Am I alone in feeling disappointed at the statement of support for the war in Afghanistan provided in an interview on Sunday by Menzies Campbell, the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems)? This came in the context of his call for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some of the forces could then be re-deployed in Afghanistan, where they were needed and could be utilised more effectively, according to Mr Campbell.
I suppose I already knew that the Lib Dems (the only major UK party to oppose sending British troops into Iraq) supported our participation in the fighting in Afghanistan. But for me, Campbell’s endorsement provided confirmation of what I’ve been saying in different posts throughout this blog: that there’s been a concerted campaign recently to build support from liberals for the war in Afghanistan.
How is it that Afghanistan is a liberal cause while Iraq is not? The obvious answer is that the Taliban-Al Qaeda (often conflated as the one Enemy in Afghanistan) represents an anti-liberal, anti-democratic, tyrannical ideology. But so did Saddam Hussein. OK: the Taliban-Al Qaeda had proved through 9/11 that they were a serious threat to the West and that therefore they had to be eliminated. The war against them qualified as a Just War, whereas the WMD threat in Iraq was non-existent and we were hoodwinked into believing in it by Tony Blair.
Well, to qualify as a Just War, there needs to be 1) a strong chance that the just aims of the war can actually be achieved through the conflict; and 2) a rational basis for believing that the benefit that is sought outweighs the evil of the destruction and loss of life that the war brings about. If the first of these conditions is not met, it follows that the second condition also does not obtain. As I’ve argued in my previous two posts on Afghanistan, there is very little likelihood that the US and Britain (and whatever other NATO allies get involved) will be able to defeat the Taliban by military means. Nor is there much convincing evidence that the struggle against Al Qaeda or Islamically inspired terrorism in general has been advanced by the war in Afghanistan.
But even if one sincerely believed that the Taliban-Al Qaeda could be defeated militarily in Afghanistan, there would still be the question of whether the goal of removing them from power justifies all the loss and damage of innocent lives that has been the inevitable consequence of the war. Maybe if Al Qaeda was eliminated for good, you could think that this might constitute a moral benefit that was so great that lives had unfortunately to be sacrificed in pursuit of it. But who really believes that a putative military victory in Afghanistan would result in the demise of Al Qaeda? In some ways, it might strengthen support for them. And as for the Taliban, one is reminded of the old Cold War saying, ‘better red than dead’! In this case, ask the Afghans who’ve lost dear relatives and friends whether they’d prefer them alive if it meant the Taliban were back in power. Admittedly, some might say the sacrifice was worthwhile; but I bet more would say it wasn’t.
And yet, we’ve decided on their behalf that all those deaths are worthwhile – in the name of democracy. But what chance have we got of (re)-establishing democracy in Afghanistan: a country riven by regional and tribal differences, and in the hands of the warlords and drug barons? The US drive to democratise the Middle East is widely viewed in Muslim countries as a synonym for attempting to impose Western control and secularise Islamic states. So do we think we’ll win much support – inside and outside the country – for our efforts to defend democracy through military conflict with (nominally) Islamic forces in Afghanistan?
But maybe that’s what our presence in Afghanistan is really about – that ‘liberation of the Afghan people’ business being just so much PR fluff: we want the country to be under Western control and we want to replace an Islamic system of government with a secular democracy. Those are the objectives, aren’t they? So the (extremist) Muslim critics of our actions have got it right in this case. But we think we’re in the right.
We characterise the first of these objectives as ‘self-defence’: we have to be in control in Afghanistan, because if we’re not, the Taliban-Al Qaeda will be, and then we’ll be even more vulnerable to terrorism. Whether this consequence would actually flow from the Taliban getting back into power in Afghanistan is debatable: there are other and better ways of fighting terrorism than slugging it out with the Taliban-Al Qaeda in a South Asian backwater. But then, as I’ve argued in my previous posts on Afghanistan, it’s about more than just winning an isolated battle against the terrorists: at stake are the goals of maintaining Western control of the Middle East as a whole, isolating Iran, and preventing Al Qaeda from getting their hands on the potential nuclear arsenal of that country or the actual nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. It’s a region-wide strategic conflict, according to whose logic Afghanistan just can’t be allowed to fall to the Taliban.
Especially as the Taliban represent everything that we find odious, primitive and barbaric about Islam. The Taliban gives us a form of Islam that is a worthy object of our dislike and fear of that faith (our Islamophobia). Because the Taliban are so authoritarian, oppressive, sexist, and narrowly literalistic and dogmatic in their interpretation of Islam, this allows us to feel justified in ejecting them from power and attempting to set up a secular democracy in their place. It’s not ‘regime change’ as in Iraq, we say to ourselves, but a fight that has been elevated to truly symbolic proportions: one between our real Enemy – ‘Islamism’, ‘extreme Islam’ – and what we think we represent: freedom, equality, progress. On top of the whole strategic game, that’s the other reason why we think we can’t and mustn’t lose in Afghanistan: it could be used by the Islamists to show to the Muslim world that history is not necessarily on the side of the West; that the ‘end of history’ may not have to be the triumph of secular-liberal democracy everywhere – first against Communism, and then against Islam. And maybe defeat would shake our own conviction a little that the future belongs to us and our values.
But this is a long way from a simple war objective – ridding Afghanistan of a tyranny – that might provide a Just War-based vindication of all the carnage there, if we thought we could actually achieve it. It’s not ultimately about defending the Afghan people; seriously, how many people in the West really care about the Afghan people the way, for instance, they claim to care about the poor in Africa or other parts of Asia? On one level, we probably think they’re actually to blame for the misery of indigence and violent conflict that has been their lot for at least the past 30 years. They’re primitive, ill-educated people – we say to ourselves – that have allowed themselves to be easy prey to warlords and extremists; and not only that, but they produce opium crops on an industrial scale for export to the West. It’s not surprising that a people like that was so ignorant and docile as to accept the Taliban yoke.
In short, they’re the sort of Muslim for whom one can feel little sympathy. No wonder we think their lives are so expendable in defence of our Western interests and values. The liberal cause must be upheld after all – at any price.