Afghanistan: the politics of PR by other means

Recent events confirm that the Western powers’ main motivation in Afghanistan is not to ‘save the Afghan people’, but to save face.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Recent events confirm that the Western powers’ main motivation in Afghanistan is not to ‘save the Afghan people’, but to save face. From President Obama’s handling of the General McChrystal debacle to UK prime minister David Cameron’s promise that Britain’s ‘brave troops’ will be home by 2015, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the NATO forces, led by America and Britain, remain in Afghanistan primarily to avoid admitting defeat.

They are not there to achieve any tangible goals, far less for oil or minerals as some cranky anti-war activists claim, but rather to project a PR image of Western steadfastness and commitment as a disguise for the profound political and military defeatism afflicting their Afghan mission. This PR imperative, this mission to save face, is giving rise to a new and dangerous kind of war: one driven not by any Western need for resources or any desire to boost the West’s political clout in foreign fields, but by a desperation to spin disarray as determination and to make defeat look something like victory. Men are being sent into war, and Afghan positions attacked, primarily as an exercise in PR rather than in imperial expansion.

Everyone now admits the war cannot be won. They actually say this openly. Departing Afghanistan in October 2008, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of British forces, said NATO should not expect to win a ‘decisive military victory’. The UN special representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has said: ‘We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means.’ Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force that oversees NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, has said there can be ‘no military solution’.

The US secretary of state for defence, Robert Gates, denounced this kind of comment as ‘defeatist’ at the end of 2008. Yet a year later, his president, Barack Obama, announced that American forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011 – while simultaneously announcing that 30,000 additional American troops would be sent there in the meantime. It was an announcement of war and withdrawal in the same breath, ‘escalating while retreating’, as one American journalist aptly called it. This demonstrated that, for all their attacks on the ‘defeatism’ of their British and UN allies, the Washington elite also believes the war cannot be won and that a withdrawal, in a year from now, must be instigated. Only they prefer to sex up their announcement of withdrawal with a simultaneous surge, the sending of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan for purely PR purposes: to make America look ‘still committed’ at the same time as it effectively announces an end to its mission.

The internal clash in NATO, the very public spat between the ‘no-victory’ British brigadiers and the ‘anti-defeatist’ American defence men, is not a substantive conflict over the direction of the war or how to defeat the Taliban – rather it’s a disagreement over public relations. All sides in NATO agree the war is unwinnable and ought to be wrapped up, but disagree over whether this should be presented in terms of difficulty or victory, as a consequence of how hard getting rid of the Taliban turned out to be or as the always-planned endpoint to a war that always had the fairly limited aim of weakening the Taliban, stabilising the north of Afghanistan, and creating a relatively strong Afghan security force (as some US officials now claim).

When Obama announced those additional 30,000 troops, it was not, as some commentators claimed, evidence that he was more committed than Brits and UN types to Afghanistan – it was evidence that he was more committed than them to the reputation-rescuing PR war. While European politicians’ commitment to the face-saving mission only extends to saying ‘let’s focus on political engagement rather than military victory’, Obama’s commitment to the face-saving mission extends to sending 30,000 more troops, actual real men and women who could come to serious and even fatal harm yet whose presence will have the upside of taking the edge off America’s announcement of withdrawal. Some in NATO are only prepared to issue duplicitously well-worded press releases in an attempt to save Western face in Afghanistan – Obama is prepared to risk people’s lives to save Western face.

The same imperative to save face drove Obama’s response to General Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. This was an extraordinary affair. Brought about both by the Icelandic volcano (which meant McChrystal and his team were stuck in Paris where Rolling Stone could grill them while they were irritable) and alcohol (they consumed a lot), the interview demonstrated alarming levels of disarray in America’s political and military elites. Yet, again, there’s no huge difference of opinion between McChrystal and Obama over the war: both think it’s going badly (one of McChrystal’s aides said the war cannot be won) and both think it needs some kind of satisfying closure. Their stand-off was no old-style substantive clash between a president and a military man with utterly different visions for how to conquer some foreign quarter; no, their war of words was entirely over how a reality that they both agree on – that Afghanistan is a mess – should be presented.

As the Washington Post said, McChrystal’s crime was to mess with Obama’s mission of ‘projecting a united front of seriousness to the public’. Obama has now sent General David H Petraeus, who oversaw the surge in Iraq, to take over McChrystal’s position in Afghanistan – yet this should be seen, not as confirmation of Washington’s militaristic or political determination, but, like the announcement of those 30,000 extra troops at the end of 2009, as a PR stunt. The dispatching of Petraeus is not about deepening the mission in Afghanistan but is once more about projecting a ‘front of seriousness’. The Washington Post cites White House insiders saying that the attractive thing about Petraeus is that he has a ‘clear understanding of how Washington and the media work and how to cultivate an image that increases your political leverage’, demonstrating again the extent to which Afghan deployments are now driven more by media concerns than military ones, by the desire to project an image rather than to achieve an aim. Likewise, British PM David Cameron announced at the weekend that Britain will be out of Afghanistan by 2015 – ‘make no mistake about it’ he said breathlessly – while presenting this as the end result of having helped to ‘train their troops and their civil society’. Self-congratulating while retreating.

It is important to recognise what it was that defeated NATO forces in Afghanistan. It was not an external enemy, but internal incoherence. Indeed, this isn’t a defeat as such – it really is defeatism. Military commanders talk about the toughness of Afghanistan’s terrain and the grittiness of the Taliban, and no doubt these were practical factors in the wearing down of the NATO mission (larger and more focused imperial armies than the contemporary NATO machine have been exhausted by the Afghan experience). But more fundamentally it was the lack of any clear mission, the constantly changing justifications for the war, the crises of basic equipment (in the British military), the intervention of modern ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder and the vulnerability of soldiers, the adherence to a risk-averse strategy that elevated dumb drone-led missions over the gathering of human intelligence, and the general lack of political will and direction – in short the very crisis of Western politics which our leaders hoped this war would help to resolve – which led to self-defeat in Afghanistan.

To argue that the Taliban defeated the West is to get things completely the wrong way around. In fact the Taliban has been largely sustained, both morally and militarily, by the defeatism of the NATO forces. As one report put it, Taliban leaders ‘have seized on the “defeatist” comments made by Western officials to score a propaganda victory’; they have, according to some accounts, recruited new fighters and enthused existing ones on the back of Western defeatism. And the announcement of timetables for withdrawal by both Obama and Cameron, their advertisement of the fact that they are not staying for very much longer, gives the Taliban an incentive to hold out for a few more years, with a fairly low-level guerrilla war, before launching what even some Western officials now acknowledge to be a likelihood: a stab for power post-NATO against a Karzai regime sullied by its association with the defeatist forces of occupation.

If, like spiked, you opposed this war from the start, you might be asking yourself: so what? We didn’t want NATO forces in Afghanistan in the first place, so why shouldn’t we celebrate their collapse into disarray? Because defeatism is a very destructive force indeed in international affairs. The face-saving mission in Afghanistan – London and Washington’s attempts to stave off their political crises more broadly by projecting a ‘front of seriousness’ in Afghanistan – is generating a dangerous kind of warfare, one in which serious strategy is demoted in favour of spin, long-term thinking takes second place to short-term PR, and life-and-death missions are launched to ‘cultivate an image that increases your political leverage’. This gives rise to wars which can be even more unstable and unpredictable than the imperial missions of yesteryear, and in which blood is spilled… well, for nothing really.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins wrote about Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone mutiny. Mick Hume argued that the West has defeated itself and looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. 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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