Afghanistan: the West has defeated itself

Who needs the Taliban when Obama and the top NATO general both admit that the Western allies do not have a winnable strategy in Afghanistan?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The top secret (ie, leaked and published) assessment of the Afghan War sent to President Barack Obama by General Stanley McChrystal, top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, apparently runs to 64 pages. Yet to judge from the published excerpts its underlying message can be summed up rather more succinctly: ‘We’ve lost.’

General McChrystal’s report made headlines worldwide thanks to its bald assessment that, without the injection of thousands more NATO troops over the coming year, the West’s Afghan mission ‘will likely result in failure’. Fewer media outlets seemed able to bring themselves to quote his even more cutting assessment of the debacle in Afghanistan: ‘The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.’

Even that shocking admission from the top military man, however, is arguably an underestimation of the situation. In truth, it should now be clear that the US-led alliance was heading for a self-inflicted defeat from the moment it launched its war-without-war-aims in Afghanistan. What could a victory possibly look like in a war that from the start had no clear moral purpose or strategic aims?

The current debate reveals that even US commanders appear to accept that they lack any strategy worth fighting for in Afghanistan. General McChrystal does not call blindly, as military chiefs often do, for more troops and resources to be poured in regardless. Instead his assessment makes clear that ‘without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced’ (emphasis added).

The Obama regime has not yet formally responded to the report’s call for more troops. But the president did tell American talk shows last weekend that ‘until I’m satisfied we’ve got the right strategy [in Afghanistan], I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there beyond what we already have’. Obama also said that, if an effective counter-insurgency strategy could not be formulated, then ‘I’m not interested in being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or sending a message that America is here for the duration’. Yet that sounds like a pretty fair summary of what the US and its Western allies have been doing under both President George W Bush and President Obama – who, let us recall, has already approved sending an extra 21,000 US troops into Afghanistan this year, in pursuit of a strategy he admits is not right or effective.

If neither the US commander-in-chief (ie, the president) nor the top commander in Afghanistan seem to know what they are supposed to be doing in the war zone, it should hardly be surprising that uncertainty reigns within the armed forces and the wider public. When Obama and his top generals talk as if they have accepted defeat and already withdrawn from the Afghan frontline in spirit, if not in body, it is little wonder that enthusiasm for the conflict is waning in America and across the West.

The new strategy that General McChrystal proposes to turn things around only confirms that any notion of victory in Afghanistan is strictly a fantasy war game. He astutely criticises the armies under his command for worrying too much about protecting themselves and being too quick to shoot Afghans rather than relate to them: ‘Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us – physically and psychologically – from the people we seek to protect.’ His proposed solution is to send in more troops who will leave their armoured vehicles and patrol on the ground, integrating more with the locals in an effort to win over ‘hearts and minds’ rather than simply taking and losing territory. McChrystal admits that this change of operational methods would mean accepting more American and Western casualties, at least in the short term.

Yet there seems no chance of such a strategy being put into practice by the US or NATO. As spiked writers have analysed over the past eight years, from the start the West’s conflict in Afghanistan has been a risk-averse war, initially fought by proxy armies and from the air, and then by troops barricaded in fortified bases. This is not because of cowardice, but because the absence of any clear purpose behind the mission means that nobody really believes that they are fighting in pursuit of a big cause worth the deaths of Western soldiers. This lack of mission in Afghanistan helps to explain why there is such public disquiet about US and British casualties – few can see what they are dying for. It also means there is surely no prospect of McChrystal’s new strategy being implemented on the ground, whatever may be said to the media.

It hardly seems possible to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of an occupied people when the occupier’s own heart is not in it, and his own mind is far from clear on what he is trying to achieve.

The use of such language by US commanders inevitably conjures up comparisons with the war in Vietnam. Yet the contrasts are also striking. In Vietnam, the US military establishment started to come to terms with the fact that they could not win a war only after the shocking 1968 Tet Offensive by the Vietcong had revealed the strength and support that their enemies enjoyed. The authorities were also facing a huge wave of angry opposition to the Vietnam War at home. By contrast, the West’s enemies in Afghanistan have launched relative pin-prick attacks against NATO forces, and opposition at home remains more passive and apathetic than angry and political.

The West’s failure this time has been self-inflicted. When those at the top are talking themselves at best into a bunker and at worst into defeat, who needs the Taliban?

Despite that, many still believe that Obama will commit more US troops to Afghanistan – because neither he nor his generals can yet face up to the full consequences of what they must know to be true. And despite his deep-seated risk-aversion and reluctance to do anything decisive, it is also possible that UK prime minister Gordon Brown may yet send more British troops into the warzone, largely to curry favour with Washington after the Megrahi fiasco.

NATO’s fundamental problem in Afghanistan, however, is not a shortage of US troops or a lack of reliable British equipment. The British and Americans have managed larger conflicts with less in the past. The problem is more the absence of a clear strategic purpose or moral mission to sustain the war. No amount of Pentagon reports or enforced friendliness on the frontline can compensate for that.

We – not to mention the people of Afghanistan – are left facing the worst of all worlds: a bloody conflict without any conviction or clear strategy behind it, one which Western leaders know they cannot win yet may well continue to escalate anyway in the absence of any other ideas.

Of course, some of us who have opposed the Afghan War from the start would be against it even if it were fought in pursuit of firm imperial principles, since we believe such interventions to be inherently anti-democratic and destructive. But this lethal farce is a caricature of a colonial war. If, as von Clausewitz suggested, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then the war in Afghanistan looks increasingly like the projection of all that is worst about crisis-stricken Western politics today.

Many people have complained that New Labour’s defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, is not up to handling such a major crisis. On the contrary – the gormless Ainsworth looks an ideal candidate to front this fiasco. Cometh the hour, cometh the moustache.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. Mick Hume looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the Afghan state. He also talked about the theatrical nature of war. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

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