Published: October 15 2008 19:25 | Last updated: October 15 2008 19:25
Afghanistan is a place of myths. One myth tells us that the British were defeated in their wars against Afghanistan; or, as an American official remarked recently: “The British screwed up there for two hundred years.”
History tells us different. After losing one army in 1842, the British sent in the Army of Retribution which burnt villages, razed the centre of Kabul and hanged a lot of people. The second Afghan war ended in 1880 when another army captured Kabul, hanged more people and burnt more villages.
The British aimed to reduce Afghanistan to a protectorate under a puppet leader with a British political adviser – the imperial formula that worked so well in India. Once they realised that it would not work for Afghanistan, they sensibly settled for their minimum objective – a monopoly of Afghan foreign policy which lasted for 80 years.
The Russian military claim that they were not defeated in Afghanistan either. In military terms they are probably right. But the Russians achieved none of their limited political aims: to stabilise the government, secure the towns, train up the army and police, and leave within six months. The comparison is not between them and the British in Afghanistan, but between them and the Americans in Vietnam. The US military, too, claim that they were not defeated. But America also failed to achieve its political aims.
In Afghanistan today new myths are building up. They bode ill for current western policy. On a recent visit I spoke to Afghan journalists, former Mujahideen, professionals, people working for the “coalition” – natural supporters for its claims to bring peace and reconstruction. They were contemptuous of President Hamid Karzai, whom they compared to Shah Shujah, the British puppet installed during the first Afghan war. Most preferred Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president, who attempted to reconcile the nation within an Islamic state, and was butchered by the Taliban in 1996: DVDs of his speeches are being sold on the streets. Things were, they said, better under the Soviets. Kabul was secure, women were employed, the Soviets built factories, roads, schools and hospitals, Russian children played safely in the streets. The Russian soldiers fought bravely on the ground like real warriors, instead of killing women and children from the air. Even the Taliban were not so bad: they were good Muslims, kept order, and respected women in their own way. These myths may not reflect historical reality, but they do measure a deep disillusionment with the “coalition” and its policies.
People in Nato and in Washington used to speak of “victory” in Afghanistan. Failure, they warned, would signify defeat in the war on terror and the end of Nato. But in Afghanistan, “victory” is another myth, not to be achieved by flying in a few more American soldiers. The British know from Ireland that you do not achieve “victory” over insurgents or terrorists. So, now, do the Russians: as one Russian general ruefully remarked: “We tried to teach the Afghans how to build a new society, knowing that we ourselves had failed to do so ... Our army was given tasks which it was in no position to fulfil, since no regular army can possibly solve the problems of a territory in revolt.” He was right.
We will have to settle instead for a new bottom line: a genuinely Afghan regime under a strong ruler who can impose himself on provincial governors, warlords, and assorted villains by a mixture of carrot and ruthless stick, in the manner of the great Afghan rulers of the past. Foreigners cannot usefully influence the choice: we will never know enough about Afghan politics to back the right man. Such a regime might only come into being amid further bloodshed. It would not be based on democratic institutions and the rights of women as we understand them. It would probably include elements of the Taliban. But if we were lucky as well as clever, it might co-operate with us on the thing we need most: neutralising al-Qaeda and its foreign fighters.
Despite their talk of British “defeatism”, some senior Americans seem at last to be gritting their teeth, facing the realities and moving towards such a political solution. Any change of course will be protracted and difficult. Too much treasure and prestige has been invested, too many words have been spoken, too many lives have been lost, too many outsiders – Pakistanis, Saudis and Arab fighters – are involved. The Russians first talked of leaving Afghanistan in 1982: it took them seven more years and many more dead to extricate themselves. Many people died, too, in the years during which the Americans sought an honourable exit from Vietnam. By contrast, the British marched to Kabul and then, when they had had enough, just marched back out again.
Things were simpler in the 19th century.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite, UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92 and then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, is currently working on a book about the Soviets in Afghanistan