Friday, 14 August 2009

What are we fighting for?

"We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky": Afghanistan has laid low the hubris of conquerors for two-and-a-half thousand years - and still they come.

THE detonation of the IED rattled off the walls of the narrow mountain pass in ever-diminishing echoes. Alerted by the blast, SAS snipers hidden among the crags knew immediately that their comrades were under attack.

None of them moved a muscle.

The deadly chatter of small-arms fire rose fitfully from the road, interrupted every now and then by the thwack and thump of rocket-propelled grenade-launchers.

Like the grey rocks they resembled, the snipers remained motionless.

A few minutes later the low drone of an American gunship filled the valley, followed by the murderous roar of its Gatling-guns. As the Lockheed AC130 banked and flew away, a grim silence settled over the landscape.

For what seemed like an age, the snipers heard only the hiss and rattle of the wind threading its way through the rocky outcrops and sprawling scree. Then, faintly at first, but growing louder and stronger as the aircraft neared the site of the ambush, they heard the familiar thudda-thudda-thudda of helicopter rotor-blades. If any of the marksmen’s support team were left alive, medical attention was now at hand. If not, at least the bodies of their comrades would be laid to rest in the soil of their homeland.

At daybreak, a small column of the same Taleban irregulars whose deadly improvised explosive device had killed three New Zealanders just eighteen hours earlier, attempted to escort one of Afghanistan’s leading opium-growers over the pass. In the glare of the morning sunlight none of them noticed the tell-tale dots of the snipers’ laser gunsights playing over their bodies.

Not one of them made it out of the valley.

ONLY a fool would question the courage or competency of the New Zealand Special Air Service. It’s high reputation among the world’s special-forces is well deserved and has been dearly bought. Nor should anyone doubt the Service’s capacity to inflict serious damage on the Taleban – our men always make a difference.

But, that’s not the point. In the light of John Key’s decision to once again commit New Zealand combat forces to the Afghan War, the question we must ask ourselves isn’t: "Can we make a difference?" But: "Is it a difference worth making?" When, inevitably, some of our finest soldiers find themselves in situations like the imagined incident described above, and more and more of them start arriving back home in body-bags, will it have been worth it?

Mr Key’s argument for re-engagement derives its force from the counterfactual proposition: "What will befall the world – and New Zealand – if the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) cuts and runs, and the Taleban are once again permitted to take over Afghanistan? His answer is brutally simple: If the ISAF’s mission to bring security and stability to Afghanistan is allowed to fail, then sooner or later this country will be attacked by terrorists.

In other words: Let’s get them, before they get us.

Is this a credible argument? Is there any evidence that countries which attack terrorist-harbouring "rogue states", make themselves less vulnerable to terrorist attack?

The answer, of course, is: "No."

In fact recent history suggests that the opposite is true.

Just look at the pattern of terrorist attacks since 2001. Australian citizens became the prime targets of the Bali Bombers after their government openly supported the US invasion of Afghanistan. British citizens were targeted on the London Underground after Tony Blair and George W. Bush illegally invaded Iraq. In Spain, another "Crusader State", two hundred people lost their lives to Islamic terrorism. Countries guilty of attacking Muslim states actually appear to make their citizens more – not less – vulnerable to terrorist attack.

But if we don’t go, aren’t we guilty of selfishly allowing other mothers’ sons to die for Afghanistan’s freedom?

That would be true if the conflict in Afghanistan was a genuine war of liberation. But, it’s not. An enraged United States, backed by its allies, invaded and occupied that unfortunate land. But, as the Soviet Union discovered (to its great cost) any attempt to impose one’s core ideological precepts from a helicopter gunship is doomed to fail.

The evolution of freedom and equality in any given society is a process only the members of that society can (or should) determine.

The brave men of the SAS cannot deliver security and stability to Afghanistan.

Only the Afghan people can do that.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 14 August 2009.


Anonymous said...

Yep. Rebuilding is one thing, but nice wee Johnny just put NZ back in the spotlight and up the terrorists' list.
Thanks, National.

Anonymous said...

Alright then.
Just that Tony Blair was a lone voice of sanity and reason in the wilderness in your book after 9/11, what's changed?

Chris Trotter said...

What changed was that Tony Blair failed to live up to his "let us remake the world" rhetoric.

I always believe we should give our political leaders the benefit of the doubt - once.

You'll have noted, of course, that I never gave Blair a second chance to fool me.

phil sage (sagenz) said...

Chris - you are right in the short term. but in the long term it is in our self interest to assist Afghanistan with becoming educated and peaceful. Charlie Wilsons war has an interesting close. The Americans beat the Soviet Union through Afghanistan in 1988 but they did not provide the money for development. The purpose of ISAF is to provide security for education and development. It will be a long and not an easy job but it is vastly preferable to the alternative which is a repeat of the human tragedy that is Somalia.

Chris Trotter said...

Quite right, Phil. I can't help thinking, though, that a properly organised and generously funded international aid programme, with the majority of its on-the-ground personnel muslims, would achieve much more than the ISAF.

Years of peace, and the influence of international agencies, will, I am confident, gradually ease the rigour of the hard-line Taleban regime which is bound to follow the eventual and inevitable departure of the West's soldiers.

sagenz said...

Pakistan has fifty years of democracy and dictatorship. It has been better governed under military than civilian rule.

Where will your uncorruptible muslims come from and what is your basis for expecting that Afghans are capable of building the civil institutions required for democracy on their own. Pablo's piece in democracy at Scoop is highly relevant. It is not the elections, it is the institutions that count. Afghans need time, money and support to develop those.
Absent ISAF and all you have is competition to take a bigger share of the cake. When I moved to Hungary in the early nineties the attitude was relayed to me as failing to steal from your employer or the state was in fact stealing from your family. attitudes like that take generations to work through.

Chris Trotter said...

It's something we in the West suffer from more than most other cultures - historical amnesia.

We simply don't remember (or choose not to remember) that the historical periods during which our own states and their institutions were consolidated, and civic cultures took root, were almost all periods of despotic rule: England under Henry VIII; France under Louis XIV; Russia under Peter the Great.

It is simply fanciful to suppose that a quasi-feudal state like Afghanistan can make the leap to Western-style modernity in a single bound.

Even more fanciful to suppose that such an outcome can be acheived with a Muslim population - at the point of Christian guns.