The increasing spate of so-called green (Afghan government forces) on blue (foreign ISAF forces) violence in Afghanistan is something that speaks to the futility of maintaining an indefinite Western military presence in that strange, alien place. Why strange, why alien?
Unlike countries of the Western enlightenment tradition, Afghanistan has never enjoyed strong political and social institutions nestled in the fabric of a stable, centralised state. Yes, there have been times in Afghan history when various warlords rose to power and created nascent kingdoms and empires. But they were ephemeral occurrences, generally lasting for a few short generations before disintegrating into internecine tribal/ethnic warfare or becoming the plaything of external imperial powers. The Afghan people are trapped by their geography and their history. The disconnected societies that evolved from amongst the many isolated valleys and mountains of Afghanistan, means that ‘Afghan’ might be a broad definition signifying a local identity, a differentiator from foreign people and influences, but this definition never grew into a national consciousness as the West would understand it. Indeed, the fact that ISAF personnel are still trying to develop a ‘nation building program’ in a country that is largely devoid of nationalism, seems like a fool’s errand. Local Afghans still identify themselves in terms of their religion, their village, their family and their ethnicity; rarely do they identify themselves with their ‘country’. Only those who live in their own foreign-sponsored bourgeois cocoon in Kabul, (the Afghan capital), believe that with a foreign military presence and enough foreign aid, the fiction of a modern Afghanistan can be maintained indefinitely. But the denizens of Kabul are not representative of Afghanistan proper. In Kabul, the political elite is well educated and has daily contact with foreigners either dispensing aid, or developing ‘capacity building’ programmes for the national government. Some have travelled outside of Afghanistan, but they are the minority. The vast bulk of Afghanistan’s population has little contact with the outside world and what little contact they have, they find unacceptable to their religious duty, their way of life and their ethnic loyalties. So what are we, the West, doing there? We initially went in to dislodge the Taliban who gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the US. This was a rational strategy and the tactics used against the Taliban and Al Qaeda ingenious. For relatively little expenditure of finance, arms and men, the US and its allies (Afghan and foreign) changed the political equation of Afghanistan by ousting the Taliban from power. That’s arguably where the Western mission should have ended. People understand revenge and the US needed its vengeance against Mullah Omar and bin Laden. The subsequent mission creep, with no end in sight, was a bad political choice based on a wilful ignorance of Afghan realities. Continuing to push a Western agenda is, again, a bad political choice with tragic outcomes as we have seen over the past few days.
As long as we in the West believe it to be our God given right to interfere in the politico-social affairs of others, we should not be surprised when bad things happen to our military personnel sent to far-flung places to do the bidding of the chattering classes.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International