Friday, 10 January 2014

When in a hole, stop digging

As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his ... For him, it’s all about getting out.
wrote former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, like all of this was a bad thing. I'm with Mustang Bobby who recognises a refreshing piece of sound judgement when he sees it:
Yeah, and…? It wasn’t Mr. Obama’s war, the strategies weren’t working, Karzai has proven to be a world-class jerk, and getting the hell out of there was the plan all along. President Bush, the guy who invaded it in the first place, had set up a timeline for withdrawal, and President Obama had campaigned on it. 

After more than twelve years of intervention by world's most powerful military, al-Qaeda is gone, but the Taliban manged to survive, fight the US, NATO and the Afghan government to a stalemate in 2010 and they still remain in control of some areas, including Helmand.

President Karzai, seeing the writing on the wall, has been trying to tempt the Taliban into peace negotiations ever since, but they're still confident enough to play hard ball - 'The Afghan Taliban have a principled stance that they do not recognise the government in Kabul and the constitution' said an adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister, who's recently been trying to broker peace talks.

The initial mission, to get al-Qaeda out of the country, was quietly accomplished in 2008 (well, more or less)* while we were all being distracted by the spectacle of the global financial system imploding, but not before it had been superseded by an extended mission (nation building). Nation building ran out of steam in 2010 and no longer looks achievable, even to the optimists who ignored the discouraging example of every previous foreign intervention in Afghanistan.

Under the circumstances, there's no option that doesn't look horrible, but getting out at least looks better than the sunk cost option - sending more people out to die, not because there is any plausible prospect of winning, but because it would be an insult to the dead and bereaved to give up now.

I'm happy that there are leaders prepared to question the proposition that sending yet more people to die is always the best way to honour those who have already fallen.

I'm reminded of the culture wars being fought over the upcoming Great War commemorations, with Michael Gove desperate to convince people that the First World War, despite its squalid origins in dynastic and imperial rivalries, myriad unintended consequences, strategic blunders, terrible waste of life and failure to secure a sustainable and lasting peace wasn't 'a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.'

Although the Afghan war was almost entirely unlike the Great War in terms of origins, war aims, scale and consequences, the accusation that it was 'a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite' fits rather well, from the initial nurturing of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as pawns in their Cold War/regional Great Game, via the bizarre decision to go off and start a war of choice with Iraq at the precise moment when American forces had their hands full trying to get rid of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden in Afghanistan, to the hubristic self-confidence of a new elite, who'd decided that 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality', when a brief examination of the British Empire's  intervention in Afghanistan should have alerted them to the fact that even empires sometimes get mugged by reality.

In terms of warfare, I'm rather glad to be living in 2014, when politicians are keen to get out of grinding wars of attrition, rather than 1914, when politicians and generals seemed determined to carry on to the last drop of somebody else's blood.

If only our current rulers were as keen to to change course when it comes to disastrous adventures in political economy which, for many, are getting to look like the continuation of warfare by other means:
When you have a quarter of the population unemployed... people are starving. We have food lines in Athens. We haven't seen things like that since the forties, since the time of the [German] occupation.
From 2012, but the underlying reality of German and French banks who filled their boots with "risky" high-yielding Greek debt being bailed out until Greece is bled dry continues, despite the all the Eurozone recovery hype.

* A success qualified by the massive own goal of getting them into a country where they didn't previously exist (Iraq).