Reading the assembled Australian punditocracy on the Afghanistan war, you can’t help be reminded of the couple interviewed for Irish television in the 1980s. Who makes the decisions in the household, the interviewer asked. “Oh, well I make the small decisions about where we live and where the children go to school, and he makes the big decisions, such as whether Mr Reagan should use the bomb,” she replied.
That’s the army of armchair generals, urging us on to fulfilling our “duty” in Afghanistan. Why? Because otherwise the war might be lost.
But, of course, the war has been lost. When 40 nations who control more than half the world’s GDP lack the capacity to defeat an insurgency in one of the world’s poorest countries after a decade, then the war was lost long ago.
Even if it’s won, it was lost. Together with Iraq, it has drained Western coffers dry, driven the wedge between power elite and people ever deeper, emboldened the West’s competitors and outright enemies, and demoralised and driven to despair a small army of politicians, public servants and military.
By now it has become quasi-autonomous, pure process to which parties of both sides commit, without any belief in it whatsoever — and only because that’s easier than actually coming to a decision about it. That is a disaster from every angle — and disastrous wars usually topple governments, don’t they? Why not here?
The answer is because, back home at least, the Afghan thing isn’t a war. On the ground in Afghanistan? Yes it’s a war — vicious, bloody, a process by which everyone must take sides. In that respect the Taliban — the new Taliban, various groups under the one brand of convenience — are a product of the war.
Sustained occupation has been their recruiting sergeant, the horrific hi-tech violence of the occupiers providing smoke and fog for the horrific low-tech violence of the insurgents, legitimated in the service of driving out the invaders. The war has turned a religious-political cult into a force that can draw on patriotism to legitimise itself.
So on the ground, it’s a war. Back in the West, it is so the opposite of a war that the leader of the Opposition can claim “jet lag” as an excuse for not visiting the troops. The fact that that is even contemplatable as an excuse is a measure of what a non-war it is. If Australians really saw it as a conflict that had something to do with our personal security, then anyone claiming jet lag would be hanging tarred and feathered from a level crossing by now. Because the war doesn’t matter, Abbott’s latest evasion doesn’t matter.
What Afghanistan is, is the military equivalent of phantom limb syndrome, the bizarre condition whereby amputees still feel their lost appendage as connected and able to be wielded. Following the initial post 9-11 smashing of the Taliban (for which there was an arguable casus belli), an entirely different war began — one with the fantastic ambition of reshaping a country more ambitiously than any such adventure in history.
The aim of the NATO force was to assemble a liberal parliamentary democracy and then socially and culturally engineer the society beneath, that would legitimate it. The universal rights that evolved in stages in the West would be applied all at once — had to be, because they were required to legitimise the parliamentary system that had already been established.
This was empire in the grandest sense of the term, because it sought to go beyond the mere process of ruling subjects. It sought to go inside them, reconstruct them psychologically and culturally. It’s a project so far beyond the aims of prior great empires — the Pax Romana, Moorish Andalusia, the British in India — that only those who don’t understand what they’re trying to do could even attempt it.
The result has been predictably paradoxical. When the Afghans took the notion of self-determination seriously, and passed laws to reaffirm the mores of a traditional patriarchal society, they were told to go back and do it again until they got it right.
Self-determination, in this empire within and without, had to be of an authorised type of self only. But, of course, you can’t reconstruct a people in a generation (much less a decade) unless you’re willing to be no-nonsense about it, such as the Chinese in Tibet — smash all their monasteries, kill all their priests.
The great illusion of the West was that Western values would just …pop out from Afghans as an expression of universal human values. That came to obvious grief during the elections, when a parliamentary system was plugged into a social base of clans, emphasising kin loyalty and obligation over individual citizenship of a quasi-existent nation, and the vote rigging was open and unashamed.
So now we are defending a corrupt government, formed from a stolen election, busy enacting social laws similar to those applied by the Taliban — with the kin-loyalty thing, courtesy of arms of Karzai’s family, throwing large-scale heroin trading into the mix. Now, the final stage has been reached, with Karzai openly talking about talks with the Taliban (presumably already under way), and throwing out private security.
If this goes any further, the defence of un-self-determined anti-democracy in the non-country may require the overthrow of the non-elected un-government. Two decades after the Soviets, Afghans are living though the first Groucho Marxist war in history.
Western policy now is directed to one thing only — numbing the phantom limb, a second amputation. Weirdly, this requires more of an edge than the post-2002 war did. It’s one thing to get into a decade of pointless conflict, but how do you come back from it without a result, or any account of why you were there in the first place? Every sinew of government is now being directed at one thing — find a narrative that works plausibly in retrospect, and can explain why we’re leaving with nothing achieved. Better still, can make, by clear logic, that departure a triumph.
The power elites — stretched across the parties, the punditocracy and the public service — know that Afghanistan won’t shake them the way Vietnam did in the US. But as the general public have been strongly opposed to the war once the original Taliban (who, reformed, are playing the Matthew Flinders but with a new bass player, as Trev has a Silvertop shift) were deposed, withdrawal without a story would reveal, what, gasp, that the elites were behind the mass of people in their thinking. All those column kilometres about strategic this and fight for that, and it all turned out to be a futile mess — which is exactly the way it looked in the front bar, in the tea room, in the cafe. Good God! Is it possible that people can reason about war and peace as a moral and political decision, not as a technical specialist discourse? Where the frik would that end?
It will end, of course, when the Australian government accepts an ambassador from an Afghanistan government with Taliban ministers in it — perhaps even a deputy prime minister. They will rule large sections of the country, impose various versions of the patriarchal laws predating Islam, and the country’s culture and politics will change only as economic and social changes force change from below. The opium they fund themselves with will flow to the streets of Western cities, turning gateways such as Kosovo into narco-states — and every year, as with Colombia, we will re-affirm this quasi narco-state as a partner in the war against drugs.
About the radical Islamist bases inland from the Pakistan border regions, we will do precisely nothing, as we have done nothing for a decade — save for lethal and indiscriminate drone bombing of those we can reach. For to disturb the delicate balance of militarists and Islamists in the Pakistan military establishment would be to risk upending that bankrupt, benighted country altogether, and handing over a nuclear power to an Islamist regime.
Between then and now, the prime minister will stand over the graves of more dead Australian men — and, possibly women, which would make it a truly progressive war — a task she appears to find manifestly less disturbing than did John Faulkner. We will continue to search, in vain, for an advocate or agent of the war who darkened the door of a recruiting office in their youth, and we will tabulate those whose years of eligibility for service were spent instead in Socialist Forum, the Socialist Workers Party, the Monash Maoist Moratorium collective, the Adelaide Pol Pot fan club or climbing the greasy pole of professional journalism, their commitment to dulce et decorum est pro patria mori discovered around the day of their 36th birthday.
And we will wonder if there are five backbenchers willing to stand up for the best anti-militarist traditions within the Labor Party — or whether the entire caucus is happy to see it go the way of the British Labour Party, a discredited, demolished, literally demoralised shell, taken for a ride over the cliff by a man now advocating — this is so funny it is almost too hard to type — bombing Iran, from the depths of the offices of his new initiative for multifaith dialogue. Please, please, please, let him win the Nobel Peace Prize.
And as Tony Abbott berates the prime minister for a war mishandled, mismanaged, etc, etc, we will wonder why she did not look past her clueless, discredited pundits to realise that, quite aside from anything else, the way to win a majority in her own right was, to, amazingly, do what the majority of the population have wanted for a decade and get out of the war.
Ah well, back to the armchairs. The war can go on a little longer. The non-un-post-war-war is making the big decisions. Back at home we’re dealing with broadband. There’s an issue you can really have a drbat on.