After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and got totally bogged down there was a joke circulating in Moscow. “Why are we still in Afghanistan? Answer: We are still looking for the people who invited us”.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of US policy in Afghanistan when he was president Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, was convinced Afghanistan would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. In fact the Soviet Union’s Vietnam has become America’s Afghanistan.
There is truth in both these cynical observations. And there are lies, distortions and self-delusion built into the narrative. Only Russia has been more or less honest. Under president Mikhail Gorbachev it decided to cut its losses and withdraw, and was open about the reason it did so.
Today the debate in the US is contorted. The White House cannot come to terms with the fact that unlike the Soviet Union, the US and Nato are effectively defeated — the Soviets were always militarily on top but it was the attrition waged by the mujahideen that made them decide to go.
Vietnam did not go to the dogs or lead an advance of communism right through Southeast Asia as many policy-makers argued would happen. The “domino effect” the White House called it. Vietnam, after the communists of the north overcame the US-orientated south, is now a capitalist economic dynamo, gradually liberalising on human rights.
Afghanistan without the US and Nato would also evolve, but not in the same way. The Taleban —the dominant mujahideen movement — would be socially regressive, especially with women (but not as severely as many say), but there would be, more or less, peace- the most important factor in everyone’s life. It would be capitalist and open to Western investment.
After Obama’s three fruitless years of waging war (how he reconciles this with his Nobel Prize speech only God knows) there is now a plan to end US engagement by 2014. However, the US will keep hundreds of troops in Afghanistan as advisers and trainers. As veteran Guardian newspaperman, Jonathan Steele, writes in his new book, ‘Ghosts of Vietnam’: “Although US troops would be quartered on nominally Afghan bases, these plans undermine the prospect of Afghan independence and threaten to make a peace deal with the Taleban impossible. Neither the resistance nor regional neighbours would accept this. Washington should plan for a complete withdrawal. If Washington rushes ahead to negotiate a bilateral document on long-term strategic agreement with the government of President Hamid Karzai before trying to negotiate with the Taleban and other resistance groups, it will be sabotaging the chance for a comprehensive peace.”
A powerful statement of the case for political settlement was made a year ago by former high State Department official Thomas Pickering and Lakhdar Brahimi, a sophisticated UN negotiator. They argued that the war was a stalemate. They poured cold water on the US and UK policy of reintegration that tries to get Taleban leaders and commanders to defect. They suggested that the Taleban were becoming more willing to talk as they realised they could not regain total control over Afghanistan.
In an important departure from the usual top-down approach the Brahimi-Pickering report recommended local ceasefires, as part of a confidence-building process that could start before full-scale talks got under way. They suggested a trade-off in which the US ended its assassination of Taleban leaders and the militia ended its placing of roadside bombs and the assassination of government officials. Other confidence-building measures would be the release of Taleban and other insurgent detainees and the removal of sanctions list.
In other words, as Winston Churchill once said, “Jaw, jaw not war, war”.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator