Afghan questions: eight years too late
There has been no serious opposition to the West’s disastrous war in Afghanistan since 2001. What’s behind the outburst of questions now?
Suddenly, the UK media and opposition politicians are asking a lot of serious questions about New Labour’s disastrous military mission in Afghanistan. Why are British soldiers dying in increasing numbers? What are we doing in Afghanistan anyway? Whoever wins this week’s election, does the Afghan government which British troops are defending really embody democratic values? And when are UK and Western forces going to get out of there?
All good questions, no doubt. But there are a couple of more fundamental questions that could also apply to those now making a fuss about the Afghan mess. Why has there been so little opposition to the war in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion was launched in 2001? Why has it seemingly taken eight years for these people to realise that something is wrong? And what has changed to make them suddenly so concerned about a destructive military intervention they were happy to support for so long?
These questions are important, not simply as a matter of historical record, or so that those of us who have always opposed the war can indulge in we-told-you-so crowing. They matter because they reveal the weakness of what passes for an anti-war mood in the UK and the West today.
The recent opposition to the war in Afghanistan among politicians, the media and the public is hardly spectacular, yet stands out because it is almost the first time it has happened in the eight years of the conflict. The contrast between attitudes to Britain’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been striking. The Afghan war has never prompted the mass demonstrations, political crises and detailed body counts that we have seen around the Iraq adventure.
Yet both wars were launched on equally dubious pretexts. There was little more evidence linking Afghanistan to the terror attacks of 9/11 than there was proof of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Those who suddenly protest that Britain has no clear achievable war aims in Afghanistan might like to remind us what exactly they thought those were eight years ago. The New Labour government’s favoured excuse for its Afghan war has changed more times than the minister of defence over that period, from terrorism to human rights, drugs, or women’s education.
As writers on spiked have argued since it began, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was a desperate response to a crisis of authority and confidence in the West, an attempt to reassert US and Western power on the global stage in the wake of 9/11 by declaring war, as President George W Bush did, without being able to name your enemy (for example, see Now it is war - but for what?, by Mick Hume). Less than 18 months later, the invasion of Iraq was a more desperate attempt to achieve the same nebulous ends.
It was hardly surprising that two wars launched with such incoherent war aims both ran into trouble. Yet the reaction to them at home was completely different, with Iraq stirring widespread opposition whilst Afghanistan did not.
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This contrast showed that the protests over Iraq were never about war as such. Instead the Iraq invasion and its aftermath became a symbol of the collapsing authority of the Blair government in the UK and the Bush administration in the USA. Thus people who had supported the US-UK alliance through the first Gulf War in 1991, the Kosovo conflict of 1999 and the Afghanistan invasion of 2001 suddenly became animated opponents of the West’s second Gulf War in 2003. The slogan of the UK protests – Not in My Name – was more a statement of personal alienation from politics than of political opposition to wars of intervention.
The anti-war movement never managed to extend its weak-kneed arguments on Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan. Partly this reflected the importance of victim culture in contemporary radical politics. From Bosnia to Palestine, left and peace movements these days only really feel comfortable couching their arguments in terms of sympathy for the victims. After 9/11, however, the USA was able to present itself in the role of victim to justify its invasion of Afghanistan. Many on the left took the easy option and went along with this; thus a supposed radical such as film-maker Michael Moore argued in his movie Fahrenheit 9/11 that America was wasting troops and resources in Iraq that should be used to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan.
Another important factor in the contrasting reactions was that, partly because of the moral claim to victimhood after 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan never provoked the same divisions as the Iraq war did within the international elite. The opportunist left, always keen to get behind the powerful, found it much easier to identify high-profile supposed allies for its protests against the Iraq war – even if that meant figuratively marching alongside warmongers such as President Jacques Chirac of France.
Against that background over the past eight years, why are we suddenly witnessing a relative upsurge of British criticism of the Afghan war? Nothing has really changed over there – the war remains as pointless and counter-productive as ever. The numbers of deaths among British forces in Afghanistan have risen of late – the 35 killed since 1 July taking the total past the 200 mark. However, whilst each of those deaths is a personal tragedy for the families we now see paraded across the media, by historical standards the death toll in Afghanistan – as in Iraq – is still pretty small. In the past, far more bloody wars have retained firm public support. It is the lack of any clear purpose to the war that makes these deaths seem so senseless. Yet that has been true from the first day British forces started killing and being killed in Afghanistan.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the recent upsurge of criticism over Afghanistan has more to do with events over here than over there. The Afghan conflict, on which New Labour has pinned so much, has now become another focus for the collapsing authority of the divided and purposeless political and military elite, and for public disengagement from political life. In this sense, it is playing a similar role to the expenses crisis, except it is played out with guns and bombs and real lives.
This reflects the political weakness of the recent complaints about the war. They are expressing a mood of defeatism rather than anti-militarism. The focus on the deaths of some British soldiers is a symptom of this weakness, almost as if the critics are hiding behind the dead to conceal their absence of a good argument. Yet the fact is that coffins alone have never been a convincing argument against war, unless you are a religious pacifist. The current expressions of concern about the Afghan war look more like the sounds of a society – and especially an elite – that is no longer sure it believes anything is really worth fighting and dying for. The way that the media seized upon pictures of soldiers crying on parade over dead comrades was a telling sign of times, capturing the tendency to see even troops as victims rather than warriors today.
Some will protest that it does not matter how confused the argument is, so long as people are now turning against the war – and so what if it is eight years late, better late than never. But it does matter. Because it means that British politics has learnt nothing over those wasted years of death and destruction in Afghanistan. The politicians and pundits are no more opposed to the principle of intervention today than they were in 2001 – they simply object to the consequences. The fact that they talk about the tragic failure of the noble mission to democratise backward Afghanistan suggests that most still believe it should be the West’s role somehow to intervene and liberate other peoples on their behalf, seemingly unaware of the fundamental contradiction in the notion of imposing democracy – the rule of demos, the people – from without.
Even if the results of Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis were to mean we saw fewer large-scale military interventions by Britain in the years ahead, the interventionist impulse remains unchallenged – as does the assumption that the UK has the moral authority, if not the money, to play the role of great power in other people’s misery.
It is no more worthy to use the culture of fear over terrorism and death tolls to oppose a war than it was to use the culture of fear over terrorism and deaths to launch it. We are left living in strange times when there are no real hawks or doves – just desperate governments going through the motions of fighting wars they hardly believe in, and defeatist opponents whose slogan is less ‘stop the war’, more ‘stop the world I want to get off’.
It is more important than ever to go back to first principles and assert the anti-interventionist case that some of us have been making since long before 2001: that these politically motivated interventions are as inherently undemocratic as they are unlikely to succeed, and are a disaster for all concerned. And it is important to learn to make that principled case against intervention more powerfully at the start of a crisis – not wait until messy and lengthy wars in political wastelands have made matters far worse and a solution all the harder to achieve.
That is why the questions that are being raised about Afghanistan now have come eight years too late, for those thousands of Afghans and hundreds of Western soldiers who have lost their lives to no avail, and for all of us who still believe in genuine freedom and democracy.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.