Opinions & Ideas



(U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Leslie Angulo)

The collapse of the western backed government in Afghanistan is a shock. It has shaken confidence in democratic countries, and changed the balance of power somewhat, as between the United States and China.

 It shows that efforts from the outside to topple regimes, and  to replace them with friendlier ones are more difficult than anyone thought 20 years ago, when the western allies first overthrew the Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11. The aim of capturing Osama Bin Laden was not achieved until much later, and then it was achieved  in Pakistan (an ostensible ally of the United States) , and not  in Afghanistan at all. 

The end of the US intervention in Afghanistan has lessons for those who might wish to undertake similar exercises in Somalia, Libya, Syria, Cuba, Mali or Venezuela. The objectives need to be clear and limited. Local support must be genuine. If one is seeking out terrorist suspects, invasion is not the best way of achieving extradition! Nation building is best done by locals.

 Existing regimes may be oppressive or corrupt, but if they are home grown, and have developed organically from local roots,  they survive better than anything , however enlightened, introduced from outside. 

Conventional military power-boots on the ground and targeted bombing- is of limited effectiveness against networks of fanatics or mobile guerrillas.

 Western countries will now need to reassess their military spending priorities in light of the lessons of the interventions in Iraq, Libya and now Afghanistan

 On this occasion, it is the US and NATO that have the hardest lessons to learn, but I suspect that if China were to attempt a similar exercise in nation building from the outside (say in Taiwan) they would have the same experience.

 The fact that China has had to adopt such extreme measures in Sinkiang to integrate that province into the Chinese social system is a sign of weakness rather than strength. 

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse society which, despite its diversity and disunity, has been able to resist rule from Britain, the USSR and, most recently, from the US and NATO.  Religion was a unifying factor is an otherwise very divided country.

It seems the Taliban have been more effective in building an ethnically diverse coalition than was the former government in Kabul.  It is not yet clear whether the Taliban will be able to hold that coalition together.

It does seem that the Taliban has, in the past, been able to impose a degree of order in Afghan society, and has been able to punish corruption. It created a form of order in a brutal and misogynistic way, but it did so. Order is something the outgoing government  in Kabul could not provide, even with generous outside help.

 Order, after all, is a prerequisite for any form of stable existence. Furthermore without order there can be no rule of law, and no democracy. Without iy, civil society breaks down. This applies in the West as much as it does in Central Asia.

Order is created by a combination of three essentials- loyalty, acquiescence and fear.  All three elements are needed to some extent. Hamid Karzai could not command these three essentials, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will do any better

It is hard to assess the effect the Afghan debacle will have on the United States, which has by far the most elaborate and expensive military forces in the world. 

Will there be a change in US strategy? 

There is a strong temptation to turn inwards and reduce commitments to the defence of other countries, including the defence of European countries. From 1783 until 1941 the US tended to remain neutral and rely on the oceans for protection against its enemies.  

The countries of the European Union will also need to work out what their practical defence priorities are, in light of the Afghan and other recent experiences.. This is a political task of great difficulty because the 27 member states have very different views and geographic imperatives.


I attended a conference in Washington this week where some of the major  security problems of the worlds were discussed.  A few things stuck in my mind which may be of interest to visitors to this website
 The most important thing to happen this decade is the wind of change in the Arab world.
 The Arab world has a huge youth population, educated but  with poor economic prospects. Authoritarian methods could not control them when they had independent access to communication through the social media and Al Jazeera.
The peaceful character of the demonstrators was remarkable. Even in Yemen, where guns abound, they   have been peaceful.
Egypt will soon have free elections, as will Tunisia. This means that everybody, including Europe, the US and Israel, will have to pay attention to Arab public opinion in those two countries. It will no longer be possible to do deals with leaders over the heads of the public.
In other countries the development will not be so benign.  There will be no peaceful transition to democracy in Syria or Bahrein. Libya seems headed for a stalemate.  In the past, Al Qaeda recruited many suicide bombers from the Benghazi area, and one cannot be sure how well “liberated” Libya  will develop. The Western intervention does not have a clear end point. I wonder did people really  believe that Khaddafi would  go quietly, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, once the  West intervened.
There was a general view that the democratic revolutions have restored Arab pride.   But the economic problems the new governments will face will be severe, especially in Egypt, where the decline in tourism and the increase in food and fuel prices will hit the poor hard.  Freedom on its own does not put bread on the table.
 Iran will lose some ground because it will have fewer grievances to exploit. Turkey, as a democracy with Islam inspired Government, may become a role model, and see its influence increase.
The Palestine question was not a central issue in the demonstrations, but a democratic Egypt may make tougher demands on Israel, in regard to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, than the military regime was prepared to  do. President Obama started to do something to create a resolution of the Israel/ Palestine conflict at the beginning of his Administration, but now has given up, having failed to get Israel to stop building settlements that preempt the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, it looks as if Saudi Arabia, by supporting the regime in Bahrein, is opposing democratic change. Saudi oil is critical to western prosperity, now that supplies from Libya are interrupted.
There was pessimism about the achievability of the goal of NATO handing over security to the Afghan Government by 2014.  While progress is being made, the problem will not be resolved by 2014.
The cost of present security comes to 8 times Afghanistan’s GDP!  100000 NATO troops are in Afghanistan, but only 100 Al Qaeda operatives, and none of the Al Qaeda leadership. The leadership, and most of the operatives, are now in Pakistan.  The Pakistani army has an ambiguous relationship with some of the terrorist groups.
If NATO troops are not to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, a new approach must be found.   One  solution suggested was  a treaty between all its neighbours guaranteeing Afghanistan’s military neutrality, was suggested.  This is worthwhile and original thought. It was the approach that led to the creation of the state of Belgium in 1830. Previous to 1830, the territory that is now Belgium had been fought over for hundreds of years.
 For this approach to work in Afghanistan, there would have to be an agreement between Pakistan, India, Iran and China, with the support of the US and Russia. It might be something that all Afghanistan neighbours might accept. An unstable failed state in Afghanistan is bad for all the  neighbours.
 But talking to Iran might be difficult for the United States, in light of Iran’s nuclear programme, which has the potential to change the balance of power in the region.  Israel is convinced that a nuclear Iran would constitute a mortal threat. But an endless NATO war in Afghanistan is unthinkable, and  financially unaffordable.

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