Afghanistan: a misread war (Paul Rogers in OpenDemocracy)

Wat zijn de oorzaken van de oorlog in Afghanistan en in hoeverre leiden de akties van de Westerse geallieerden tot verdere radicalisering onder de bevolking, dat zijn vragen die te weinig aandacht hebben gekregen en nog krijgen, volgens professor Paul Rogers – en ik ben het volledig met hem eens. Voor nadere onderbouwing zie de links in het artikel.

The war in Afghanistan is reaching a pivotal moment. A range of diplomats, politicians and military strategists from dozens of countries is now paying the conflict the intense and concentrated international attention that it long seemed to lack while events in Iraq took centre-stage. But as the earlier combat-zone in the "war on terror" returns to the forefront, there is a notable tendency to misconstrue the story of the years since October 2001 in Afghanistan – in ways that might mislead policy-makers and analysts today into repeating earlier flawed assessments.

The dominant interpretation of what has happened in Afghanistan has many components of the critical situation of early 2009 to draw on. The problems of coalition troop numbers, of counterproductive military tactics, of the persistence of insurgent fighters, of Kabul’s governance and of events across the border in Pakistan – all these are more than enough to keep western policy-makers awake at night…

Even within a month of the dispersal of the Taliban militias from most Afghan towns and cities in November 2001, major incidents were already occurring. The last major city to fall to the Northern Alliance and US forces was Kandahar in early December; yet just days later a bitter conflict was unfolding in the mountains around Tora Bora. This was an early indication that the war could prove protracted. It coincided with a remarkable intervention by the head of Britain’s armed forces – the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce.

This was in the form of a speech on 10 December 2001 to an influential audience at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Whitehall, the heart of Britain’s political and diplomatic establishment. A column at the time summarised his views: Boyce "warned against the idea that a war on terror could be won by intensive military action while failing to recognise the root causes of the problem. More than that, he warned that the use of excessive force could even tend to radicalise Islamic opinion" (see "The next frontier", 17 December 2001).

The views of Michael Boyce – notwithstanding his senior position and authority – appeared to count for little; certainly this was the case in Washington, where the super-confident attitude also survived the extensive problems encountered by US troops in Operation Anaconda in spring 2002 (see "The spiral of war", 6 March 2002).

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, some analysts suggested that one of the attack’s main motives was an attempt to draw western forces into Afghanistan in the belief that they would suffer the same fate as had the Soviet Union’s army in the 1980s. This is now a fairly widespread view in military circles, though it also often expressed in a way that consigns the early years of the Afghan insurgency down a memory-hole (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 23 September 2001).

The implication of the establishment view remains that to some degree al-Qaida and Taliban militias were defeated in 2001-02, and have after a lengthy hiatus been able to regroup and refocus their campaign. There have indeed been peaks and troughs in the war, but the entire course of the war in Afghanistan needs to be seen much more as a continuum; many of the present indicators – among them the crucial element of western air-strikes killing innocent civilians – were already painfully evident during 2002.

There were very few senior military or political figures who at that time had a clear view of what was really unfolding in Afghanistan and beyond – and one that stands the test of time. Michael Boyce, speaking exactly three months after 9/11, was one. His judgment apparently carried little weight in London or Washington. His successors, and many others besides, now face the consequences.

Afghanistan: a misread war (Paul Rogers in OpenDemocracy)

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