Friday, 13 November 2009
The furious devout drench is with us. Sky like smoke. Road like glass.
I listen to Gordon Brown on Afghanistan as I drive in to work. For the first time in a long time, apart from the first question where, to a three word question, 'Are we winning?' his answer bulldozes on for about three-hundred breathless words (how can he not see how counterproductive this is?) I think he is making his case well, or well enough. He argues that we are fighting the Taliban because of their ideological links and close collaboration with Al Qaeda who are currently holed up in the mountains of Pakistan under attack by the Pakistani army. He talks of extremists rather than Islamist extremists or jihadists but we broadly know what is meant. He talks of building up Afghan forces until they can take over the fighting and policing, and links it to reducing corruption. He mentions heroin, he mentions the village-based societies of the country, he talks of Karzai as having a desire (questionable to many, I imagine) to reduce corruption and he talks about pressurizing other members of the alliance to provide more troops.
Nothing unexceptionable here. However, he doesn't mention the threat to Pakistan's nuclear weaponry, which must be the main worry, almost too big a worry to be bringing to public attention; he seems surprised and slightly outraged - as he surely cannot be - that the Taliban are fighting a guerilla war rather than ranging armies in direct conflict; and he nowhere makes mention of the nature of Taliban rule as a possible reason for fighting them.
And that last point is the mootest. To supporters of the Iraq War it was about WMD, about establishing a secular democratic state in the region, and about liberating Iraq from the universally admitted horrors of Saddam Hussein. To opponents it was about a ruthless oil grab, though I have heard nothing about that recently, and about US triumphalism and imperialism. The question of the death count, and at whose hands, will continue unanswered except to those committed to one or other side.
Afghanistan was always primarily about Al Qaeda, about Bin Laden's safe haven. The rule of the Taliban was horrific but the argument against intervening - the argument against all interventions - was that it was none of our business, that the Afghan people would rise against the Taliban in their own time, and that mass beheadings, stonings, oppression of women, and so forth were a matter of cultural difference that we had to respect because we were no better in our own foul ways. That argument remains in place though it doesn't convince me.
It is partly to do with the issue of corruption. When the recent election in Afghanistan was declared corrupt the cultural difference argument went out of the window. That was not what we expect of elections, we raged. When football stadiums were being used for mass public executions that was cultural difference.
I don't want to caricature this position too much because circumstances were different. In the case of the election we were supposedly in charge so were in position, supposedly, to enforce the cultural norms we expect. We were in charge because of the invasion. In the case of Taliban rule we had no influence and were certainly not in charge. So was it worth the war and the deaths and the being in charge in order to support a corrupt government with a corrupt election behind it?
Nevertheless, I still think the passion outweighs the facts. There are no mass executions, no terrorising of great swathes of the Afghan population, there are schools that girls can attend and there is progress on infrastructure. This is not nothing. It may mean we are imposing our cultural values on people from another culture but no one actually complains about such things, only that they haven't gone far enough or are not sufficiently secured. A corrupt election still remains a corrupt election - though it might be worth asking how many other places continue to have corrupt elections and at what degree of corruption, or have no meaningful elections at all - nevertheless there seems to be no doubt the Afghan election was corrupt. And we are in charge.
I want to think a little further about corruption - since it affects us all in different ways - in another post.