LibLink: Paddy Ashdown: Afghanistan war is textbook for how to lose this kind of conflict

rally paddy 01Paddy has been writing in the Mirror about the Afghanistan war? Was it all worth it and could we, should we, have done things differently? What can we learn for the future?

First of all, Paddy writes, we did some good:

So has it all been for nothing?

No. There are children – and especially girls – going to school in Afghanistan who wouldn’t be there if British troops had not risked their lives to give them the chance. Democracy, though frail, has taken root.

There is growing prosperity in some areas, markets in previous ghost towns, new roads that never existed and, perhaps most important of all, a knowledge of how things can be better, planted in people’s minds.

But things could go wrong after we leave:

Was it then worth the price? It’s too early to say. If, as many believe, Afghanistan plunges back to civil war; if corruption remains permanently embedded in Afghan Government; if the Taliban, who now control many areas British troops died for, return to their bad, brutal, old ways; if the ungoverned spaces in south Afghanistan once more become a playground for jihadism and an outpost for the Islamic caliphate; if fractured Afghanistan gets drawn into the widening Sunni/Shia religious war now spreading in the region; then the answer is no.

If, on the other hand, Afghanistan remains united; if it continues its slow progress to some kind of unity and good government and if, crucially, the Afghan Army remains united and capable of maintaining order, then maybe.

Sadly, I fear most of the first is far more likely than any of the second.

What should we have done differently? After all, Paddy says we should have won.

Our early military strategy should have been about protecting the people, instead of foolishly scampering off, chasing the enemy. We should have made fighting corruption our first priority, instead of becoming the tainted partners of a corrupt government.

We should have understood that victories on the battlefield are meaningless unless translated into political progress and better lives for ordinary people.

We should have understood the culture and history of Afghanistan, instead of imposing an unaffordable Western-style centralised constitution.

And at the end, when we should have grabbed the best opportunity for a negotiated peace five years ago, we lost the moment by continuing our blind pursuit of the illusion that outright military victory was possible.

You can read the whole article here.

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6 Comments

  • The cost of the intervention in Afghanistan has been huge, both in financial and in human terms.

    I find myself wondering what could have been achieved if the same money had been spent instead on aid to Afghanistan — without strings attached.

    Up to a point it is a naive question — as naive as asking what could have been achieved if the USA had responded to 9/11 by seeking to hear the grievances of people in the Middle East, rather than embarking on a “war on terror”.

    But each Afghan killed by Western forces has added strength to those with a narrative of “Islam against the West”. Aid would have been scary in the early stages, as some of it would have been mis-used, but would have instead supported a narrative of the West respecting and seeking to work with Islam and the West respecting and wanting to work with the Afghans..

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Oct '14 - 12:39pm

    I don’t think there was ever any chance of the mission succeeding. Culturally Afghanistan is a completely different country to the UK and that in itself was always going to be the biggest obstacle to success. Whilst there is a large insurgency threatening the stability of the country, there is no popular pro-western movement in the country prepared to take them on. We have seen similar failures in Iraq and Libya.
    The main problem is with the west; it constantly overestimates how effectively it can intervene in the internal affairs of countries in North Africa and Asia. We need to come to terms with the limits of our power and this is very difficult because to admit as much might seem unpatriotic and it has implications as far as human rights are concerned and our economic interests. As a result we keep making the same mistakes thinking that things can’t possibly get worse, and then they do.

  • Paddy’s original piece in The Mirror ends —
    “The price for these follies has been paid in lives. It has also been paid in diminished Western influence and increased instability in what is one of the most unstable regions in the world.”

    Paddy is right, but that is only part of the cost.

    Hundreds of UK soldiers lost their lives and hundreds more came home with permanent injuries. That number for the dead and wounded of all the other countries involved (in particular the USA) takes the figure into the thousands. Nobody knows how many Afghans have died or been permanently injured.

    Then there are the hidden financial costs, which nobody discusses. Not to mention the opportunity costs – what could have been done with all these soldiers and resources if they had not be wasted in Afghanistan?

    Was it for nothing? Well nobody would want to say to the relatives of a young soldier that their son or daughter had died for nothing. Nobody would want to tell the limbless ex-serviceman that he will be wheelchair-bound for the next fifty years for nothing. But my guess is that some of those people will answer the question themselves.

  • @Mark Argent
    “But each Afghan killed by Western forces has added strength to those with a narrative of ‘Islam against the West’. Aid would have been scary in the early stages, as some of it would have been mis-used, but would have instead supported a narrative of the West respecting and seeking to work with Islam…”

    You seem to be equating the Taliban with Islam. Is that really what you think?

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Oct '14 - 9:22pm

    I don’t agree with everything Paddy says, but in war it is important for people to fall in line behind a good plan, rather than everyone spend lots of time arguing for their own specific strategy.

    Importantly, the article is respectful to soldiers. I don’t want to say much here, but I am running a partial boycott against the Sky News Foreign Affairs editor Sam Kiley, for basically consistently being unfair on the west and on western soldiers. He is by no means the only journalist who does this, but I expect better from Sky News.

    It is not cool to constantly criticise western foreign policy, plenty of soldiers fight for us and people should at least see their noble reasons for doing so.

  • The British ruling class under Labour has forgotten what 300 years of trade and empire took to learn. Since the rise of social sciences and degrees such as PPE, the middle class left wing ruling class have no knowledge of the languages, history, geography and culture of large parts of the World. The students at the East India College of the early 19C were better educated in the problems of countries such as Afghanistan ( they were taught Indian languages ).

    Was it worth it: yes. It has given the Afghan a window of opportunity : whether they make use of it or waste it, is up to them. In any country where large parts of the population own firearms and are prepared to use them there can never be a military solution : all there can be is sufficient stability to enable schools and basic infrastructure to be constructed . One can take a horse to water but one cannot make it drink.

    Paddy ” I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins “. When family and clan ties are more important than anything else , the idea of stopping corruption in Afghanistan or countries like it is laughable as it is part of the culture. What can be done is to develop aid projects which make it as difficult as possible which means introducing low/ intermediate technology. People are taught the skills to develop technology which they can maintain and make themselves self sufficient. Large construction projects just become sources of income for the corrupt , as the organised crime syndicates discovered after the earthquake in Naples.

    Once someones income can rise to about $2500/year most of the problems of disease and malnutrition disappear and families have the ability to pay for education and healthcare. What is needed are the following
    1. Sewage system to stop the spread of disease.
    2. 20l of clean water per person which is less than a few hundred metres from peoples homes.
    3. Safe roads to markets.
    4. Increase agricultural production so people are well fed and not completely exhausted at the end of the day. Also, people need income to increase so they can afford to have their children go to school . If parents need their children to work obtaining food , then they will not go to school. Probably providing goats to supply meat and milk plus planting trees to supply forage would be a way of greatly increasing protein intake. It is difficult to obtain the strength to undertake manual labour without adequate protein.
    5. Craft skills so they can sell products and earn money additional to that from farming.

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