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Afghanistan and us: another view

Afghanistan and us: another view

Prof. Emeritus (History) Robert Malcolmson offers a response to Scott Kemp's article “The Real Lessons of Afghanistan?”, Issue #4, 2010.

On September 11, 2001, I was preparing to meet for the first time my first-year lecture course on “Modern World History”. This introductory class was to start at 11:30 a.m. and, among things, I had planned to distinguish between geological history and human history, and to raise for discussion the meaning of “modern”. But the events in the United States that morning made me think hard and wonder how, if at all, I should change my script. In fact, since I concluded that anything I might say would be banal and poorly informed, I made only a few brief remarks at the end of the class suggesting that the events of this day would almost certainly have major long-term consequences for international affairs.

Prof. Emeritus (History) Robert Malcolmson Prof. Emeritus (History) Robert Malcolmson (Photo by Patricia Malcolmson)

Still, while saying little I was trying to figure out how this crisis for the United States was likely to unfold. The facts from that day indicated that the death toll from these attacks was likely to be at least as high as that from the attack on Pearl Harbor – the only other major assault on American territory in modern history – and that the US was bound to respond robustly, just as it had after December 7, 1941.

Any American President in this situation had to strike back hard. (One who didn’t would probably be impeached.) Action against Afghanistan, which harboured Al-Qaeda and was then diplomatically recognized by hardly any other nation, was inescapable. At the same time I knew that all foreign interventions in Afghanistan during the past couple of centuries had failed. The country was a graveyard for uninvited outsiders. But maybe, I thought, the combination of American might and American wealth, if effectively deployed, might tame this still largely tribal society. Moreover, almost all the world was, quite remarkably, at that moment on America’s side (even Iran – no lover of the Taliban – was in 2001-02 trying to be helpful).

The U.S. threw away many of the advantages it enjoyed for a few months after September 11, and it shot itself in the foot by diverting most of its attention from the legitimate mission in Afghanistan to the illegitimate one in Iraq.

The mass murders of September 11th could make only a dent in American power. The U.S., the sole surviving superpower, was too strong, too rich, and too resilient to be weakened by this blow. So what could the attackers be thinking of? What did such a tiny body of men hope to accomplish? No doubt they had different objectives, but the one I thought most likely was that they hoped to provoke the US to respond in some irrational manner, to over-react, and thus get itself into major trouble.

This, in fact, is just what happened during the following year and a half. Rather than make a serious investment in Afghanistan, Washington used 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, with the disastrous consequences that have now been overwhelmingly documented. The US threw away many of the advantages it enjoyed for a few months after September 11, and it shot itself in the foot by diverting most of its attention from the legitimate mission in Afghanistan to the illegitimate one in Iraq. Now, several years later, the US and its allies, including Canada, routinely confront the harsh probability that what might be done in Afghanistan is too little, too late. Current allied actions are bound to be tarnished by the nine preceding years of failure – NATO’s stated objectives have, for the most part, not been achieved – and many facts on the ground suggest that progress is modest, in some parts of the country even non-existent.

Canadian forces on patrol in Afghanistan Robert Malcolmson wonders just how successful  the NATO mission to Afghanistan has been. (Department of National Defence photo)

The facts that I have in mind are ones that Scott Kemp completely fails to mention. They include the revival of Afghanistan’s opium trade and its implications for the distributions of wealth and power; the tribal realities, prominence of warlords, and widespread illiteracy of the country (facts incompatible with “modernization”); a President – Lieutenant Kemp conveniently ignores the presence of Hamid Karzai – who holds his position partly as a result of rigged elections and rules (almost everyone agrees on this) via networks of corruption that encompass tens of thousands of Afghans; a Taliban enemy that enjoys the advantages of fighting on home ground and having nowhere else to go (aside from across the border with Pakistan); and public support for the war from democratic electorates that continues to erode (nine years of failure have dampened their optimism).

Completely to ignore all these matters is to stack the deck intellectually. And this strategy of distortion is linked to what Lieutenant Kemp does highlight: that is, our presumed moral superiority and the “evil” of the other side. (The Soviets also justified their involvement in Afghanistan by appealing to Enlightenment values, albeit Marxist ones.) Large chunks of his essay are moralistic, highlighting our virtues and the “cowardice” and “ignorance” of the enemy. This sort of self-righteousness is almost always detrimental to clear and realistic thinking about international politics. It pushes inconvenient facts aside; it rejects nuance and complexity in favour of simplistic categories of explanation. It fosters just the sort of unsubtle, constricted thinking that Lieutenant Kemp says he learned to be skeptical of thanks to his liberal education.

My own view is that we are likely to have to move towards some version of containment. Hostile forces can be and have been kept at arm’s length.

To illustrate, Lieutenant Kemp claims that “Individuals and countries have two choices when attacked: fight back or submit”. But this is clearly not the choice in the real world of politics at all. The real choice is how to fight back, how to resist, how to defend against a threat. And here there are always options. Submission is rarely one of them. Military spokesmen usually want us to think that their proposed way of resisting is the only viable option. In Afghanistan the preferred policy keeps changing. Most recently – and it is a sad fact that more than 150 Canadians may have died to little purpose – the military’s optimism has focused on the training by NATO of the Afghan so-called security forces (which few rate highly), and at least fewer Canadians would die this way.

Sometimes in our messy world whatever choices are made will probably have some regrettable consequences. Lieutenant Kemp is essentially arguing for more of what has already been done, and unfortunately most of what has been done since 2001 has been unsuccessful. But openly to admit to these failures would involve for NATO a loss of face and, possibly, electoral pressure at home to withdraw altogether. This is a terrible dilemma. My own view is that we are likely to have to move towards some version of containment. Hostile forces can be and have been kept at arm’s length. They can be hemmed in. They can continue to exist but with diminished potential to cause damage.

And over time they may change. Indeed, they almost certainly will change. This, after all, is what did happen in the Soviet Union.

Of course, containment is not ideal. It is likely to leave in place facts that we don’t like, such as a Taliban presence of some sort in Afghanistan. But it might be the least of the evils, if other outcomes are improbable. Outsiders have often tried to engineer a remaking of other societies in modern history, and have usually failed (Germany and Japan in 1945, after being defeated in total wars, are the main exceptions). These (sometimes well-intended) attempts at political engineering have been one theme in the tragic side of human experience. The force of tragedy, often rooted in hubris, is a recurrent theme in a liberal arts education. It does not, though, seem to have left much of an impression on Lieutenant Kemp.

Professor Emeritus Robert Malcolmson taught in the History Department from 1969 to 2004. He now lives in Nelson, British Columbia.