The problem with conflict is that the way we describe it does not
necessarily conform to reality. We think in terms more appropriate to a
bygone era: by the desire to seize, destroy or conquer. The present war
in Afghanistan is a case in point. We have been encouraged to believe
that with the application of sufficient military force, backed by some
state building, victory can be achieved and the country can be
transformed into a modern democratic state after our own ideals.
The thousands of US troops, backed by their British allies, who have
fanned out into Helmand province are propelled by two equally flawed
ideas. The first is that the Taliban can be defeated in a conventional
sense. The second is that by displacing the Taliban's activities during
the run-up to August's presidential election a political space can be
created that will legitimise the corrupted Hamid Karzai government
which the West has for so long, and so obviously, propped up.
If the campaign in Helmand appears purposeful at all, it is because we
choose to make it seem so through a combination of how it is presented
(depictions of military manoeuvres devoid of real meaning), and because
for too long we have uncritically accepted that the end is achievable -
in Gordon Brown's words, "democracy must win".
But the reality is that the war in Afghanistan is increasingly aimless
and lacking in coherent strategy. Brown's notion that a strong Afghan
state can be quickly forged is contradicted by the nature of the
competition for power inside Afghanistan: between Kabul and the
regions; between the Pashtu-speaking south and the rest of Afghanistan;
and between weak state institutions and powerful social affiliations.
To "win" a war in Afghanistan requires that we know what winning might
look like. Not the idealised picture imagined in distant western
capitals, but an end state that would leave Afghanistan best equipped
to deal itself with its own myriad internal challenges. This means a
final burying of the rhetoric of "war on terror" and the idea that what
happens in Afghanistan presents a serious security threat that
challenges us in an existential way.
What is equally urgent is a serious debate about what we are doing in
Afghanistan, and what we can - and cannot - realistically achieve.
Without that, the war in Afghanistan can only drag on, with deaths on