Iraq is over with now, basically; what with the elections that took place today, in a seemingly peaceful and successful manner, little remains for the US involvement there but a withdrawal of forces. But some of those forces, rather than heading home, will instead be diverted to Afghanistan, about which the Obama administration has made clear its intentions to devote on the order of an additional 30,000 American troops – both for the reinforcing effect they are expected to have there per se and as a gesture of increased commitment that can be used to cajole the NATO allies to increase their own contributions of men and matériel to that front.
But things may not necessarily follow that simple script. There is certainly resistance in Germany, for example, to the idea of sending any more of its soldiers to Afghanistan, or even to allow a redeployment of the ones that are already there to areas of the country where they could be more useful in suppressing the Taliban (and so where, by definition, they would be more exposed to actually taking casualties). As for the Danes, they do already have around 550 troops operating in the more-dangerous south part of the country and have suffered 22 killed-in-action since the Danish military’s initial deployment to Afghanistan in 2002. And now we encounter on the pages of Denmark’s leading commentary newspaper, Information, probably the Obama administration’s worst nightmare in this regard: an opinion-piece from a leading Danish writer asking “Why are we in Afghanistan?”
The author, Carsten Jensen, is prize-winning novelist and columnist who has also travelled to Afghanistan four times already. In the early paragraphs of his piece, though, you almost have a sense of witnessing him undermining his own argument (which is against a Danish presence in Afghanistan, of course) by seemingly basing it on pacifism – a principle important in his country but probably not much of anywhere else. For did you know that it has been almost 145 years since the Danes have found themselves in a shooting-war? Yes, they managed to skip both World Wars (although they were occupied for much of the Second; you really can’t characterize the defense they offered to the Germans as very military), so the last violence they were involved in had to do with Prussian and Austrian soldiers invading in 1864 the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein on the European mainland, south of Jutland, to seize them permanently. Back in these contemporary times, Jensen reports that a number of books and articles have come out that recount and even celebrate the military exploits of the Danish contingent in Afghanistan, with even a “triumphalist” tone. And so he asks – ironically, one presumes – “The Danish are in the process of finding themselves again [i.e. rediscovering their Inner Viking]. Or are we?”
Again, all this alarm over being at war once again after 145 years may be faintly amusing, but it is likely not to strike much of a chord with any reader lacking the appropriate Danish sensibilities. (Although I grant that, since the piece of course is in Danish, it’s hard to imagine anyone without those sensibilities ever actually reading it.) But Jensen’s argument gets better, of course, much better in fact, as he goes on to voice some fundamental questions about involvement in that part of the world which one hopes would already have been posed and answered long before, but which one suspects in fact never were. Like the title question, for example: Why are we there? “To help out,” is the answer Jensen supposes the majority of the Danish electorate would give. But no:
At most that bare-minimum help, which is mostly of a cosmetic nature, serves the goal of creating temporary good-will in the local population in Helmand [where the Danish are stationed] so that they shoot a bit less frequently at the Danish troops. Any real help towards the rebuilding of society, that has been devastated after 30 years of war, is not up for discussion. . . . Civil society has not been rebuilt. The institutions that should give the Afghan government authority and the population confidence have never been created.
Indeed, as regards that Afghan government Jensen reminds us of an important point: there may be a (please forgive the expression) notional national Afghan government sitting in Kabul, headed by President Hamid Karzai, but the fundamental reality of what happened with the late-2001 American intervention there was that the various warlords holding real power in different parts of the country, having been deposed by the Taliban, were restored to their positions, so that that is in fact the country’s governing power-structure to this day. Now, does anyone really think, for example, that the West’s involvement in Afghanistan has achieved greater rights for the women there? Perhaps in the Potemkin-reality in and around the supposed capital Kabul; but certainly not in most of the country, as the warlords in charge there are not interested in such things. (Nor are, of course, the Taliban who themselves control ever-more territory.) Indeed, quite apart from women’s rights, Jensen quotes from one of those very same articles depicting the Danish soldiers’ military activities in Helmand province about the rampant pedophilia – yes, the sexual abuse of children – they noticed in the local culture, and you can bet that the warlords have little interest in doing anything about that either.
Against this background, Barack Obama’s notion of transferring to Afghanistan from Iraq the idea of a “surge” and the troops that embody it is simplistic nonsense. It represents a naive reliance on boots-on-the-ground and the additional military firepower they embody to finally achieve some “success” there, when the experience of the Soviets – with many more boots and firepower in place during their time there – shows clearly that succeeding in Afghanistan is not about that. Besides, Jensen provocatively points out, what makes you think that even the “surge” in Iraq was a success?
If you mean that elections in which everyone uniformly votes according to their ethnic or religious allegiance instead of voting based on a bundle of economic and political interests can be the cornerstone of a democracy, then yes, Iraq is a success.
If you mean that the most effective way to combat religious militias is to put the warriors into police uniforms and thereby give state sanction to terror, then yes, Iraq is truly also a success.
If you mean that the best way to make a lasting peace is to pay 90,000 armed Sunni rebels $300 per month to not shoot at the soldiers from the American occupation-army, then yes, I’ll give in once more: Irak is unquestionably a success.
So there! But back to Afghanistan: Amazingly, more than seven years after the first American intervention there in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it is nonetheless quite possible that we of the West still have not fundamentally thought through just what it is we’re doing there, what we want, what victory would look like, whether that “victory” is at all attainable with the resources we are willing to devote. Or as Jensen puts it: “In Afghanistan we have merely overloaded outselves militarily, but also morally through our high-blown rhetoric. We have created the image of an obligation that we neither can nor want to live up to, so that hypocrisy has therefore become our only way out.” Sound a bit like the American experience in Vietnam? Let’s not make the same mistake then, says Jensen: stop the hypocrisy and just get out.