No Distance Left To Run

November 3, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Posted in International | 5 Comments

Although President Obama has yet to announce whether he’ll commit more troops to Afghanistan, I think we can be certain of one thing: that what is being agonised-over in Washington’s defence & foreign policy establishments isn’t a choice between war and peace, but rather what type of war they’d rather wage.

For a long time, the clear favourite seemed to be a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. COIN advocates have argued that military operations must be accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. For a counter-insurgency to work, the institutions upon which the civilian population relies have to be restored and defended, thereby thwarting an insurgent’s ability to erode the state’s legitimacy & authority. If you believe that this strategy can work in Afghanistan, then it is self-evident that General McChrystal should have all the troops he needs.

However, you should only defend the legitimacy of a state when you’re working with a legitimate government. With Afghanistan’s calamitous, bloody and fraudulent election, the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai’s competitor and the subsequent declaration that this ineffective crook was the ‘victor’, it is wishful thinking to regard this government as being in any way legitimate.

This matters because one of the favoured options for going forward in Afghanistan relies on protecting and strengthening the major population centres; trying to restore the link between the state and the people and providing greater safety & prosperity. However, as one military intelligence official recently told the NYT, “if we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive. Maybe the conversation they should be having in the White House is about devising an exit strategy.



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  1. Have you seen the work of Malalai Joya on the issue? I appreciated “Raising My Voice” enormously when I got hold of it last week. She too is a foe of the military presence

    I have been conflicted because I start from a point of utterly despising theocracy & tyranny across the world, being as I’m a liberal & a universalist, & my contempt for those who would essentially say “Oh, it’s their culture- paki women should have to shut up, wear veils & not be allowed to send their daughters to school because that’s what they do in their country” knows no bounds.

    This has made me ambivalent towards military action, including Iraq, & I certainly didn’t share the anti-war reflexes of others. Yet in recent times, seeing the over-the-cliff conservative hawks in America criticise Obama’s approach, thinking what a nightmare their “policies” would be if enacted (Larison has been a big help in this). So while my natural reaction is to ask what we can do to help, & I know more than enough people in those countries want a free life, I am sceptical as to how it can be brought about- I thought Obama’s handling of the Iran situation measured & reasonable & it was then that I parted company with the neocons & Decent Left on this issue.

    Is it the case that they will sort out the matter themselves without our often counterproductive involvement? I don’t know. I won’t be calling for withdrawl from Afghanistan or Iraq in the near future but I am now more of a sceptic than I was 6 months or so ago.

    PS- What about NY-23, eh? I am proper loving it.

  2. “I am sceptical as to how it can be brought about”

    Through their own efforts, I reckon- we often don’t help, which is why the Iranian opposition, who actually know about the situation, didn’t join the western right-whingers in demanding that Something Be Done.

  3. Y’know, I hadn’t realised until I wrote that post just how much my position relied on the election returning a legitimate government. Whilst I’m no military analyst, the strategy of building safety & infrastructure in Afghanistan’s major population centres seems to be a good move, but the existence of a corrupt & illegitimate government means that every positive development we make will be undermined.

    For what it’s worth, unlike some more cynical folks, I’m not convinced that Afghanistan is ungovernable or immune to the allure of democracy. I think that if we hadn’t got distracted by Iraq, we might have a governable & stable (if still dangerous & precarious) state in that country. But we’ve screwed up quite fatally, and I now don’t see much being achieved with Karzai in power.

  4. […] President seems to have thoroughly rejected my advice on […]

  5. […] The observant among you will note that, in the aftermath of its quite calamitous election, I became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of NATO’s presence in […]

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