Richard North, 21/08/2021  

It's difficult to know where the Afghan situation is going at the moment. Understandably, the attention is on the stop-start evacuation, with the media focused on the growing humanitarian crisis.

This emphasis, although inevitable, tends to obscure news of the political developments within the country, although it hasn't stilled to critics of past events. One of the latest is Simon Jenkins who sternly declares that "the west’s nation-building fantasy is to blame for the mess in Afghanistan".

It's all very well British MPs turning on Johnson, he asserts, then asking: "but what tidy end did they expect from this imperialist experiment?" And, to be fair to the man, he has been consistent in his opposition to the Afghan war. Back in August 2007, he wrote under the heading: "It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan". "This war against the Taliban is part of a post-imperial spasm", he railed: "The longer it is waged, the graver the consequences".

Later, in December of the same year, he wrote under the headline: "Britain's Afghan mission is a fruitless and failing pursuit". With Gordon Brown as prime minister, Jenkins wrote:
[He] knows he will not "defeat the Taliban", a term for shifting groups of anti-western Muslim fundamentalists across the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan crescent. Brown knows that terrorism is not an entity but a weapon, and is not susceptible to defeat. Brown knows that his troops in Helmand are boosting the drugs trade, antagonising the population and recruiting insurgents. He knows it because, we must assume, he reads his intelligence.
"In Afghanistan", Jenkins wrote, "there is no realistic mission, no achievable objective, no long-term strategy, only the fruitless pursuit of failure". And that, one has to recall, was written in December 2007.

Interestingly, as I was going through my own files, I came across this from October 2009, in which I referred to the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a former US Foreign Service officer whose resignation letter was famously published in the Washington Post.

Hoh's message to his employers was that he had "... lost understanding of, and confidence in, the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan." To put it simply, he wrote, "I fail to see the value or worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war".

Like the Soviets, he added, "we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people." He continued:
If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah's rein, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and support the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, their culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified ... I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taleban, but rather against the foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.
Towards the end of his four-page letter, he cited a "very talented and intelligent commander" who briefed every visitor, staff delegation and officer with the words, "We are spending ourselves into oblivion", adding:
We are mortgaging our nation's economy on a war which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realised not in years, after billions more spend, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.
This, of course, was during Obama's presidency, but no one could say that the issues weren't aired. As well as the US media, Hoh also made it into British newspapers, after the bloodiest month of the war to date.

Yet it was to be another 12 years before we saw the end game, with Biden taking the fall for the inevitable collapse of a strategy which was doomed from the very start.

Before even that, however, an obscure British Army Major, Andrew M Roe, submitted his Master's thesis for a degree in Military Art and Science, to the Faculty of the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Headed, "British governance of the North-west frontier (1919 to 1947): A blueprint for contemporary Afghanistan?", Roe's thesis set out a series of recommendations based on the lessons learned by British colonial administrators in the North-west frontier territory, before it was passed to Pakistan.

Not content with just producing a thesis, Roe went on to expand on the subject in a 2010 book entitled, "Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden, 1849-1947". In this, he offered the view that "a return to the British approach to tribal management has merit for the entire Pashtun belt".

And, one might remark that Roe is no ordinary soldier. Now a Major General, he is currently Commandant of the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Watchfield in Oxfordshire. If there was ever a man in a position to offer good advice, he is it. His thesis addressed many of the complaints raised in the 2021 SIGAR Report on "lessons from twenty years of Afghanistan reconstruction".

Where SIGAR noted that "every agency experienced annual lobotomies as staff constantly rotated out, leaving successors to start from scratch and make similar mistakes all over again", Roe wrote:
British officers serving in the North-West Frontier often stayed in India their entire career. Years of experience and a first rate education produced individuals who were well versed in the ways and culture of the country and its people. The ability to speak the language was essential and the mastery of tribal dialects was a matter of pride. Unbroken service produced officers who were acclimatised to the unique type of weather of the North-West Frontier and who possessed an intricate understanding of the land and its people.
Essentially, when it comes to critiques of the adventure in Afghanistan, seek and you will find. There is no shortage of material to guide presidents and prime ministers, but most of it seems to have been ignored. Politically, Biden may pay the price, but every leader who supported this mad venture from the date of its inception has blood on his hands.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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