Afghanistan, a post-imperial spasm

The British government is lining up the former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrat party and the international community’s high representative in Bosnia Paddy Ashdown to rule Afghanistan. This is not a silly season story or a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof, merely a measure of the lunacy now polluting British foreign policy. Ashdown has time on his hands and Gordon Brown wants to show himself as firm a liberal interventionist as Tony Blair. He, too, wants to make Afghanistan a peaceful and prosperous democracy and may as well start now. So Paddy’s the man.

To the British left, Afghanistan was always the “good” war and Iraq the “bad” one. It is permitted for ministers to assert that they were “privately opposed” to Iraq so long as Afghanistan is seen as a worthy cause. With Britain at its helm, Afghanistan would be all it was not under the Americans. It would make Britain look macho. It would revitalise the UN and Nato after perceived debacles in former Yugoslavia and it would fulfil Britain’s historic role as nation-builder to the world.

Iraq is post-imperialism for fast learners, Afghanistan for slow ones. While the concept of a benign outcome in Iraq is strictly for armchair crazies, such an outcome remains received wisdom in Afghanistan. The British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, is building himself an embassy to compare with America’s in Baghdad and has forecast a British military presence of 30 years. Brigadier John Lorimer in Helmand says he can suppress insurgency in 10 years but will need “longer than 30” to establish good governance. Such things were being said in Iraq until two years ago, when the body bags began to talk.

Paddy Ashdown returned recently from Kabul consumed with imperial zeal. A reputed 10,000 NGO staff have turned Kabul into Klondike during the gold rush, building office blocks, driving up rents, cruising about in armoured jeeps and spending stupefying sums of other people’s money, essentially on themselves. They take orders only from some distant agency, but then the same goes for the American army, Nato, the UN, the EU and the supposedly sovereign Afghan government.

In the provinces, the Americans are running a guerrilla army out of Bagram, trying to kill as many “Taliban” or “Al Qaeda” as possible, while the British heroically re-enact the Zulu wars down in Helmand. Neither takes any notice of President Hamid Karzai, whose deals with warlords, druglords, Iranians and Taliban collaborators are probably the best hope of stabilising Afghanistan when the foreign occupation is over. But since that is claimed by Britain to be virtually never, the only certainty is a rising tempo of insurgency.

Getting out of Basra is now a firm diktat of British defence planning. The only sensible question in Kabul is how long before the same diktat applies there. The longer it takes to blow away Ashdown’s “bewilderment” the weaker the alliances engineered by Karzai over the past three years will become and the more certain his fall will be. The longer UK officials think they can win a war against the Taliban, the more it risks tearing Pakistan apart and sucking Iran into the conflic. Yet that is where liberal intervention

is now leading. It is a

post-imperial spasm, a knee-jerk jingoism and plain dumb. — The Guardian