Former soldier Joe Glenton puts an impassioned case for learning the lessons of history and ending the Afghan War now.
Even as the Western powers stumble on in the Central Asian mire, the reconfiguring of ‘liberal interventionism’ plays out in North Africa. How the leaders of the great powers must rue the onset of global media across communities, and of globalised, tech-savvy populations.
They must ache for simpler times, when a direct approach to troublesome natives was permissible, and colonial excesses were suffocated in jingoism by the time the despatches reached home. Oh, for the capacity to keep atrocities quiet, to bag a brace of kaffir without risk of a cell next to Bradley Manning.
What enormous reaction might have resulted from the slaughter of massed ranks of poorly-armed Mahdists by the columns sent to avenge Gordon in 1885, had it been beamed to a global audience? Or from the abandonment on the battlefield of Omdurman of the Dervish wounded in 1898?
Events like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib indicate that little has changed – except that there is more reason to fear exposure, as indicated by the MOD’s Joint Services Protocol 411, where it is asserted that journalists are a threat on a par with terrorists and disgruntled ex-employees (a category which, I guess, includes me).
Likewise, the option of countering insurgency by removing the population to leave only the insurgent in the landscape was ideal for colonialists operating against uncooperative Boer guerrillas mounted on ponies. But today it would be kryptonite, liable to blow away the fictions by which contemporary interventions are justified. It seems that some advances in technology have not expanded but limited the occupier’s freedom of action.
George Orwell defined his job as a colonial policeman in Burma as ‘holding down the native while the businessman goes through his pockets’. Because this is what imperialism boils down to, the true savages are, necessarily, the occupiers. This reality has been argued eloquently by none other than imperial apologist-extraordinaire Niall Ferguson. In a recent TV foray, he discussed Africa and the development there of the very racialised pseudo-science which informed Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the likes of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele.
Today’s adventures are supposed to be ‘humanitarian’, not ‘imperial’. Yet, what is happening in Afghanistan now seems very much part of an old and grim tradition of colonial ‘kill- teams’ dispatched to murder ‘savages’ in the interests of law and order.
But imperial history has other lessons. Like the jezails which methodically chipped away at the British columns fleeing in 1842, the Afghans maintain their resistance, bide their time, and remember the crimes of trespassers.
The popular position – endlessly reiterated by the media echo-chambers of our political leaders – is that Afghanistan will collapse if we leave, so we must stay. The truth is that Afghanistan is collapsing now, today, precisely because of the occupation, and the whole past 30 years of war and foreign intervention.
We know this because the rhetoric has lost coherence. Arguments are exposed and immediately replaced with more outlandish ones, even as the UN tells us that the security situation in Afghanistan is the worst it has been in ten years. This, despite the ramblings of NATO’s fantasist-in-chief that Kabul is as safe as Glasgow for children.
Step back, look more broadly, and further pro-interference arguments collapse. The North African revolutions have shown the growing irrelevance of Al-Qaeda. Where are they amid the popular uprisings? They feature prominently now only in the rhetoric of imperial officialdom. Anyway, they have now assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or is the aim to kill all ‘terrorists’ everywhere? Is the ‘war on terror’ to be an eternal imperial crusade?
And what now – in the wake of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria – of the implicit argument that Muslims had to be freed from despots and terrorists by foreign armies because they could not manage it themselves? What of that argument now?
So why are we still there – in Afghanistan? Should we not now leave?
The most cutting and accurate response is Chomsky’s: the question presupposes we had any right to be there in the first place.
Joe Glenton is an Afghan War veteran and conscientious objector
Article from Military History website
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