Sunny Hundal, in a piece for The Guardian yesterday, made the case that we cannot give up on Afghanistan. It was, he says, unreasonable to expect the overthrow of the Taliban might come without British casualties or that we could secure positive social change in Afghanistan overnight. In and of themselves, these points are very true. Thus far 212 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan. These are, of course, 212 too many, but despite the public’s lack of tolerance for rising fatalities in a war being fought so far away for reasons so few people seem to understand, Britain’s casualties have been light. Almost as many soldiers were lost every day during World War 2. Neither should we expect immediate social change. As Sunny rightly points out, “Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture has been entrenched for centuries. Did anyone really believe that installing a new government would suddenly bring feminist enlightenment?” But whilst both points are valid, the point Sunny misses is that Afghanistan’s problems, rooted in violence and social conservatism, are never going to find a solution in continued Western occupation.
Like Sunny, I have always supported the overthrow of the Taliban. Unlike Sunny, I never supported an invasion of Afghanistan. Whilst in some senses the war might have forced Pakistan to tackle head on the dangers of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, it has had far from a stabilising influence on the subcontinent. Afghanistan is a failed state propped up only by Western military power, some of the most beautiful areas of Pakistan that were once a magnet for tourists now attract only militants, and India is far from free of the threat of terrorism, as November’s attacks on Mumbai reminded a stunned world.
The problem is that Western occupation will never provide an answer, to the security of the subcontinent or to the suffering of the Afghan people. “The radical Taliban groups are grossly outnumbered militarily and financially,” Sunny argues. And yet here we are still, in a war that’s already lasted two years longer than WW2, fighting an implacable foe in a country that has never been successfully occupied. All the while, the civilian casualties rise and with each missile gone awry we ferment further hatred, breeding the next generation of militants who’ll fight the good fight, stay the course and keep the faith even as our own wavers. The gloomiest of predictions, by General Sir David Richards, former commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan, see a British presence in the country for the next 40 years.
In an interview with The Third Estate earlier this year, I put the problem to Tony Benn. “It’s an unwinnable war,” he said. “Every country has to work out its own internal problems. You can’t solve them with an invasion.” It might seem a little callous to step back like this in the face of such blatant human rights abuses, but Benn’s point is a convincing one. A Western occupation will never successfully bring about the social change that is urgently required in Afghanistan to reject the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban, to enable democratic participation and the emancipation of women. All it will do is further entrench the hegemony of ultra-conservatism by setting the Taliban up as liberators fighting the latest in a long line of foreign aggressors. Islamism itself – emerging after the perceived failures of socialism and nationalism in the Muslim world – is a product of colonialism and imperialism, an internally developed tool of resistance which speaks to the very core of the oppressed identity.
The solutions to the problems of Afghanistan, to the subcontinent and to the wider Muslim world, have to be developed internally. A Western ideal can never be imposed down the barrel of a gun. For many human rights activists, myself included, watching the scenes on the streets of Tehran in June from the comfort of our armchairs and knowing the only thing we could do to help was change the time zone on our Twitter accounts, was a painful thing to face. But the movement for democratic change in Iran had to come from within. And when the Ayatollah finally falls, like the Shah, it has to be at the hands of the Iranian people, not the British or American military. The same is true for Afghanistan. No matter how uncomfortable that admission is, no matter how long and arduous the road to change for the Afghan people, the impetus has to be their own. Just as Pakistan must settle accounts with its own militants. Withrdrawal isn’t giving up. It’s trusting the people of those strange foreign lands, to whom we can no longer play policeman, to find their own answers. “If we’d invaded South Africa to end Apartheid, there’d be bloodshed from that day to this,” Tony Benn – who counts Nelson Mandela amongst his greatest heroes – told me.
I don’t have any easy answers. All I know is that propping up a failed government in Afghanistan for the next 40 years of bloodshed is not one of them.