In 1939, Capt. Peter Sanders, serving with the Tochi scouts on the Afghan-Indian border, was blown up by a Waziri booby trap and lost his right arm. Shortly afterwards, he accepted an invitation to lunch from the tribesman who’d planted the bomb. Awfully decent of the chap, and not a bad spread, all things considered.
Not everyone cares for the old stiff upper lip: “I spit on your British phlegm!” as the Khazi of Kalabar remarked in what remains the seminal work on Afghanistan, Carry on up the Khyber. But imperialism requires a certain dotty élan. Without it, it’s no fun. You’re just a guy holed up in a Third World dump occasionally venturing out in the full RoboCop to pretend to implement some half-assed multilateral “nation-building” strategy that NATO defence ministers all agreed to at some black-tie banquet in Brussels and then promptly forgot about. Instead of the Tochi scouts—Pathan irregulars commanded by British officers—we now have Afghan units “trained,” or at any rate funded, by Western governments. A headline in the Washington Post captures the general malaise: “Afghan forces’ apathy starts to wear on U.S. platoon in Kandahar.” On a recent patrol through the city, 1st Lieut. James Rathmann stopped at a police checkpoint and found them all asleep in a nearby field.
It’s not just the natives who are dozing. In London recently, Robert Gates, the U.S. defence secretary, complained that the allies’ promised 450 “trainers” for the expanded Afghan National Army had failed to materialize. These are not combat roles, so in theory even the less gung-ho NATO members should have no objection. Supposedly, 46 nations are contributing to the allied effort in Afghanistan, so that would work out at 10 “trainers” per country. Yet even that modest commitment is too much. So the Afghan army will fill up with time-servers and Taliban sympathizers.
Colonial administration was always a cynic’s field. In Lisbon last week, I was admiring the beauty of the jacarandas when David Pryce-Jones, the scholar and novelist, reminded me of the words of Lord Lloyd, British high commissioner in Egypt in the twenties: “The jacarandas are in bloom,” he observed. “We shall soon be sending for the gunboats.” When the weather heats up, so do the natives. In Lloyd’s day, we were cynical about the locals. Now we’re starry-eyed about the locals—marvellous chaps, few more trainers and they’ll do splendidly—while they’re utterly cynical about us. Hamid Karzai has just fired his two most pro-American cabinet ministers and is making more and more pro-Taliban noises. This is a man who for the last nine years has been kept alive only by U.S. military protection. A throne in Kabul may not be much, but, such as it is, he owes it entirely to his patrons in Washington. Why would Putin, Ahmadinejad or the ChiComs take Barack Obama seriously when even a footling client such as Hamid Karzai can flip him the finger?
“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse,” said Osama bin Laden many years ago, “by nature they will like the strong horse.” The world does not see President Obama as the strong horse. He has announced that U.S. troop withdrawals will begin in 12 months’ time. Karzai takes him at his word, and is obliged to prepare for a post-American order in Afghanistan, which means reaching his accommodations with those who’ll still be around when the Yanks are over over there. The new government in London takes him at his word, too. Liam Fox, the defence secretary, wants as rapid a British pullout as possible. When Obama announced an Afghan “surge” dependent on such elements as mythical NATO trainers and then added that, however it went, U.S. forces would begin checking out in July 2011, he in effect ruled out the possibility of victory. Over 1,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan, 300 British soldiers, 148 Canadians. What will our soldiers be dying for in the sunset of the West’s Afghan expedition? What is Obama’s characteristically postmodern “surge” intended to achieve? More Afghan police sleeping in fields? Greater opportunities for women? Take Your Child Bride to Work Day in Kandahar? British troops, said Liam Fox, are not in Afghanistan “for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country.” And, even if they were, in certain provinces “education policy” seems to be returning to something all but indistinguishable from Mullah Omar’s days. The New York Post carried a picture of women registering to vote in Herat, all in identical top-to-toe bright blue burkas, just as they would have looked on Sept. 10, 2001.
Osama bin Laden’s strong horse/weak horse shtick is a matter of perception as much as anything else. On Sept. 12, 2001, the United States of America had just as many cruise missiles and aircraft carriers as it had 48 hours earlier. The only difference is that the world understood that, for once, America was prepared to use them. That’s why Moscow acceded to Washington’s “request” to use its old bases in Central Asia for northern access to Afghanistan. That’s why General Musharraf took seriously the Bush administration’s “shockingly barefaced” threat to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t get everything it wanted out of Islamabad. By contrast, a couple of days before, Mullah Omar and the Taliban appear to have agreed to let their al-Qaeda tenants strike America with nary a thought for the consequences to their own country.
Let’s suppose that the evacuation of the twin towers had not been quite as efficient and that the death toll was way up over 10,000. Let’s also suppose that Flight 93 had not been stymied by the vagaries of scheduling and the bravery of its passengers and had succeeded in hitting the White House and decapitating the regime. America was the most powerful nation on the planet, yet Mullah Omar evidently was unperturbed by the possibility of total, devastating retaliation against his toxic backwater.
The toppling of the Taliban was an operation conducted with extraordinary improvised ingenuity and a very light U.S. footprint. Special forces on horseback rode with the Northern Alliance and used GPS to call in air strikes: they’ll be teaching it in staff colleges for decades to come. But then the Taliban scuttled out of town, and a daring victory settled into a thankless semi-colonial policing operation, and then corroded further under the pressure of the usual transnational poseurs. After 2003, Afghanistan became the good war, the one everyone claimed to have supported all along, if mostly retrospectively and for the purposes of justifying their “principled moral opposition” to Bush’s illegal adventuring against Saddam. Afghanistan was everything Iraq wasn’t: UN-approved, NATO-backed, EU-compliant. It’d be tough for even the easiest nickel ’n’ dime military incursion to survive that big an overdose of multilateral hogwash, and the Afghan campaign didn’t. Instead of being an operation to kill one of the planet’s most concentrated populations of jihadist terrorists, it decayed into half-hearted nation-building in which a handful of real allies took the casualties while the rest showed up for the group photo. The 2004 NATO summit was hailed as a landmark success after the alliance’s 26 members agreed to put up an extra 600 troops and three helicopters for Afghanistan. That averages out at 23.08 troops per country, plus almost a ninth of a helicopter apiece. As it transpired, the three Black Hawks all came from one country—Turkey—and within a year they’d all gone back. Those 600 troops and three helicopters made no practical difference, but the effort expended on that transnational fig leaf certainly contributed to America’s disastrous reframing of its interests in Afghanistan.
And so here we are, nine years, billions of dollars and many dead soldiers later, watching the guy we’ve propped up with Western blood and treasure make peace overtures to the Taliban’s most virulently anti-American and pro-al-Qaeda faction in hopes of bringing them back within the government. Being perceived as the weak horse is contagious: today, were Washington to call Moscow for use of those Central Asian bases, Putin would tell Obama to get lost, and then make sneering jokes about it afterwards. Were Washington to call Islamabad as it did on Sept. 12, the Pakistanis would thank them politely and say they’d think it over and get back in 30 days. The leaders of Turkey and Brazil, two supposed American allies assiduously courted and flattered by Obama this past year, flew in to high-five Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new President wished to reposition his nation by forswearing American power: he thought that made him the nice horse; everyone else looked on it as a self-gelding operation—or, as last week’s U.S. News & World Report headlined it, “World sees Obama as incompetent and amateur.”
If the Taliban return to even partial power in Afghanistan, the unctuous State Department spokesmen will make the best of it. But the symbolism will be profound, and devastating in what it says about American will.