Sunday, December 20, 2009

Asking the Afghans

Ian Williams: Why not ask the Afghans what they want?
December 18, 2009 Tribune

There are many people and organisations soliciting my support to get the troops out of Afghanistan immediately. Somehow, I can’t share their certainty. Unlike them, I want to know what the Afghans think. Earlier this year, when they were asked in an ABC/BBC/ARD opinion poll, 59 per cent of them wanted Nato to stay and more than 90 per cent wanted the Taliban defeated. Only 4 per cent admitted to supporting the Taliban. That is almost certainly an underestimate, but support is probably not significantly higher.

In the protestors’ imagination, Vietnam and Iraq conflate together with absolutist pacifism to a simple opposition to war in general and the Afghan war in particular. There are some who would have picketed the Normandy landings, but even their pacifism is not always so pure, since for many it seems to derive from the assumption that their own country is always wrong. I knew many sincere Communist Party members who worked fervently in CND, but were upset when the Committee of 100 protested in Red Square about the Soviet weaponry.

How many people who protested against the first Iraq war raised a voice about the earlier Iraqi invasions of Iran or Kuwait? Many of those who were shocked at the Nato intervention in Kosovo had few problems in maintaining a stiff upper lip for the victims of Vukovar, Srebrenica, Racak and the whole train of massacres that Slobodan Milosevic had directed over the previous decade.

If Tony Blair ever wants a retirement home or even, at current rates, political asylum, he should go to Kosovo where he will find not only a welcome, but also streets named after him. It was his finest hour, where the socialist governments of Europe and the people of Kosovo were united in wanting Milosevic’s brand of nationalist socialism stopped.

Which brings me back to my point. Before taking to the streets, why not ask those at the receiving end?

The United States’ presence in Vietnam was never tested in an election. Reportedly, it even thwarted an election that Ho Chi Minh, wearing his national liberation hat, might have won. The US was saving an unelected and corrupt regime with little or no legitimacy – even if the Communist regime afterwards was little better.

In Iraq, high percentages of those polled consistently want the Americans out. There is little or no evidence that they wanted them in to begin with, although the confused answers to the polling and their own government’s weak standing, might suggest that, like St Augustine, many Iraqis want the troops out – but not just yet. Foreign occupations are rarely popular. If Iraq had installed a new government and pulled out of Kuwait instead of looting and annexing the “19th province”, there might have been boulevards named after Saddam Hussein.

If George W Bush and Dick Cheney (and Blair, one presumes) had deposed the “indefatigable” Saddam and helped the military take over, the chances are that Baghdadis would be strolling down Bush Boulevard.

Barack Obama is now being accused of selling out positions he never held. First, he was never the leftist that the conservative right feared and some on the left foolishly dreamed about. Second, he always distinguished between Iraq, a war of (erroneous) choice, and Afghanistan – where the attack that killed thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre was plotted.

Iraq began as an occupation – a singularly and brutally inept one. But it has changed. The big difference is that Obama has set a timetable to get the troops out and shows few signs of wanting to hold on to some neo-liberal-inspired Mesopotamian empire. The Iraqis are hedging on that Augustinian “yet”, but does anyone really doubt that, if their government called on the Americans to get out, they would go?

During the presidential election campaign, Obama berated the Bush administration for diverting troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, so he is not adopting the Republican strategy now. The question is what to do with the troops. Poll figures show a noticeable decline in support for the Nato presence over the past few years, which suggests they have already been there too long and that Bush’s tactics were alienating potential friends.

One thing is clear. It is not an “occupation,” when the majority of the population supports the Nato presence and a twice-elected government wants the troops to remain. It is a consequence of previously failed tactics that the last Afghan election was so parlous, even if Hamid Karzai would probably have won on a recount – and did actually win enough of the votes on the first count to take office if he had been running under British or American first-past-the-post rules.

So, far from supporting some Afghan liberation fight, those who simply call for a withdrawal are flying in the face of the wishes of the Afghan majority and would leave them in the hands of a regressive and medievally bloodthirsty terrorist group that could not win an election.

By all means, the conduct of the war and its tactics deserve close and critical scrutiny. But those who make reflexive calls of “troops out” are in danger of abandoning a small and faraway country of which we probably know too much, since the West bears considerable responsibility for its present plight. The left should liberate itself from mental Manichaean slavery and reconnect to the complexity of reality on the ground.

No comments: