By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 23/06/08):
Francis Fukuyama posed the basic Afghan dilemma as the supposed triumph of western invasion began to fall apart. Afghanistan has never been “modern”, he observed, chillingly. “Under the monarchy that existed until the beginning of its political troubles in the 1970s, it largely remained a tribal confederation with minimal state penetration outside Kabul”. And the subsequent years “of communist misrule and civil war eliminated everything that was left” of that feeble entity. History wasn’t dead, in short; Afghans were dead.
And now, many killing fields later, we can put that even more starkly. Afghanistan isn’t a “failed” state, because Afghanistan has never been a successful one. Afghanistan is a crossroads, a traffic island, a war zone, a drug den, an exotic doormat, and an eternal victim.
But it is not, in any coherent sense, a nation. We cannot see peace, harmony and freedom “restored” there, because such concepts have no roots in its essentially medieval past, or present. Afghanistan has always been a disaster waiting to happen, again and again.
Did John Reid, pausing briefly at the Ministry of Defence on his routemarch through Whitehall, know this when he vowed that we would “be perfectly happy to leave in three years without firing one shot, because our job is reconstruction”? One hundred body bags back at Brize Norton, that question answers itself. Of course, he didn’t know. Nobody who ordered the troops in to flush out al-Qaida knew. Nobody dreamed that Kabul and Kandahar would be tougher nuts to crack than Baghdad and Basra. But they ought to realise it now.
Reid thought that the American mission was “chasing the terrorists who did so much to destroy the twin towers”, while our happy boys could get by with a little roadbuilding. Which delusion seems greater today?
Osama bin Laden is still somewhere out there, chased but uncaught. Even Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban government, hasn’t been brought to book. And Helmand province, these past few days, has seen only roadside bombs blowing up our boys (and one natural front-page girl). You couldn’t have a greater failure of intelligence, or expectation.
What’s gone wrong? See the official excuses pour in. Of course the porous border with ungovernable Waziristan and Baluchistan doesn’t help. Of course, Iran can be blamed for almost anything too. And, of course, corruption, both central and local, weighs everything down. (Guess which one world commodity crop isn’t shrinking …) But the crippling difficulty, nullifying all efforts, seldom breaks cover.
You’d suppose, from press and ministerial briefings, that the Taliban and al-Qaida were somehow synonymous – alien forces implanted among loyal, struggling Afghans. It’s a convenient delusion, one that chimes with a similar yarn in Iraq (where bombings and kidnappings are blamed on stray Saudis or Egyptians, not indigenous Iraqis). But that’s clearly rubbish as the suicide attacks proliferate. Taliban patrols do, indeed, pass back and forth across Pakistan’s non-frontier. But they are also an Afghan presence with Afghan support. They are part of the Afghan scenery (just as they were when Mullah Omar ruled).
This isn’t a war against invaders. This is a war pitting Afghan against Afghan, as usual, as ever: an uncivil conflict. Which is why it is a war we cannot win. If there is no structure, no authority beyond ad hoc tribalism, then there is no victory that can last. The past few decades here, like the centuries that went before as the Mongols and Genghis Khan stormed by, have been years of splitting and slaughtering: one tribe against another, one warlord against his neighbour, one communist against another, the peripheries against Kabul.
The irony is that, left alone to stew, the Taliban would have gone the way of the Parcham and the Khalq before. There was no need to try to destroy them: Afghan anarchy would have done that in time.
But because we persisted in thinking of al-Qaida as some disciplined “terrorist army” pitted against our armies, because we talked in conventional terms that seemed to turn this wreck of a non-state into a nation like any other, we thought that conventional tactics could work. They won’t. They have no foundations.
Afghanistan is a nation yet unbuilt, a black hole of hope defying calculation. It kills outsiders; it kills the insiders who seek to rule it. Its great game, over generations, knows only failure; and the only way not to become a loser is to resolve – at last – not to play.