Afghanistan now and then: the myopia of State politics
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
In 1980 the English punk rock band the UK Subs wrote and performed a track called 'Warhead'. Another raucous rant at society, the establishment, life you might be thinking. Well you'd be wrong because the lyrics of that song were prescient almost beyond belief. The song accurately spelt out the geopolitical dynamic of the time: the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, the coming confrontation with the US, (albeit by proxy) and most significantly, the continued consequential rise of the 'soldiers of Islam'. The song's verses and chorus go something like this: 'There are children in Africa with Tommy guns, they're getting ready - the Islam army are beckoning on, they're getting ready- there's a burning sun and it sets in the Western world, but it rises in the East, and pretty soon it's going to burn your temples down'.
Tragedy and Farce
You don't have to indulge in a Nostradamus like hermeneutic to read the Twin Towers in place of temples. So how were the UK Subs able to have such foresight when just after the 9/11 attacks many politicians and commentators said it was unimaginable - unpredictable? How did many see the recent collapse of Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, when many of our political class did not; why were they so short sighted? This essay attempts to answer this question while traversing the last two or three centuries and five wars in Afghanistan. Marx (5) said history repeated itself first as tragedy then as farce but where do we locate history's oscillating journey now, farce, tragedy or catastrophe? And is the catastrophe all the worse for being wholly avoidable.
Immediately our thoughts travel to the situation in Afghanistan and the chaotic and heartbreaking scenes in Kabul as the Taliban cement their iron grip on all life, social and political. But how have we reached a situation in which US aircraft struggle to leave another capital city, leaving a terrified civilian population behind?
The above allusion is of course to the fall of Saigon and the loss of Vietnam (i& a) by the United States after a protracted and tortuous war against a population, mostly and simply unwilling to bend to another occupier: the French had learnt the hard way that Indo-China was a harsh and inhospitable place to find oneself if unwelcome by the indigenous population. In other words, the historical lessons were there should any State have wished to avail themselves of the insight these would have afforded. Just as history i could have shown Bush and Blair the dangers of invading the political Islamic world of the Middle-East, that is Iraq, then it could and should have told them 2 years before how dangerous it was to invade Afghanistan. But Iraq followed Afghanistan and by then it was all too late to bother with the intracies of history.
The Lessons of History
We talked of the last two or three centuries earlier, when referring to the cautioning history could have given Blair and Bush before. As Simon Jenkins iii describes it, 'a rush of blood to the head' plunged the West into 20 years of what sadly has turned out to be the most recent futile military adventure. One might have thought the 10 bloody years the Red Army spent in Afghanistan only to be ousted by the very forces which now oust the Liberal interventionists of the West would have been warning enough. The irony of course is that the US funded these forces in a proxy war to destabilise a failing industrial smoke stack crumbling Soviet Union. Even more ironic then, as the war by proxy had ultimately ended America's residency in South East Asia. However, if we look back in history we can see just how long foreign armies have been prepared to risk the beautiful mountains, the ravines, the deserts and barren terrain, to the lushness and poppy fields, and the tribes and their leaders who weild power on these, and who make up the forbidding country which is Afghanistan.
From Alexander the Great in 330BC to Ghengis Khan a millennium later Afghanistan resistance was brushed aside; Afghans have not always repelled all invaders then. However, it was the arrival of the British and the famous 3 wars within a century which seem to set a pattern emerging: invaders are not always repelled but the cost of life is made too great. In 1839 at the time of the 'Great Game' (the imperial dance with Russia) the British invaded only to be met by a stunning defeat which was then followed by a second victory. iiii. In 1878 the British invaded again and although suffering a major defeat at Maiwand they ultimately beat the Afghans - at what cost to both sides one might ask. The British then redrew the border up the infamous Kyber Pass and Afghanistan lost various frontal areas.
In1919 the Afghans under Amanullah Khan invaded India. The British responded, and in the first attack of its kind bombed Kabul. Although the British won the losses were such (it was a strategic defeat for Britain then) that the British realised that rather than colonisation, short interventions were preferable: Jonathan Steele argues in his book (see Guardian link below) that the British effectively closed the book on Afghanistan foreign policy after this last 3rd war. The lesson was that though the Afghans were defeatable the costs of invasion were such to make it decidedly uninviting.
So just as 'a rush of blood' to the head led Blair and Bush to accept the Weapons of Mass Destruction thesis (see Galeotti’s Political Self-Deception below) as part of their 'war on terror', 2 years after the invasion of Afghanistan; it seems the conflation of the wish to destroy Osama Bin Laden with the completely illusory desire to implement 'democracy' led to the catastrophe we see unfolding on our TV screens now. Would it be tiresome to ask, yet again, as so many historians and indeed, military experts have, why it isn't possible for our leaders to look ahead, to use the vision and insight not just of recent history but their own histories before embarking on murderous and suicidal missions abroad.
This essay (aside from use with the Great Game) has deliberately refrained from using the terms imperialism and neoliberalism, as this might suggest an air of consciousness about our leaders decision making. As it is now, it is argued that rather like a drunk at a party, a succession of American Presidentsiiiii have felt unable to get up, grab their coats, cross the floor and walk down the stairs to the door; in other words, to leave Afghanistan. How sad it is that pride must always come before a fall. But let us leave this story of tragedy and farce with a reminder of what insight and intuition are however simplistically phrased: after all, the UK Subs set out the geopolitical dynamic, they didn't simply and easily say it might not be a good idea to invade a country history teaches is a difficult test at best.