Friday, June 27, 2008

Afghan Quagmire

Deluded solutions to genuine problems in Afghanistan
My column in Tribune this week

The hundredth British death in the Afghan War should lead to some questions about just what the British, Canadians and other non-Americans are doing there. In Afghanistan, the fog of war became chokingly miasmic when it became a war on an abstraction “terror”.

As we have seen, the Bush administration, with the slavish apologetics of Blair, has found no crime that cannot be justified by indiscriminate references to combating “terrorism”.

Living down by ground zero on the fateful September 11, I remember vividly the front pages of the tabloid picturing the beturbanned head of Osama Bin Laden with a dead or alive message tacked up in shop windows and homes.

In the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, with the pungent smell of burning wafting uptown to the United Nations, the UN Security Council unanimously declared solidarity with the USA. It looked like everybody wanted Bin Laden’s head.

The wording was ambiguous but the meaning was clear, and the Taliban refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden left them with no friends in the world. There have been quibbles about whether the Security Council resolutions condemning the attacks and invoking the UN Charter’s right to self-defence actually authorized military action against Taliban, but unlike the invasion of Iraq, nobody on the Security Council at the time or since has condemned the invasion of Afghanistan and removal of the Taliban.

Frankly, many of the people who opposed the invasion would have picketed the Normandy landings as an act of aggression, but in this case there was a clear international consensus that it was a justified response. Bin Laden claimed responsibility and the Taliban sheltered him.

In that sense, British participation in the attack was a display of solidarity with an old ally, against an evil regime, which was why most British supported it. Never mind the conspiracy theories of impending pipelines and counter-Kipling cries of the great game, there were indeed good and credible reasons to go into Afghanistan. But talk about roads to hell! When you see a road-building crew with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld & Co., you don't need a street sign to tell you which way the road goes.

However, the CIA’s way of winning in Afghanistan was to reinforce the power of the war-lords whose anarchic bickering had made the Taliban seem relatively attractive to many Afghans. Karzai’s government is still trying to cope with the consequences of that decision. Indeed, it would be nice to hear an acknowledgment, let alone an act of contrition for all the CIA resources that backed the Taliban through the Pakistani military all those years, and whose proxy wars against the Soviets had armed and funded the various warlords over the years.

But soon after the invasion, the search for ac wanted criminals, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, morphed Orwellianly into a war on a fatuous abstraction, the “War on Terror”. The Bush administration began withdrawing its own troops from Afghanistan, leaving the NATO Sepoys to take up the burden, so that they could begin gearing up for the attack on Iraq. Although advertised as part of the War on Terror, The Ba’athist regime had had its own brisk ways with Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism and quite clearly had nothing at all to do with 9-11.

Early on, the US cable TV screens showed the Minitrue emanated triptych of terror, the burning towers flanked by Bin Laden and Saddam under the rubric of “War on Terror”. And then Bin Laden disappeared from the screens as suddenly and completely as he disappeared from White House priorities. Suddenly it was Saddam, no beard and no turban who was the target.

In effect, the White House went hunting the Snark in Afghanistan, where he turned out to be a Boojum in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq actually allowed Al-Qaeda into Iraq for the first time. Ironically, White House is now trying to pat itself on the back because they had some success in reverting to the Al-Qaeda-free status-quo, they have made exactly the same mistakes as they did in Afghanistan – paying a bunch of tribal war lords to change their allegiance so that they can fight the Shi’a militia who happen to be the majority in the elected government.

Nation-building with a wrecking ball seems to be a Bush specialty, so no matter how virtuous in intent the British presence, it does not seem to give London much influence over American lawlessness in Baghram, Guantanamo and even in the conduct of the war. It simply makes the UK an accomplice without giving it a voice.

Indeed, if the stories are true about prison hulks patrolling off Diego Garcia can we be sure the voices from London would be those of reason? Somehow, the “purity of arms” is collaterally tarnished. It was right to go in, but surely there should be some serious conditioning for continued presence. After all, you can agree that there is a genuine problem without agreeing to be part of a disastrously deluded and vicious solution.

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