Saturday, December 29, 2007

The High Price of Time Squandered, Opportunities Lost

Penny wise, pound foolish. An old English truism about how a person can be utterly focused on saving a few pence but be wholly blind to wasting pound upon pound.

Squandered. That may be a fitting epitaph for the West's hapless adventure in Afghanistan. Opportunities squandered, treasure squandered, lives squandered - all in the name of being penny wise.

We wandered into the very heartland of insurgencies whose backward people have driven out one powerful invader after another for centuries - a perfect record in fact - and we thought we could do it on the cheap with what amounts to barely more than a token force when measured against the enormity of the challenge.

Washington and its Foreign Legion sallied forth in the arrogant belief our inherent superiority would bend these peasants to our will. Six years later and our military leaders still boast that the insurgents cannot fight us "head to head." That's as irrelevant and foolish as saying the Taliban is doomed because it has no submarines.

Memo to Washington, Ottawa and Brussels - these guys didn't fight "head to head" when they drove out Alexander or the British army (twice) or the Soviet army. They don't fight to lose, they fight to win and they know what works where, judging by the idiotic statements that still issue from our side, we don't.

Six lost years.

We got it wrong from the outset, confusing pushing on an open door with great military victory. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance had fought each other to utter exhaustion before 9/11. They were reduced to trench warfare that largely consisted of lobbing a few tank shells at each other every day. All our vaunted Western firepower really was little more than the straw that broke the camel's back and sent the Taliban retreating to the hills. As military victories go, that's about as meagre as they come and yet we were in the mood for celebrating great victory over the villains of 9/11 so that's exactly what we did. And so it was entered into the history books.

And then we proceded to turn the country on its head and miraculously transform it into a wonderful, Western-style democracy. We held an election, ensuring that our guy won. Then we sent the Foreign Legion into the field in pitiful numbers to hold the fort.

Do you remember General Rick Hillier swaggering about and proclaiming how his 2,500 strong ground force was going to Kandahar province to "kill scumbags" whose numbers he assured us were a mere few dozen? It didn't matter that he had a mere one rifle for every 30 sq. kms. of turf he'd undertaken to defend because there were only a few dozen bad guys and they were already all but whipped, right? As the words spilled out of his mouth they all sounded so confident, so convincing.

Six years later.

How things have changed. The vermin we thought exterminated have multiplied, sharpened their teeth and nails, and returned to plague us.

Our "just add water and stir" approach to building Afghan democracy has achieved every result predictable including insinuation into senior levels of the government of warlords, drug lords and even some known to collaborate with the insurgency. Is it any surprise that a horde like this would produce a national police service that is utterly corrupt and predatory to the civilian population?

That government is the foundation for everything we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan, whether civilian or military. And yet we simply look the other way lest we have to confront the reality that this foundation is rotten and crumbling. But, then again, this is Afghanistan and, even if you turn your back to one failure you then turn your face toward another - whether it is the fields of opium poppies, police banditry or a population utterly vulnerable and compromised by a resurgent guerrilla campaign.

Now we have the neighbouring state, Pakistan, thrown into even greater upheaval by the assassination of Bhutto. It is this state, where we're also promoting an "add water and stir" democracy, that serves as a refuge, staging area and training ground for our own insurgency.

Six years on, we've squandered lives, we've squandered treasure but, most critically, we've squandered time we never could afford to waste. We have reached the bottom of our bag of tricks and have now produced what is gradually becoming a permanent culture shaped by medieval feudalism, crime, corruption and conflict. The longer it is allowed to persist the more entrenched it becomes and the fewer options remain to us to change it to our liking.

The northern warlords - once our supposed allies - see what's coming and are re-arming, fully intending to call home their ethnic segments of the Afghan army when the time comes. They've lost faith in Kabul and Karzai, in the US and NATO, and they have a strong sense of what's ahead. Washington and Brussels may tell us that the mission is a generational thing but find one group in Afghanistan willing to wait that long.

No comments: