We ought to have learned the lesson by now: if at all possible, leave Afghanistan alone. After all, we don’t want to put too many British soldiers in a position where they have to take Kipling’s advice:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your gawd like a soldier.”
Kipling died in 1936, so he knew nothing about the 457 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. Yet he knew the past, that most reliable predictor of the future.
For this isn’t the first time that Britain put her soldiers in harm’s way on those accursed plains. The first time was between 1839 and 1842, when the British Empire lost a war regarded as her worst military disaster in the nineteenth century.
The next Afghan war was fought in 1878-1880, when Britain played her Great Game against Russia. That war was moderately successful in checking the Tsar’s southward expansion. (The Russians tried to get their own back in 1979, but had to retreat after 10 blood-drenched years.)
Then came the war of 1919, after which Britain had to accept Afghanistan’s status as an independent nation. And yet, in spite of all those wars, our media are talking about the current events as if they had a novelty appeal.
True enough, one aspect of this conflict is indeed new. If in all the previous Afghan wars Britain stood on her own as a mighty empire, this time around she played poodle to America. Some people may describe this alliance more kindly, but I can’t.
One way or another, it was a terrible muddle – strategically, politically and philosophically.
Having inherited Britain’s imperial mantle, the US also assumed what Kipling called the White Man’s Burden, and his more prosaic contemporaries described as liberal interventionism. Yet there was a significant difference: Britain is an insular nation with a naturally expansive mentality, while the US is an expansive nation with a naturally insular mentality.
The post-9/11 events have shown that there’s little appetite in America for the messianic mission of carrying democracy to tribal societies. Nor were Americans especially hungry for stopping Vietnamese communism in the 1960s, even though that goal was indeed worthy.
Since idealism isn’t a sufficient inducement, any war has to be sold as a strategic necessity. Hence America went into Afghanistan in 2001 because the country gave al-Qaeda a sanctuary. And she went into Iraq in 2003 because it supposedly threatened the West with WMDs.
In both cases, Britain’s Labour government went along with canine obedience, hoping no doubt to trundle to global strategic prominence in America’s wake. That way the US got a dog in the fight: the British poodle.
Cold-blooded strategic considerations didn’t hold sway for long. Both in Afghanistan and in Iraq (especially after it turned out Saddam had no WMDs), the occupiers began to take the language of liberal interventionism off the mothballs.
Words like ‘nation building’, ‘democracy’, ‘equal rights’ and so on poured out in a veritable torrent. Neocons, both American and ours, were particularly strident (see my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick).
But we’ve already seen that neither Americans nor Britons like to send their young men to die in faraway lands for the sake of abstractions, especially those so groundless that they are doomed to failure. A surgical strike is one thing; a 20-year slog quite another.
Thus both Trump and Biden heard the clarion call of American isolationism loud and clear. And the lyrics were unequivocal: let Taliban have that damn country, see if we care.
Hence the present debacle. Once the Western bayonets were sheathed, it took Taliban days to overrun the country. The Anglo-American forces moved out because they couldn’t stay forever – not without giving their own people persuasive reasons for doing so.
Jack Straw, Blair’s Foreign Secretary, tried to do just that in this morning’s TV interview. Instead, he achieved exactly the opposite purpose by re-emphasising the muddle that goes by the name of Britain’s foreign policy.
Mr Straw tried to create a cocktail by mixing the whisky of strategic necessity with the treacly syrup of liberal objectives. The resulting beverage predictably turned out unpalatable.
First, he stated that he didn’t regret going into Afghanistan in the first place. After all, that country harboured bin Laden and his jolly friends. Yet a minute later he contradicted himself by letting the truth slip out: it was Pakistan that was the culprit, not Afghanistan.
What Mr Straw didn’t say was that, if the West can’t allow iffy countries to act as a base of terrorist operations, then neither Afghanistan nor Iraq should have been in the crosshairs. It’s Iran, Saudi Arabia and indeed Pakistan that should be the prime candidates for didactic mayhem.
Yet the West acts as a flat-track bully by choosing scapegoats that can be safely milked. Afghanistan has neither the oil of Saudi Arabia nor the nuclear weapons of Pakistan, so it was seen as a soft target.
Anyway, the whisky was poured, now came the syrup. It was crucially important to invade Afghanistan, explained Mr Straw, because the Talibs haven’t yet awakened to the delights of feminism. Why, they don’t even allow their women to be educated.
Now, both America and Britain commit the same atrocity on their own people, women and men. What most of them get can’t be described as education even charitably, with assorted government ministers doing the Taliban job with admirable efficiency.
That aside, Mr Shaw made it sound as if educating Afghan women was the principal aim of the occupation. I wonder if he has read Kipling’s poem.
Afghan women, as truthfully depicted by the poet, tended to cut wounded British soldiers to shreds, which their descendants also did to the wounded Soviet soldiers in the next century. In fact, both the Britons and the Soviets feared those furies even more than their men. Too many pale-faced soldiers had ended up with their genitals in their mouths.
We, meaning NATO, must decide what we really want. Is the objective to nip Muslim terrorism in the bud?
If so, we won’t succeed by furnishing every Muslim woman with a primer. Severe economic sanctions followed by massive punitive raids will do a better job, especially if we stop pretending that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are our friends.
An argument often heard, that we must be nice to that region to keep it out of China’s hands, doesn’t quite wash either. The West’s policy towards China resembles America’s policy towards Taliban in the 1970s.
First we build them up, China economically, Taliban militarily. Then we panic and begin to wonder what on earth we could do to stop them. Looking further ahead would help – and even the odd glance backwards wouldn’t go amiss either.
For few developments are historically sui generis. More or less everything that can happen has happened before. All we have to do is break history books. Or perhaps a collection of Kipling’s poems.
P.S. By way of light relief, the prize for the Best Inadvertent Aphorism of the Week goes to footballer Jessy Lingard: “In the bad periods I bottled up so much that I resorted to drinking.”