Making sense of Afghanistan in fragments: part 2: the present and the future

Aug 25, 2021

The deluge of images carried by the mass media are in realty merely an overburden of a disaster foretold.  Their precedents were freely available long before the Western forces entered Afghanistan but they were brought into sharp relief as soon as that happened. Albeit less drastically, the documentation since then – specifically, the voluminous, now declassified reports detailing the dimensions of already existing and future failure – underscored not only the inevitability of the eventual debacle, but also the probability that it will extend for some time to come.

If relatively recent history is a guide, for the involved Western powers the war in Afghanistan will be relegated in a manner similar to the Vietnam War. Inglorious defeats, and the humiliation that accompanies them are intolerable to the entrenched discourse of Western supremacy in general and American Exceptionalism in particular.

The many dimensions of political rage now extant in the United States and elsewhere will contribute to this. At the same time, opportunistic accusations of “losing Afghanistan” will make their appearance.  The world will be post-Babel.

One temptation will be to adopt a resigned confusion as a normal state of affairs, but it  should be resisted. Such a state of paralysis is not necessary: there are avenues of understanding not least through those that Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” but, that said, while the consultations might be enjoyable, the understandings gained will not be comforting.

  • On the face of things those responsible should be held to account by way of a  specially designated tribunal which, in a reversal of Matthew 22:14, many will be called and many will be chosen according to the precedent set by Article 6 of the London Charter. Thus leaders, organisers, instigators and accomplices,” who participated in the “formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the [scheduled] crimes” would be held responsible for “all acts performed by any persons in the execution of such plan.”
  • This will not happen. What will happen is this: the whole constellation of the political leadership, the Cabinet members of the relevant departments, the civilian  leadership, and the high-ranking military officers will remain untouched. To the extent that blame will be apportioned, it will also be dispersed to just about anyone within hailing distance of policy-making and decision-making.  It’s a great evasive  tactic: in the first instance, it ensures that any attempt to hold those at fault to account will be seen as too cumbersome; second, responsibility will be attributed to “the system” – as though it was a remote device totally unpopulated by policy-makers and decision- makers
  • Such a defence is significantly assisted by the deliberate corruption of language to the point where the vocabulary of mainstream commentary is a solvent of guilt.  Already that commentary is referring to the obscene horrendous of the war in Afghanistan as the result of ‘missteps,” “miscalculations,” “misperceptions,”  “misjudgements,” “shortcomings,” “over/under-estimations” when what was evident were debacles, fantasies, and abject failures
  • With the evacuation of responsibility through semantic evasion, so also goes any ethical or moral reckoning.
  • Not only will the whole establishment remain undisturbed, its members will on to enjoy the perquisites of having been involved in the exercise of power and influence – as directors, consultants, lobbyists, cable television military-strategic experts, and distinguished university professorships in nebulous “national security studies.”[ No sense of irony here given they were curators of failure].
  • As a guide to the possibilities, from 2008 to 2018 at least 380 high-ranking US Defense Department officials and military officers found this to be an agreeable prospect after separation from government service.
  • Notwithstanding the abysmal record, post-9/11 wars have been kind to the above class of beneficiaries, their employers, and especially those who have shares in, the leading weapons manufacturers: since 2001, returns have outperformed the overall Stockmarket by 58% in general – the leaders being Lockheed (1,236%(, Northrop Grumman (1,196%), Boeing (975%), and Raytheon (331%).
  • This will not be the good fortune of those who served far lower down – specifically in the combat arms of the military. The statistics out of the US have foreshadowed Australia’s experience albeit to a greater degree: among US post-9/11 active duty and veterans, over 30,000 have committed suicide (approximately 1 every 90 minutes); in Australia the figure is more than 500 (1 every 2 weeks).
  • Expressed differently, since 9/11, four times as many US service members have died by suicide than have been killed in combat; for Australia, the figure is ten times the combat deaths.
  • All post-9/11 US war-related costs are assessed at $USD6.4 trillion to date.
  • Despite these terrible human, political, social and economic costs, the process of un-learning has already begun. In the words of the recently appointed commander of the US Special Operations Command, “I don’t necessarily see this [Afghanistan] as the end of an era, but, instead, as part of a new one that is full of opportunities for all of us.” True, unfortunately. although the total number of US bases globally has slightly reduced (from 800 to around 750), mainly because technology rendered some redundant, in the last five years, the number of places with such bases has actually increased over the same period.

Perhaps some will discover in Robinson Jeffers’ Eagle Valor, Chicken Mind, the historical essence of US strategy:

Unhappy country, what wings you have!…

Weep (it is frequent in human affairs), weep for

the terrible magnificence of the means,

the ridiculous incompetence of the reasons, the

bloody and shabby

Pathos of the result:

  • Afghanistan lives with that result. The civilian death toll for post-9/11 wars is assessed to be in the range of 313,000-336,000, more than 48,000 in Afghanistan.
  • Afghan troops killed in combat deaths are reported as 66,000.
  • An early temptation to recidivism by the US has already arisen in the form of the anti-Taliban resistance in Baghlan province. It, and similar movements contain the potential for civil war. If that comes, all parties, but mainly the Taliban, will be the beneficiaries of an involuntary foreign military assistance programme.
  • Once the Afghan military had capitulated, the arms for such strife became plentiful and will be useful in varying degrees until they require replenishment or maintenance. Thus, since 2003, the US had provided the Afghan forces with 600,000 light weapons,  20,000 hand grenades, 76,000 vehicles, 4,700 Humvees, 16,000 night vision goggles, and 162,000 radios.
  • Even without civil war there will be a massive outpouring of refugees at a time when global conditions will make them less welcome than they already were.
  • The economic future of Afghanistan is hostage to more than the potential for civil strife: the US and associated revenue streams have presumably already ceased. At the same time, because of the country’s pivotal location between central and south Asia, its reserves of minerals, oil, and gas, and the interests of China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia in its future, there is a basis for extraordinary economic development. It is, an open question, however, whether the prospects can be realised.
    • In the meantime there is an economic sector that is booming – illegal opium production – a legacy of the war which, it has to be said, was facilitated by the Western powers and implicates virtually everyone in Political power. Without exaggeration, Afghanistan is the world’s first and truest form of the narco-state: 224,000 hectares given over to poppy cultivation, producing an estimated 9,900 tonnes, 80%-90% of the worlds illicit opium, in 2017.
    • According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this generated $USD1.4 billion in sales by farmers – 7% of the country’s GDP. It has also created a domestic demand for opioids resulting in an addict population estimated at 2.4 million in 2015. And it’s created a transnational phenomenon: across the border, in Pakistan, the comparative figure is around 7 million.

In these dark and anxious times, Yeats is eminently deployable but, on this occasion at least so is Seamus Heaney, who captures the gap between what was anticipated by the US and its allies and the turbulent outcome:

Conquest is a lie. I grow older

Conceding your half-independent shore

Within whose borders now my legacy

Culminates inexorably.

And I am still imperially

Male, leaving you with pain…

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