Leaving Afghanistan because of domestic political pressure would be deeply wrong, writes James Snell.
As British troops leave Helmand Province in Afghanistan, prefacing eventual withdrawal from the country, the correct reaction might appear to be relief. After all, ‘our boys’, who fought, bled and died in the dust of South Asia, will soon be coming home.
However, this view, while certainly understandable, is deeply short-sighted.
In reality, Afghanistan is not in a fit enough state to be effectively abandoned, and the worthiest projects of the counter-insurgency lie unfinished. Hamid Karzai, fulfilling his nationalist role perfectly, is likely to protest against the supposed ‘occupation’. He claims that he wants the rest of the world out of Afghanistan, despite the fact, well known to him, that his country may not survive that eventuality.
To their shame, isolationists of all political stripes – even, perhaps especially, in other countries – are prepared to believe him.
Despite Karzai’s publicly stated views, nations which currently have troops deployed to the country should not see this as their chance to break with Afghanistan. The intervention in 2001 did successfully overthrow theocracy – Christopher Hitchens, in response to the cliché, opined that “Afghanistan is being, if anything, bombed OUT of the Stone Age”. This was good, but meant that the onus shifted from regime change to nation building, something for which the West has a less assured record.
That job needs time, exactly the opposite of what is being proposed.
Who will win if the West prematurely pulls out of Afghanistan? The answer is a collection of people who shoot girls in the head for wanting to go to school. Malala Yousafzai, the revered campaigner for female education, was nearly murdered by the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley in 2012. The allies of those thugs held power in Afghanistan before 2001, and they are poised to do so again.
This prospect should terrify anyone who truly values democracy, and the precarious freedom that Afghanistan has began to achieve.
For Afghanistan, this week’s presidential election – in which heroic citizens defied the very real threat of violence in order to reap the benefits of representative government – should demonstrate hope amid the chaos created by over a decade of conflict. Let us not forget that, in withdrawing from active combat in the country, the rest of the world is jeopardising that same democracy.
Because, despite the triumphant nature of headlines that suggested defiance of the Taliban, the election was not without problems. In rural areas, ones which do not fall under the control of a government whose influence barely stretches outside Kabul, it was a very different story. Intimidation ruled, and voter turnout dwindled into insignificance.
Other horror stories abound. Last week, two Associated Press journalists were shot, one of them fatally, in the East of the country. This, sadly, conforms to type in a country which already sees disturbingly frequent attacks on journalists.
If parts of Afghanistan are like this now, how can we expect the country to fare when all outside support is removed? The answer is that we can’t. There is no serious suggestion that all will be well in South Asia if Britain and her allies pack up and go, and yet that is what the public wants our leaders to do.
This urge must be resisted. Regardless of what one thinks about the war (I was, and am, in favour) leaving Afghanistan because of domestic political pressure is deeply wrong. We should be in the business of nation building, as well as regime toppling. Withdrawing from Afghanistan can only make matters worse.
Horace Mann famously declared: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”. I propose an augmentation of this maxim for the situation in Afghanistan.
Until we have made Afghanistan safe – for little girls to go to school unimpeded, for their parents to vote freely and fairly without intimidation, and for journalists to go about their work unharassed, we should be ashamed to leave.
This piece, originally published in Left Foot Forward in April 2014, has been reproduced in light of the recent debate on the matter, and President Obama’s eventual decision not to withdraw US troops from the troubled nation. My view remains unchanged.