combination of hatred and moral outrage supported by an absolute belief system. The only way to defeat it is to address the real grievances and problems upon which that hatred and outrage feed. We need to focus on being reconciled with the Muslim world and demonstrating that we are not its enemies. But to do this we have to be truly honest about the extent to which we are or are not really hostile or prejudiced towards Islam.
Only by openly confronting our fears can we begin to overcome them. One of the consequences of a failure to do this will surely be the moral and tactical failure of further futile violence in Afghanistan.