Monday, 20 May 2013


When it comes to the Afghan tragedy, a few quotes spring to mind, Karl Marx said "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Winston Churchill said, "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it" and “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” When it comes to Afghanistan there is more than enough history to provide enough examples of what to do and what to avoid.

A scene from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan
The long and bloody history of Afghanistan is littered literally with the would-be invaders who came to grief and eventually through in the towel and admitted defeat. This week, almost unnoticed an anniversary passed, Wednesday 15th May was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the then Soviet Union’s nine month long withdrawal from Afghanistan. Around 100,000 Soviet troops had left the war torn country by February 15, 1989. This was the conclusion to ten years of brutal warfare which had killed over 14,000 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghan combatants and civilians.

Learning the lesson of history?
NATO forces have been on the ground in Afghanistan since the 7th October 2001, and preparations for NATO’s withdrawal (to be completed by 2014) are proceeding apace. Unlike their Soviet predecessors who treated much of Afghanistan as free fire zone, NATO forces have been relatively restrained when it comes to using their firepower. Despite this many people have argued that just like their Soviet predecessors NATO troops in Afghanistan now find themselves engaged in waging a campaign which is "unwinnable in military terms".

‘Lessons from Afghanistan’s History for the Current Transition and Beyond’ is a thought provoking paper produced by the MOD Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre makes interesting reading.  The paper has noted that between 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan was stable and reasonably effectively governed, however, that stability was firmly anchored in the two pillars of traditional local governance and the Afghan state such as it was a weak centralized though weak state, both of which were gravely damaged after 1978.

Afghanistan history’s is littered with a series of chronic succession problems and associated conflict, the next presidential election, if successful, would be the first peaceful transfer of leadership since 1933 and only the fourth since 1747. The paper also notes that any expectations about the pace of any progress and reform should be modest and the dangers of overly ambitious reforms leading to violent reactions need to be recognized.

A new approach to understanding Afghanistan’s transition’ has been produced by the United States Institute for Peace also makes interesting reading. This paper by way of comparison with other countries who have passed though conflict, significant military intervention and  a post conflict period of transition looks at Afghanistan and its preparedness for life after NATO. Amongst the key issues that this report flags up is the issue of foreign aid and its impact on Afghanistan.
Another military withdrawal from Afghanistan 
Of late there has been a relative flood of papers from a whole range of military and civilian institutes studying and analysing what has happen and what may happen in Afghanistan as NATO prepares to leave. While our soldiers and their families and many Afghans may carry the physical and mental scars for decades, the politicians (at least in the West) will probably do their best to air brush Afghanistan and the consequences of NATO’s intervention out of site and out of mind.

As someone who has had relatives who have served a number of tours in Afghanistan and have come back in one piece I will (no doubt along with more than a few other people) be more than grateful when the last NATO soldier hops on the last plane and comes home. Following NATO’S withdrawal I have little doubt that what will follow will be a public redefinition of ‘success’ at least as it is applied to Afghanistan. Quite where that leaves the Afghans and Afghan women's rights whatever future they face with a still active Taliban, rampant corruption and a curtailing of foreign aid remains to be seen, but nowhere good I suspect.

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