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Reader ripostes: Win or lose in Afghanistan

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COMMENTS

18 June 2012 15:09

Two responses to Raoul Heinrichs' post on the language of defeat in Afghanistan. Geoff Randal writes:

UNSW historian Ian Bickerton grappled with the question of how to measure success in his book The Illusion of Victory: The True Costs of War. For starters, you might look at the war aims announced early in the conflict. Then there are the effects to consider, such as damage done, gains achieved. And another take after a few decades should also illuminate. Applying this to the last two hundred years, he found that the meanings of victory and defeat has become 'blurred and ambiguous'.

As well, the urge these days to order events into memes with beginnings and ends, preferably between mealtimes, make the question nigh on impossible to deal with.

Harry Gelber:

Raoul Heinrichs' piece on Afghanistan is surely not so much mistaken as, in several respects, beside the point. It is written as if military 'victory' had always been the West's chief objective. Yet political settlement, given that no major Western ally was ever remotely interested in staying there longer than absolutely necessary, was always going to be the inevitable outcome.

That the US, NATO et al have 'lost' the war is far from clear. It is certainly the case that the Western allies began with ambitions and claims that were unrealistically grandiloquent. We were supposed to be going for 'Victory' and bring Law and Order, Democracy and Human Rights to the country.

That was always nonsense since it implied, at minimum, not just 'regime change' but a reshaping of the entire Afghan social and political structure. The real and essential aim was always the elimination of al Qaeda people, bases and training grounds from Afghanistan and the installation of a government that would not be sympathetic to their return or to unduly militant radical Islam.

That aim may well be on the way to being achieved. The West failed for years to understand that while the Taliban are a long and firmly-established group who cannot be kept out of any serious discussion about Afghanistan's future government, they did not and do not control al Qaeda. Bin Laden became their honoured guest largely because he had stood in battle with the Mujahideen against the Soviets and spent lots of money on Taliban objectives. As their guest, he received protection.

But the Pashtun Taliban belong to Afghanistan. Their guests do not. The Americans saw the point years ago. As the late Richard Holbrooke pointed out: 'There is nothing there for us: there is no possibility that we can put together an order that would survive our withdrawal.' And two months ago, in April, Mrs Clinton herself put the point even more bluntly: 'Our only goal is to open the door for Afghans to sit down with other Afghans and work out the future for their country.'

Nor should we forget that the allied presence has brought serious Afghan progress in many areas of civil affairs. Education, including for women, is flourishing. The Afghan GDP is rising at rates not far short of those of China. Infant mortality is sharply down. In very many places farmers can drive to town without getting shot on the way.

It is true that many of these and other gains might vanish once most of the Western allies leave. No one can yet be certain. The real issue will become, as in some previous periods of Afghan history, whether it can be a peaceful buffer between contending and mutually suspicious Asian powers like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India. Only the other day, at the most recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Presidents Hu Jintao and Karzai spoke about a 'strategic and cooperative partnership' between their countries while President Putin declared that 'China is Russia's strategic partner.'

But strong foreign competition for Afghanistan's newly-discovered and apparently very large mineral deposits – even Chinese railway construction — may well be compatible with widely agreed geo-strategic neutrality. It might be a seriously amusing historical irony if the ring of major powers that surrounds Afghanistan could agree on a buffer not entirely unlike the one which the British and Russian empires shaped in the 1880s.

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