By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 08/08/07):
The British government is lining up Paddy Ashdown to rule Afghanistan. This is not a silly season story or a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof, merely a measure of the lunacy now polluting British foreign policy. Ashdown has time on his hands and Gordon Brown wants to show himself as firm a liberal interventionist as Tony Blair. He, too, wants to make Afghanistan a peaceful and prosperous democracy and may as well start now. So Paddy’s the man.
To the British left, Afghanistan was always the “good” war and Iraq the “bad” one. It is permitted for ministers to assert that they were “privately opposed” to Iraq so long as Afghanistan is seen as a worthy cause. With Britain at its helm, Afghanistan would be all it was not under the Americans. It would make Britain look macho. It would revitalise the UN and Nato after perceived debacles in former Yugoslavia and it would fulfil Britain’s historic role as nation-builder to the world.
Iraq is post-imperialism for fast learners, Afghanistan for slow ones. While the concept of a benign outcome in Iraq is strictly for armchair crazies, such an outcome remains received wisdom in Afghanistan. The British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, is building himself an embassy to compare with America’s in Baghdad and has forecast a British military presence of 30 years. Brigadier John Lorimer in Helmand says he can suppress insurgency in 10 years but will need “longer than 30” to establish good governance. Such things were being said in Iraq until two years ago, when the body bags began to talk.
Paddy Ashdown returned recently from Kabul consumed with imperial zeal. On these pages he admitted the current chaos, a city awash with thousands of troops and aid workers from some 36 countries, all supposedly involved in “security and reconstruction” and almost none able to leave the capital by land. A reputed 10,000 NGO staff have turned Kabul into Klondike during the goldrush, building office blocks, driving up rents, cruising about in armoured jeeps and spending stupefying sums of other people’s money, essentially on themselves. They take orders only from some distant agency, but then the same goes for the American army, Nato, the UN, the EU and the supposedly sovereign Afghan government.
In the provinces, the Americans are running a guerrilla army out of Bagram, trying to kill as many “Taliban” or “al-Qaida” as possible, while the British heroically re-enact the Zulu wars down in Helmand. Neither takes any notice of President Hamid Karzai, whose deals with warlords, druglords, Iranians and Taliban collaborators are probably the best hope of stabilising Afghanistan when the foreign occupation is over. But since that is claimed by Britain to be virtually never, the only certainty is a rising tempo of insurgency.
Ashdown said he found “bewildering … the international community’s tendency to repeat whatever fails”. He then illustrated his own point by repeating the normal inane conditional optimism. Success, he wrote, was still “probable” if we “increase resources and redress the disastrous failure of the international community to get its act together”. All that has been said and tried for six years with conspicuous failure. Kabul is not Bosnia, where Ashdown as UN “high representative” could behave like the leader of the Liberal party and do what he liked with the backing of a few big donors. Afghanistan is supposed to be an autonomous state. The idea that Kabul’s Tower of Babel will ever replicate Bosnia is absurd.
Ashdown’s bewilderment shows that he does not understand occupation. Over time, the occupying force falls apart and its components fight for their own vested interests. Consider three policies now being pursued in Kabul. The first concerns drugs. There are 15 separate organisations devoting their time (and £200m of British money) to eradicating Afghanistan’s one indigenous source of income, opium. In that time, the opium harvest has broken every record, while trying to suppress it has alienated farmers and fuelled insurgency. Everyone in Kabul knows the policy is both stupid and counter-productive, but since grants and jobs are tied to it, the policy is entrenched and will not change.
Then there is the bombing of Pashtun villages for sheltering the Taliban. Thousands of civilians have died as a result, inducing hostility to occupying forces and a desire for revenge that recruits thousands to the cause of killing western troops. But soldiers sent to fight the Taliban have been ill-equipped and outgunned and needed air support, while air forces have craved a “battlefield role”. Again, the policy is known to be counterproductive yet continues because it delivers a cheaper “kill rate” and satisfies military interests.
A third policy is the most overhyped in British military history, that of “winning hearts and minds”. Not only is it meaningless without adequate security, which would require 50,000 rather than 5,000 troops in Helmand alone, it also involves tipping large sums of cash into nervous tribal villages, tearing apart power structures and creating feuds and dissension, the money usually ending up with warlords or the Taliban. All this is known in Kabul, but the money has been allotted and must be spent, however counterproductive the outcome.
In each of these cases, the mismatch between what makes sense and what is implemented is total. Ashdown is right that the same mistakes are constantly made. But his belief that they can be overcome by a British “coordinator” with enough money and power is naive. He will get neither. Kabul is already a monument to how vested interests can negate the best of interventionist intentions. Toppling foreign regimes is a dangerous and unpredictable business. But when invasion becomes occupation, freelance nation builders become freelance empire builders, each with budgets and jobs to protect.
Getting out of Basra is now a firm diktat of British defence planning. The only sensible question in Kabul is how long before the same diktat applies there. The longer it takes to blow away Ashdown’s “bewilderment” the weaker the alliances engineered by Karzai over the past three years will become and the more certain his fall will be. The longer Whitehall thinks it can win a war against the Taliban, the more it risks tearing Pakistan apart and sucking Iran into the conflict, both of which would be completely daft. Yet that is where liberal intervention is now leading. It is a post-imperial spasm, a knee-jerk jingoism and plain dumb.