A Thousand Splendid Sunnys

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on September 5, 2009
Posted Under: Afghanistan,Anti-War
The sole survivor of Britains first invasion of Afghanistan

The sole survivor of Britain's first invasion of Afghanistan

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.

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Reader Comments

I have to say I agree 100% with you on this. This is actually a post I really wish I had written myself in fact.

I think one of the reasons we are doomed to fail is that the old realpolitik won’t work. We cannot divide and rule Afghanistan as we did in India; it is already divided and the Taleban are too strong and their recruitment drive too extensive.

Obviously, I’d much rather pull out from a position of strength than the so-so situation we find ourselves in at the moment to give the “liberal” Afghanis a chance, but I don’t think there is much we can do about that at the moment.

Written By Left Outside on September 5th, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

Agreed, an excellent piece. Just to add that a priority for anti-war campaigners ought to be driving home the unpopularity of this war across the country. There are thousands of voices of military families who want the troops home and they need to be heard and amplified, and one of the places to do that is on the national demonstration in London on October 24th, as well as in local areas in the run up to it.

Written By Dan on September 5th, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

Excellent piece and I fully agree that it is an unwinnable war. Yet a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan while desirable on many levels would ultimately lead to a Taliban victory after a bloody civil war leaving us in the same position as 2001.

Written By Poley on September 6th, 2009 @ 2:30 am

Poley, if it’s an unwinnable war, then that’s an inevitability whether we withdraw now or in 40 years time. Of course, the situation may change, none of us can see into the future and I may be very wrong about our chances of utterly removing the Taliban as a force and as an ideology. Nothing that has happened in the last 8 years, however, leads me to believe that. And lasting social change has to come from within. I don’t believe it can happen while Western forces remain in Afghanistan because their presence will always provide a rallying cry for religious fundamentalists able to exploit the genuine desire for liberation and self-determination. Pulling out may lead to civil war, but for change to take place in Afghanistan, that may be unavoidable. The British withdrawal from India led to horrific bloodshed between ethnic and religious groups. But no one would argue now that the British should have stayed.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 6th, 2009 @ 2:48 am

A sobering piece, and I can agree with much of what you say. Yet one of the problems with rogue states, failed states and delinquent members of the international community that threaten commerce or security (never even mind, the equally pressing, but perhaps less prioritised humanitarian issues), is the question of ‘what we do while we’re waiting for the thing to topple [from within]‘? It’s a tough one, and I have no immediate ideas on how that works out. Any thoughts?

Written By Tendai on September 6th, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

I just posted this on the comments thread to Sunny’s entry on LibCon, but my question obviously applies over here as well, one of the feature sentiments of Gordon Brown’s speech yesterday was to make it clear that the British army would be there, hopefully, to oversee the creation of a new independent Afghani military. And I think, now, it would be counter-productive to expect a complete British pullout right now.

But what was so different in Sunny’s CiF article and the above entry? Your entry Salman is a little more to the view that the occupation has done more to hinder the creation of an independent military and government I suppose. Though, If one supports the overthrow of the Taliban, realises that feminist enlightenment wouldn’t be an overnight phenomena, can see the shortcomings of foreign occupation but know it ever more problematic if Britain left now, then is Sunny’s point really so controversial, even from a leftwing standpoint?

On ways around the problem of where the British army stand the conclusions here were a little thin, but then we can all admit we “don’t have any easy answers”. So what possible solution could please both views (which in my mind more or less accounts for both level-headed views of Afghanistan, that is the question of whether we should’ve gone is irrelevent now in a sense, the question is what are we doing there, and how best to secure an independent military/govt).

For me in an entry I looked into the US military strategy of containment which is the position between “appeasement” (compromise through negotiation) and “rollback” (military force to destroy the enemy at its root), usually referred to when talking about US military strategy of carefully watching the expansion of the Soviet Union in the hope that this would relax its tendencies. The way in which this could be appropriated in Afghanistan is if we (owing to our proximity to the problem of the Taliban, they have their sites on Britian etc) limit our remit to overseeing the creation of an Afghani army/govt, and not try in any way to influence the creation of the infrastructure of those things.

The notion of invasion/propping up has not got a particularly good reputation, but I do however buy into Sunny’s notion that owing to Britain’s proximity to the danger of the Taliban, whether we liked the war or not, precludes our leaving now. Is containment a possible way in which to marry both the views of Sunny and the ones outlined in the entry above? Do correct me if I’m wrong.

Written By Carl on September 6th, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

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