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This is Our Vietnam: Self-delusion has Led Us to Throw Away a Chance to Negotiate Peace and Nation-Build in Afghanistan
22 October 2001
There's a new war game. Any number of players, comfortable in their armchairs, can join in; each takes a different role - general, diplomat or aid expert. The goal is very simple - you to have to get rid of the Taliban and "save" Afghanistan; the only prerequisites for play are as little knowledge of the country, and as much wishful thinking as possible. The name of the game is Nation Builder; through hit-and-run raids on abandoned Taliban installations, you plot your "broad-based representative government" and the cultural reprogramming that will end violence, poverty and the oppression of women.
Does that idea seem tasteless in the current grave situation? It stems from anger at the self-delusion now evident in much public opinion, persisting in the belief that attacking a poor, desperate, brutalized country will, in the long run, be good for it - just a dose of nasty medicine and then a Hindu Kush utopia. This Disneyfication of reality is as repulsive as the hawks' vengeful mission to capture Osama bin Laden (which at least is honest). While no one would question the Nation Builders' sincere desire to improve the Afghans' lot, they are being duped into complicity with another terrible episode of Afghan history, an episode in which the country's fate is secondary to western interests - getting rid of Bin Laden and installing a regime more likely than the Taliban to facilitate oil and gas development in Central Asia.
Today, Jack Straw will devote his speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies to nation building. Why is this fascination with Afghan tribal conflict now center stage? It's simple. The moral fantasy of a good war is falling apart after last week's squabble with aid agencies over what hampers the humanitarian operation (bombing or the Taliban). The truth is out; as anyone could have foretold (and a few did) you could never "umbilically link" military and the humanitarian operations, since they are at odds with each other. Bombing fuel dumps, water systems, aid depots and roads cannot avoid pushing a fragile country like Afghanistan into outright catastrophe and it was absurd to have ever thought that anything else could be true. There is no point in squealing about Taliban interference with aid convoys; it happens in many third world conflicts, as warring parties fight over aid to feed their own hungry forces, and use food as a weapon. If you make aid a high-profile element of your offensive strategy, as Bush and Blair have done, it ceases to be impartial and neutral and becomes politicized; one of the Taliban's strongest current cards that could be used to subvert the western will to war is the hunger of the Afghan people. Horror of horrors, the Taliban could become desperate enough to use it.
The problem about the game of Nation Builder is that it is a fantasy - nothing in it matches what we read or hear. For the sake of argument, let's ignore military strategy and presume that bombing Afghanistan for the last two weeks has been to some purpose; let's presume hit-and-run attacks like the one this weekend also served some purpose; let's pretend that the likelihood of protracted guerrilla warfare is small. You're then confronted with two problems: who will run the "broad-based government", and who has the credibility to mediate it?
The first is now the biggest problem for the US and Britain. The Taliban run a brutal regime, but many Afghans put up with it because it is preferable to the previous violent anarchy. Before toppling a repressive regime which at least has brought some stability to 95% of Afghanistan, you need to be certain that you can put something better, and permanent, in its place. There is not much hope of either prospect; as Ahmed Rashid describes in his terrifying history of Afghanistan over the past decade, the country's tribal system has fractured and, in many places, totally broken down. Loyalties have fragmented and are now to brutal warlords controlling valleys, routes and towns; larger units are constructed from fragile alliances.
Betrayal and brutality are characteristics common to all these factions. General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance (NA), who was said last week to be poised to take Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of alliance special forces, has committed atrocities as horrible as any Taliban commander. The reluctance to help the NA by bombing Taliban frontlines north of Kabul is evidence of the US fear that horrors would happen in the city if the Taliban fell.
The truth is dawning that, although everybody would like to eliminate the Taliban from the equation, any future Afghan regime will have to include some Taliban elements - the "moderate Taliban" as Colin Powell described them last week in Pakistan. Negotiations with sections of the Taliban are simply a matter of time; but by the time they happen, a huge war will have been fought at terrible cost to the Afghan people. And for what? Perhaps for no more than a New Taliban regime, a rejigged disposition of power among equally odious warlords. The second problem is little better. The favorite analogy is Cambodia, which had a large UN peacekeeping operation. But it didn't have the bitter ethnic divisions of Afghanistan, and it had some semblance of a state apparatus.
These drawbacks make Turkey reluctant to lead a Muslim UN peacekeeping force as the west wants; neither Turkey (which supports Dostum and the Uzbeks of the NA) nor the UN (seen as a stooge for western interests) are perceived as neutral by Afghans. The UN knows that it has been impotent in Afghan nation-building over the last 15 years, and there's no reason to think that the task will be any easier after a traumatic war with the US.
If the US had been prepared to hold fire, it might have been different. We lost an extraordinary opportunity to negotiate peace and help rebuild a nation in Afghanistan when Pakistan withdrew support for the Taliban, its protégé, after September 11. A major piece in the puzzle of regional rivalries dramatically shifted position. Who knows what dividends patience and pressure at that point would have paid later? Instead, the US refused all negotiations with the Taliban, and lurched into a shambolic war with little evidence of a political or military strategy. The US political imperative to make urgent, visible attempts to capture Bin Laden overrode Central Asian stability. Afghans are again caught in the crossfire of other countries' disputes.
The first body bags are now on their way home to the US, adding to the number of American families stricken by grief and loss. Once again - for what? Predictably, relentlessly, this conflict shows every sign of becoming the Vietnam of our generation - the graveyard of strategic interests and ideals, as well as lives. And it will divide the west as bitterly as Vietnam did.