Bill Jamieson: Afghanistan problem still defeats us

Writing out the Treaty of Peace at Gundamuk, otherwise called Gandamak, in 1879 Picture: Getty Images
Writing out the Treaty of Peace at Gundamuk, otherwise called Gandamak, in 1879 Picture: Getty Images
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WE PRIDE ourselves in our liberal social democracy. We have universal suffrage, free speech, parliamentary institutions, the rule of law and sophisticated health, welfare and education systems.

But in the projection of these features, we meet a paradox. When it comes to applying them elsewhere, there is a record of abysmal failure.

In recent days, the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq war has been greeted with scathing appraisals of the exercise of western power and its consequence. History, it is said, is written by the victors. But here there is no sense at all of a western “victory”. Politically, economically and culturally, the invasion of Iraq is viewed in the most negative terms and in those very countries that participated in it.

A similar damning verdict now looks pending on the western intervention in Afghanistan. To the core military mission were added attempts at enlightened liberal interventionism and nation building through infrastructure improvement, the creation of local government institutions and the provision of schools. Yet, with the pull-out of the bulk of British troops in sight, the overwhelming verdict within government, military circles and the media is one of failure and shortcoming.

In the past few weeks, the publication of Return of a King, William Dalrymple’s brilliantly researched and unsparing account of the 1839-42 Afghan war, has added mightily to the sense that, however liberal and enlightened we may now consider ourselves to be, we are blind to history and vulnerable to a grievous repetition of past disasters.

While Dalrymple’s parallels with that horrific experience may be too simply drawn, the similarities are unnervingly close. Indeed, had this book been available 11 years ago, it is doubtful public opinion would have gone along so heartily with this latest Afghan incursion. Back then, Britain invaded the country on the basis of false intelligence and a lamentable grasp of internecine tribal feuding and loyalties. The occupation – ostensibly to restore a king, Shah Shuja, but driven by fear of Russian expansionism – incurred growing enmity with every day.

The retreat from Kabul resulted in arguably the greatest military defeat in our imperial history. A ragged procession of 16,000 British soldiers, Indian sepoys, wives, children and camp followers succumbed to ferocious cold and deep snow. Thousands froze to death, while others were massacred by tribesmen in a series of deadly ambushes. Only the army surgeon, Dr Brydon, made it to the Jalalabad garrison. The paintings of the last stand of the survivors of the 44th Foot at Gandamak and Lady Butler’s haunting The Remnants of an Army, depicting an exhausted Brydon arriving at Jalalabad leave an indelible impression not just of defeat but also of human catastrophe.

As for the subsequent British War of Retribution to avenge this slaughter, it was an appalling litany of plunder, destruction, rape and murder. We may have forgotten, but the Afghans have not. It has seared into the tribal folk memory an indelible hatred of the British.

While the objective of regime change this time around was a constant, the origins of the intervention, as Dalrymple should have noted when he turns his concluding remarks in the book to the present day, were quite different. In terms of military objectives, Afghanistan cannot be said to be a total failure: Taleban rule was overthrown, al-Qaeda driven back, its organisation disabled and its leader killed. The problem is how sustainable these objectives have proved.

And in terms of nation building, what of permanence has been achieved in 11 years? Some 70 per cent of the country is effectively controlled by the Taleban. Political stability is not guaranteed. The country’s infrastructure – despite the commitment of vast sums – is in an appalling state. As Dalrymple notes in a recent visit to Kabul: “Evidence of the failure of the current occupation lay all around us. Kabul remains one of the poorest and scrappiest capital cities in the world. Despite the US pouring in $80 billion [£54bn] into Afghanistan, almost all that money has disappeared into defence and security and the roads of Kabul were still more rutted than those in the most neglected provincial towns.

“Despite all the efforts of a dozen countries and a thousand agencies over more than a decade since 2001, the country is still a mess: a quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are illiterate. In many areas, governance is almost nonexistent: half the governors do not have an office, even fewer have electricity. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.”

And in this we have paid a heavy price. The number of British deaths stands at 440. The cost of the war to the taxpayer has reached £17.4bn and the total cost is likely to top £20bn by the time the last of our troops leave in 2014.

The haunting question remains: what are the ethical responsibilities of western social democracy? Should we not try to “promote the interests of humanity” as one British official put it in 1840, and champion social and gender reform? Should we even attempt to introduce western political systems?

As the spymaster Sir Claude Wade warned on the eve of the 1839 invasion: “There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against, I think, than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction.”

Now, there is much to be admired and nothing of which to be ashamed in wishing liberal intervention to deal with violent or oppressive regimes. But deep problems lie in our built-in expectations that such interventions are likely to be successful.

Why do we assume – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria – that in the worst cases of human rights abuse, coercive intervention is not only necessary and justified but also has a reasonable prospect of success?

As Professor Sir Mike Aaronson, of the Centre for international intervention at the University of Surrey, reminds us, too many decisions are taken in spite of what the evidence of history tells us. Afghanistan, he says, is a case in point. “Surely no-one with the slightest understanding of that country and its history could have thought that the strategy pursued by ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] from 2003 onwards had any chance of success? And yet a succession of generals, ambassadors, prime ministers, and presidents – even some journalists and academics – persuaded themselves that it could – why?

“Now that is a really interesting question but, like the child’s statement about the emperor’s new clothes, it is not what people want to hear.” And so, he concludes, the interventionist fallacy persists, “and we continue to believe we can achieve more than we actually can. Will somebody please bring on the child who is not afraid to tell us the truth?”

But the truth of history, unfortunately, is hard to stomach. We may be possessed of a mission to intervene, but we are bounded by the limits of experience.