A million tragedies

by John Q on October 12, 2007

Stalin is supposed* to have said “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Like much said by that father of lies, it is a half-truth. A million deaths is a statistic, but it’s also a million individual tragedies.

The death of David Pearce, the first Australian soldier to die in Afghanistan is a tragedy for him and his family. So were the deaths of Marany Awanees and Jeniva Jalal, shot by security guards from Unity Resources Group, an Australian-run security company in Baghdad last week. And so have been all of the deaths in Iraq (as many as a million since 2003) and Afghanistan in the wars and violence that have afflicted both countries for decades.

As someone who supported the war in Afghanistan, as a necessary act of self-defence and as an intervention that seemed likely to have positive effects, I have to accept some share of the responsibility for the deaths it has caused, including that of David Pearce. I can make the point in mitigation that, if the Afghanistan war had not been so shamefully mismanaged, most obviously the diversion of most of the required resources to the Iraq venture, it might well have reached a successful conclusion by now. But even after that mismanagement, I still, reluctantly, support the view that it is better to try and salvage the situation in Afghanistan by committing more resources, rather than pulling out and leaving the Afghans to sort it out themselves. I draw that conclusion because I think there would be even more bloodshed after a withdrawal, and that there’s a reasonable prospect that a democratic government and a largely free society can survive in Afghanistan with our help. And, even after all the mismanagement, I think most Afghans are better off now (or at least no worse off) than they would have been with a continuation of Taliban rule and civil war.

The opposite is true in Iraq. Most Iraqis say they are worse off now than under Saddam, and of course the millions who have been killed or have fled the country could not be asked for their views. While it once seemed plausible to suggest that even if the war had been a tragic mistake, the consequences of withdrawing the occupation forces would be even worse, it’s hard to sustain that view any longer. Occupation by foreign armies has done as much to fan the flames of insurgency and civil war as to impose stability. And the tens of thousands of armed mercenaries, like Blackwater and Unity Resources, are no better than any of the other militias that claim to be protecting somebody or other, and shoot anyone who gets in their way.

All of us whose governments have contributed to this disaster, and particularly those who have supported the war, need to acknowledge these disasters and accept their share of moral responsibility for them. It’s distressing, in this context, that the average American woefully underestimates the toll of civilian casualties in Iraq, by a factor of at least ten and probably more like 100. It’s even worse that so many supporters of the war have done their best to encourage this misperception, in all sorts of ways, from quibbling about statistics to an obsessive focus on trivial side-issues that allow them to ignore their moral responsibility for the consequences of the policies they have pushed with such vigour and, in many cases, venom.

* This is apparently, apocryphal.



Roy Belmont 10.12.07 at 5:38 am

“But even after that mismanagement, I still, reluctantly, support the view that it is better to try and salvage the situation in Afghanistan by committing more resources, rather than pulling out and leaving the Afghans to sort it out themselves.”
I’d rather see a change in management before anything else. Committing more resources to the discretion of a management that’s proven itself to be consistently incompetent, and then only in the most favorable light, seems at best kind of inappropriate.


MFB 10.12.07 at 6:22 am

I think you are probably wrong about Afghanistan, but this is a good post.

However, I don’t think that moral responsibility is the real issue here. “I cannot tell a lie, father, I chopped down a million Iraqis with my little hatchet” is no doubt praiseworthy on some level. But surely political responsibility is actually more important. That is, most of the people who supported the war, or supported governments which supported the war, simply would never dream of behaving in their personal lives in the way that the British and American governments behaved. And yet they continue to support politicians who behave in that way. It’s sheer political irresponsibility. I have yet to see any real explanation for it.


fjm 10.12.07 at 6:24 am

There was never any chance that the war in Afghanistan could have been a success. As more than one historian has pointed out, every single Empire which attempted to invade and conquer was driven out in ignominy.

Right now, Afghanistan is approaching “order” to much the same degree it did under the Russians (a time of unprecedented peace and female educational rights, which the US and UK contrived to undermine). When the US and the UK pull out, it will collapse in the same way.


gus 10.12.07 at 6:51 am

as a necessary act of self-defence and as an intervention that seemed likely to have positive effects

As the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan proves, it was very unlikely to have positive effects in any case. And it was Osama who attacked the US, not Afghanistan. Personally, I think it was clear from the start (especially since the President himself said it in no unambigous terms) that the main point of the Afghan adventure was to go there and kick some ass. In those early days, the talk was of retaliation , quite a different concept from self-defence.


albertchampion 10.12.07 at 7:41 am

you are an idiot.

there was no justifiable reason for the invasion of afghanistan.


albertchampion 10.12.07 at 7:42 am

furthermore, usama bin laden had nothing to do with the events of 11/09/01.

and if you don’t know that, then you really and truly are brain-damaged.


Mrs Tilton 10.12.07 at 7:46 am

You’ve forgotten your meds again, Albert.


belle waring 10.12.07 at 8:33 am

I’m going to regret asking who really was responsible for 9/11, aren’t I?


Walt 10.12.07 at 8:53 am

You were, belle. Nice try redirecting the conversation, though.


Hidari 10.12.07 at 9:10 am

To back up the point made by posts ‘4’ and ‘5’: anyone with any sense, and I do mean anyone could have seen that the Afghanistan invasion was going to be a disaster. First, because every other invasion of Afghanistan for the last three thousand years has invariably been a failure. This doesn’t prove that the American invasion was going to be a success but it does indicate that the burden of proof was very much on the ‘pro-invasion’ side. The second reason is even more obvious: Bush was in charge. It was interesting to see smug liberals, who had spent the first few months of Bush’s administrations sniggering at his ‘bushisms’ and laughing at his fundamentalist Christian beliefs suddenly (after 9/11) turning round and (implicitly) declaring him to be a military strategist of genius, who would succeed where Alexander the Great (!) failed. Third because anyone with any sense could see that, while Bush et al would probably quite like a democratic Afghanistan ceteris paribus, it was unlikely to be uppermost in their minds, and that, when push came to shove, other priorities would probably overwhelm the ‘democratic urge’: the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on terror’, broader geopolitical concerns and so forth. And so it turned out.

I don’t exactly know why liberals of the ‘muscular’ variety ran so quickly into the arms of the extreme right wing Bush administration, but I think it was a mixture of three things.

a: Belief that Kosova had been a ‘success’ and that therefore Afghanistan would likely be a ‘success’ too (forgetting two things: first, the Clinton administration was really very different from the Bush administration, and, more importantly, Kosova has not been a success. It is a drug and corruption ridden neo-colonial state run from New York).

b: Intense emotional dislike of ‘Islamism’, which is fair enough when you think of Al-Qaeda, but which ignores the fact that Al-Qaeda is really a relatively small, and relatively trivial (in global terms) terrorist outfit, which ‘punched above its weight’ on 9/11, but which before (and since) has only been responsible for minor attacks in non-Western locations. It also ignores the fact that just because Osama Bin Laden was a bad man, this does not preclude the possibility of other people also being bad. For example, in Afghanistan, the ‘warlords’ that fought the Taliban were in many occasions as bad as (or worse than) the Taliban. But by definition, when you overthrew the Taliban, you would strengthen the hand of the warlords, and again, this is in fact what happened.

c: Residual guilt over Western support of the Taliban. This was also a strong impulse in the Kosova affair as well: the Conservative government had aggressively supported the Serbs, and so when Labour came to power and reversed this, many on the soft left were overjoyed. But these similarities blinded liberals to the key difference: generally speaking it was the same people who had backed the Mujahadeen/Taliban who now wanted the overthrow of the regime (the same situation in Iraq; cf the famous picture of Rumsfeld with Saddam). This in itself should have indicated that what was being suggested here was not a ‘humanitarian intervention’ but instead had broader geopolitical implications.

And of course we know this was the case. In the current edition of Salon Wesley Clark reveals that the invasion of Afghanistan was always seen as being only a first step to the destruction of all ‘anti-American’ regimes in the region (‘Soviet hang overs’ apparently), first Afghanistan, then Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia and then, finally, Iran (but not of course Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Kuwait or any of the other American backed tyrannies in the region…so much for humanitarian intervention). It’s likely that Afghanistan was only ever a stopping off point for the invasion of Iraq, both legally (once you had established the precedent that the US could invade and conquer anyone it wanted, Iraq was that much easier to justify) and also from a materiel point of view.


Katherine 10.12.07 at 9:56 am

I continue to be baffled by the “pass” that the invasion of Afghanistan gets, given the kerfuffle that continues around Iraq. I opposed both invasions, and one the major reasons was that both were clearly undertaken for completely selfish reasons, making it less than likely that after “victory” was announced any real effort (political or economic) would be done to support those countries in the long term.

Plus, Afghanistan has had the shit kicked out of it by any number of different groups and countries for a considerable amount of time, consistently to its detriment. There was no indication that this time would be any different.

So honestly, how can you justify being for one and against the other, when they clearly came from the both impulse, as gus said above, to kick some ass.


h. 10.12.07 at 10:35 am

I draw that conclusion because I think there would be even more bloodshed after a withdrawal, and that there’s a reasonable prospect that a democratic government and a largely free society can survive in Afghanistan with our help.

This really doesn’t make much sense as an argument for staying in Afghanistan but not staying in Iraq. Are you saying that you don’t think there will be even more bloodshed after an Iraq withdrawal? And that Afghanistan’s prospects for a democratic, free society are significantly greater than Iraq’s? On what basis? Afghanistan is just as ethnically riven, may have an even stronger insurgency, and has been in a state of civil war for the past 30 years. On what evidence do you base your conclusion that with Western help it is riper for democracy and free society?


Guano 10.12.07 at 10:38 am

The lies about the invasion of Iraq were so blatant that opposition to it was much greater than the invasion of Afghanistan. There was also some guilt about the fact that the West had abandoned Afghanistan after the USSR pulled out, allowing it to be destroyed by the fighting among different factions. Afghanistan was already a failed state, while it is clearer that it is the invasion that has turned Iraq into a failed state. So there are different attitudes to the two cases.

However it is clear in both cases that a major motivation in the West was to appear to be strong and that little thought was given to what reconstruction would mean in either place. The West still hasn’t really thought about what is involved in rebuilding the social fabric of a failed state or weak state. There is still an implicit belief that once you get rid of the bad guys everything will get better again. It is the age-old US conundrum: the USA would like an empire but doesn’t want the expense of running one.


abb1 10.12.07 at 10:50 am


Following the deployment, the Soviet troops were unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80% of the countryside still escaped effective government control. The initial mission, to guard cities and installations, was expanded to combat the anti-communist Mujahideen forces, primarily using Soviet reservists.

The inability of the Soviet Union to break the military stalemate, gain a significant number of Afghan supporters, and to rebuild the Afghan Army, required the increasing direct use of its own forces to fight the rebels. Soviet soldiers often found themselves fighting against civilians due to the elusive tactics of the rebels. They repeated one of the American Vietnam mistakes by winning almost all of the major battles, but failing to control the countryside.

The government of President Karmal, established in 1980 and identified by many as a puppet regime, was largely ineffective. … Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said: “The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help.

The civil war continued in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan deep in winter with intimations of panic among Kabul officials. The Afghan Mujahideen were poised to attack provincial towns and cities and eventually Kabul, if necessary.


JohnTh 10.12.07 at 2:30 pm

I don’t quite understand some of the reasoning here. The rationale for originally attacking Afghanistan was certainly selfish, but it was legitimate – namely that the de facto government of Afghanistan was sheltering the perpetrators of numerous large scale terrorist attacks on the US. Attacking Afghanistan was classic self-defense, surely? An ultimatum to deliver up the terrorists was made and not obeyed and war followed.

Of course more thought should likely have been given to the long term, and maybe there were additional motivations involved in the attack. However, in a situation where a country is attacked in that way, it is perfectly just and rational to strike back, and quickly too – the Pearl Harbour analogy seems valid here. What else could have been done? (and I say this as someone who passionately believes that Bush should be in front of a war crimes tribunal for waging aggressive war on Iraq)


ajay 10.12.07 at 2:32 pm

anyone could have seen that the Afghanistan invasion was going to be a disaster. First, because every other invasion of Afghanistan for the last three thousand years has invariably been a failure.

Not actually true, of course. Alexander managed. And (quick check on Wikipedia) the following empires also managed to conquer and annex parts of what is now Afghanistan – the Maurya, the Indo Greeks, the Scythians, the Kushans, the Parthians, the Huns, the Gokturks, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols under Chengiz Khan, and the Mongols again under Timur.

Basically, this “Afghanistan, graveyard of armies” thing is based on a) the British, in a couple of wars, both characterised by monumental incompetence, and b) the Soviets, who were fighting against a very well equipped enemy funded by both the US and Saudi Arabia.

But the larger point is: even if it were true, so what? No one had ever defeated Japan in two thousand years. Then the Allies did. No one had ever launched an opposed invasion four thousand miles from the nearest friendly soil. Then the British did. Times change.


Uncle Kvetch 10.12.07 at 2:47 pm

It’s distressing, in this context, that the average American woefully underestimates the toll of civilian casualties in Iraq, by a factor of at least ten and probably more like 100.

Given that 40% of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was “behind” 9/11, I wouldn’t expect much progress on this front.


roger 10.12.07 at 3:53 pm

Looking back five years, it is obvious now that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake. I supported it for the common sense reason that I thought the U.S. should destroy Osama bin Laden, who had attacked the U.S. Instead, the decision was apparently made to allow Osama bin Laden to go to Pakistan, where he was of use as an on tap terrorist threat to justify a massive and completely crazy war on terror. And while the Taliban refused to extradite or attack Osama – thus gaining the wrath of the U.S. – Pakistan’s leadership publicaly agreed to attack Osama and instead gradually came around to the point of granting the Taliban and Al qaeda fighters de facto sanctuary in Waziristan – which earned him a cool 3 to 6 billion dollars per annum in U.S. aid. And, oddly enough, the Bush administration, doing this in front of their supposedly belligerent core, have run into no troubles from that direction to this very day. Perhaps this is because that belligerent core often consists of men – overwhelmingly men – who have benefited enormously from the war on terror – the whole complex of engineers, consultants, military contractors and the like whose lives have gotten very, very good since 9/11. Never has a fake war awarded so many for doing so little that has any use at all.

Obviously, it would be great if the coalition troops in Afghanistan, combined with the aid the country is getting, were really part of a project to aid the country long term. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems, pretty regularly, to merely use Afghanistan as a good excuse for this or that malignant policy – for instance, recently, to attack Iran on the astonishingly bogus pretense that the Iranians are aiding the Taliban. A group, let’s reiterate, who has found plentiful sanctuary in Pakistan, a country to which the U.S. pays tribute.

Afghanistan displays the paradox of intervention and sovereignty – to a lesser degree than Iraq, but it is the same problem. If President Karzai does rational things – such as welcoming aid from his neighbor, Iran, for instance – his gestures are countermanded by the American government, which has no real footing to do so but has a long history of treating a nation’s sovereignty, even in its own territory, as secondary to American diktat. Even as that American diktat is justified by – oh vicious circle – the claim that the Americans are defending the sovereignty of whatever state they are violating the sovereignty of.

One hopes Karzai can broker a deal with the Taliban that would result in the progressive withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Or at least that seems to be the best among a lot of bad solutions.


Hidari 10.12.07 at 4:07 pm

‘But the larger point is: even if it were true, so what? No one had ever defeated Japan in two thousand years. Then the Allies did. No one had ever launched an opposed invasion four thousand miles from the nearest friendly soil. Then the British did. Times change.’

You are deliberately misreading my point. Ok if you want to be pedantic, I am going to restate what I said, in a way that only appears to contradict what I said: invading Afganistan (succesfully) is easy. As you say, it’s been done loads of times. The problem is holding Afghanistan, and that, no one succeeded in doing.

The comparisons with Japan and the Falklands are vapid, in that in both cases the plausibility of the invasion was the subject of much anguished debate before the actions took place. Indeed, it was (at least partly) because of the invasion of Japan was seen as being too difficult that the atomic bombs were dropped (a point you obscure).

But like you, I remember well the ‘debate’ over the invasion of Afghanistan and like you I remember how much time was given to discussions of the plausibility of conquest and occupation….i.e. no time at all. It was simply taken for granted by both ‘conservatives’ and ‘muscular liberals’ that the brawny white man with his superior white man’s technology would easily vanquish the ‘barbaric’ and ‘backwards’ Afghans. I am willing to stand corrected on this, but if memory serves not one of the ‘Decent’ pieces in favour of invasion and conquest ever even discussed the possibility that ‘we’ might not succeed in our glorious project.


soru 10.12.07 at 4:14 pm

‘ a) the British, in a couple of wars’

Some people (afghanistan never conquered, etc.) do seem to get their knowledge of afghan history entirely from Flashman.

The 3rd anglo-afghan war ended entirely satisfactorily for the british empire, as did the brief re-intervention in the 1930s. The resulting standard-issue post-imperial monarchy lasted until the Soviet-backed coup in the 1970s.



abb1 10.12.07 at 4:32 pm

…not one of the ‘Decent’ pieces in favour of invasion and conquest ever even discussed the possibility that ‘we’ might not succeed in our glorious project.

How could we not succeed when we were bringing them democracy and freedom?

On our bayonets we shall bring happiness and peace to toiling humanity! To the West! … ugh, I mean East.


Berthelot 10.12.07 at 4:55 pm

“When a man dies, I suffer. When fifteen hundred thousand die, that’s statistics.”

– Phillippe Berthelot

Gordon Wright. France in Modern Times: from the Enlightenment to the present. (New York: Norton, 1987), 307.


qingl78 10.12.07 at 6:28 pm

A quick email to Juan Cole will quickly disabuse anyone of the idea that the Taliban are a widely popular movment in Afghanistan and that opposing them is doomed to failure. The fact that there were only about 200 Special forces troops helping the Northern tribes that “overthrew” the Taliban shows that the Taliban weren’t terribly popular.

The Taliban are loathed and hated in all but a couple of provinces in the south and a couple in the east. And in those most people are related to the leaders. So it is more about familial duty rather than beleif.

As one of the commenters said most people get their history from Flashman books, this is too true. They puff themselves up with faux seriousness, crank out some hoary old ideas and pat themselves on the back about how they feel the deaths of people more than anyone else. Meanwhile they couldn’t tell you what the Durant line is or could name 3 different tribes in Afghanistan, or anything about pashtunwali.

I remeber some rather famous blogs swallowing Taliban spin whole and saying the end is nigh as the Taliban had “1000 suicide bombers” ready to attack the coalition during their “summer offensive” this year. Wow. It is time to stop painting these guys as 10′ tall and bullit proof.

Don’t get me wrong, I loath GWB and I was/am deeply against the Iraq war. I’m just not a pacifist and I’ve taken some time to actually find out some history and some facts from credentialed experts in the field (who, it is to be said are universally against this president).

Sometimes even a blind squirell finds a nut. Afghanistan was GWB’s nut.


Toby 10.12.07 at 7:41 pm

I am also against the Iraq war, but I have always felt the intervention in Afghanistan was justified.

In 2002, the Taliban were about to defeat the Northern Alliance, mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks. Their victory would no doubt have been accompanied with genocide and a millions or so of refugees fleeing across the border into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, possibly destabilizing those countries.

As it was, 3 million refugees voted with their feet and returned home from Pakistan after the Taliban defeat.

I know these were side-effects rather than intentions, but I think it shows the lot of the ordinary Afghan has improved. The West is in danger of betraying Afghanistan just as it did after the Russians were driven out.

And of course, it should open a back channel to the Taliban and encourage them to disband, disarm and compete democratically in elections under UN auspices. One of the problems in Afghanistan is that the US became dependent on the old warlords to maintain stabillty so that it could turn attention to Iraq. There should be further efforts to disarm these.


Planeshift 10.12.07 at 8:48 pm

“An ultimatum to deliver up the terrorists was made and not obeyed and war followed.”

I’m willing to be corrected here, but as I understand it there was an offer made by the Taliban through Pakistan to extradite Bin laden if the US presented evidence of his guilt. This offer was not pursued, and thus we can’t logically say war was the last resort.


Hidari 10.12.07 at 9:00 pm

Ah soru! So pleased to have you back. What was the bet we had again? That Iraq would be a secular stable democracy by 2009? Or was it 2008? Perhaps you can remind me?

As for qingl78, yeah, fine, whatever dude. Come back to you in ten years time. I’m sure Afghanistan will be a tranquil oasis of peace by then.

(Incidentally, as a ‘quick email to Juan Cole’ will tell you, it is no longer the case that all the people who are fighting the Americans/British are Taliban).


r4d20 10.12.07 at 9:03 pm

Alexander the Great (!) failed

100% wrong.

Alexander successfully pacified Afghanistan and there was a greek cultural presence in Afghanistan for over 100 years afterwards.

Afghanistan HAS been successfully invaded before – including by the freaking muslims. They didn’t convert from Hinduism & Buddhism to Islam peacefully.


abb1 10.12.07 at 9:05 pm

As far as I’m concerned, the only ‘good’ thing about the Afghan war is that it apparently killed relatively few people. Only a few tens of thousands, apparently. That’s, like, almost nothing, considering. And that kinda makes sense: who cares, there isn’t really any loot there in that country worth spending the ammo.


qingl78 10.12.07 at 10:03 pm


Whatever duuuuuuudddddddeeeee!!!!!!


soru 10.12.07 at 10:17 pm

hidari – are you talking about this $100 bet?

If so, you have me confused with someone else – I didn’t post on that thread.

To be fair, it’s not impossible I did make some kind of bet like that, though I can’t see me using the word ‘secular’. I think I did make a bet here on the Niger yellowcake thing, which is a step too far off-topic. Unfortunately, the only other reference search here or google can find is this:


which doesn’t seem that relevant. If anyone can find something, paying up probably would be in order.

Today’s lesson: someone saying something is impossible/inevitable for a bogus reason doesn’t actually make that thing any more, or any less, likely to happen.


roger 10.13.07 at 2:56 am

Really, if the Afghan war is about the U.S. taking and holding Afghanistan, then whether it is doable or not, it is extremely foolish and has little to do with any American interest. Simply as a colony choice, Afghanistan is the pits.

But – in spite of the neo-con empire groupies – I don’t think even the Bush white house, which would like to keep its claws in Iraq forever, wants that kind of arrangement with Afghanistan. What I think it wants is a photo op place to show women being liberated from Islamo-fascism, the white bwana coming in and touching the colored peoples and setting them free, and other such nonsense, licked up of course by the press. Although the Bushies continually harp on how everything changed on 9/11, they are, charactistically, still mired in a pre-9/11 mindset, still looking for state sponsors of terrorism, still unable to contemplate that 19 guys carrying at most a homemade bomb among them took down the WTC and crashed into the Pentagon, even as the airforce responded in Cold war style by assuming stations in the atmosphere above the Atlantic, looking for those oncoming fictitious attack planes. The problem with low intensity warfare is there really is no money in it. You can send billions to various dubious, GOP contributing enterprises, things that really get the road rage guys all in a sweat, if you pretend that you want the most sophisticated anti-terrorism module, fully equipped to ward off those fictitious guys carrying their nuclear bombs in suitcases, ever, but if you really want to ward off guys with exacto knives, you just have to do simple things that aren’t going to make the merchants of death a lot of money. And that’s no fun.

I always think that the true spirit of the Bush administration came through after the campaign of the winter of 2001, that succeeded in freeing Osama from his cage in Afghanistan and plopping him in Pakistan while giving Bush an opportunity to be reported on by journalists, drawing lines through Al Qaeda Honchos (so tough! already Mr. Mission Accomplished), in the 2002 budget. After giving a speech in which Bush proposed a Marshall plan for Afghanistan, he submitted an official budget that alloted zero dollars to Afghanistan. Even the servile Congress was shocked by this. It is a pretty good indication of what they really think at the White House. You cannot think of these people too scornfully, for as degraded, debased, stupid and venal as you may imagine them – they are even more degraded, debased, stupid and venal.


abb1 10.13.07 at 8:27 am

Also this from #24 is a kinda irritating mantra: “The West is in danger of betraying Afghanistan just as it did after the Russians were driven out.”

“Betraying”? After the Russians were driven out? The Russians, as usual, installed a regime what would, given a chance, achieve full women’s liberation, 100% literacy, decent healthcare, and lousy economic system. I don’t know about the West, but the US organized, financed and armed the most reactionary force there – most reactionary in the world, probably – created the Taliban and Al Qaeda and propelled them to power.


Katherine 10.13.07 at 10:44 am

All this toing and froing about whether historically Afghanistan has been successfully invaded and held seems to be in danger of assuming that if it was, then this would mean the US invasion was therefore justified. Care to think about that one first?

The justification was that it was the Taliban wot dun 9/11. Or at least they tacitlly supported Osama Bin Laden. Or actually that they refused to extradite him when given an ultimatum (because ultimatums are how you deal with extradition issues). Is that seriously the “justification”? That a country that does immediately acquiese to a US demand to hand over someone for extradition gets invaded? Lordy. And there was I thinking there were rules about invasion and extradition and whatnot. Silly me. Clearly vengeance and PR are actually the universal rules at play.


Glorious Godfrey 10.13.07 at 2:15 pm

John is showing what an interesting exercise in doublethink many of us are indulging in when Iraq and Afghanistan are compared.

Yes, the whole point of the Afghan adventure should have been to kill Osama. It´s vengeance, and it´s appalling, as Katherine says. But the international system is still a few centuries away from the point at which a major power can be attacked on its soil and a few heads don´t roll, messily.

They probably should have just bumped off the fucker and left, putting in place some generous aid program for the country under UN auspices, regardless of who was left in place in Afghanistan.

But even that grim scenario could never have been more than a pipe dream. It soon became clear that the whole adventure was going to go beyond basic action-movie-script revenge. Afghanistan was to be a PR stepping-stone to launch further wars in the Greater Middle East, a route to circumvent Iran in the supply of Central Asian energy to India, an excuse to extend the Pentagon´s “footprint” to Russia and China´s backyard.

In the meantime, the war has become unwinnable by whichever definition of “success” you care to come up with, Afghanistan is –more than ever– the fulcrum of global opium trade, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has asserted itself in Central Asia (and both Iran and India have approached it), and the Europeans are stuck in because Afghanistan was a where-we-can-show-that-we-are-America´s-allies-in-spite -of-the-spat-over-Iraq kinda place.

Another fuckup, which anybody should have walked away from at a pretty early stage.


mc 10.13.07 at 6:24 pm

re 31: whatever else you say about America’s approach to Afghanistan, it is unfair to imply that they are not putting their money where their mouth is. they are spending a lot, on military force, certainly, but also on police training, army training, infrastructure (eg the Kajaki dam) and aid. it would be better to have a constructive engagement with them on how better to spend it.


luci 10.13.07 at 9:21 pm

I could be wrong, but as I remember it the Taliban did offer to turn over OBL, but that this avenue was ignored by the US, all the while claiming that the Taliban refused. (Similar to claims that Saddam was refusing to disarm or comply with the UN). At the time, I could tell the US didn’t want to not go to war – arresting a hundred guys or so wouldn’t be enough fireworks.

I had read that the 100 or so Arabs in al Qaeda were only tolerated by the Pashtun Taliban because of payments AQ made. The Arabs stood out among the Pashtun, Uzbeks, and Tajiks.

And as Katherine said: “thinking there were rules about invasion and extradition. Silly me…. Clearly vengeance and PR are actually the universal rules at play.”

I can’t think of any plausible explanations for what the US did.


roger 10.13.07 at 9:28 pm

MC, no, it isn’t unfair, it is simply a fact about the budget that the Bush whitehouse released in 2002. The subsequent rise in aid for Afghanistan is connected to what happened in Afghanistan – where, as the U.S. withdrew troops in 2002 for “possible” deployment somewhere else (the place begins with an I and ends with a q), the country began to slip into guerilla warfare. Among the pre-9/11 ideas to which the Bushies have clung like dying limpets, one of them was the idea that the boom boom tactics, which worked in Kosovo, presaged a whole new era of shock and awe in which the U.S. simply had to go in, show its military cock, and lay down the terms of peace to a cowed populace.

Well, the tooth fairy is dead and that is one of the dumber ideas to which a senile War Department head has ever been attached. It did have great fans, though. I remember the official smirk position of Slate in 2002, when the neo-liberal/center/radical rightwing warmongers there were thumbsucking their way to approving pre-emptive war, was that things had gone just socko in Afghanistan and how silly those people were who had said there might be some problems there. This, of course, in the face of the fact that the sole reason for going into Afghanistan – getting Osama bin Laden – didn’t pan out. But in the smirky world of Slate (which really is a barometer of in-the-beltway stupidity – can you find a more miserable purveyor of DC orthodoxies than Saletan or Weisberg?), the sort of premise for a war, the bogus stuff told to the American public while the Pentagon issues the contract specs, is sort of dispensible. It is the new, confidence man theory of democracy: who cares about Osama or WMD once we are in the country? It is sort of date rape as a foreign policy.

The point is that the history of the funding in Afghanistan is related to the history of the failure in Afghanistan.


Hantu Laut 10.14.07 at 6:02 am

The invasion of Afghanistan was a retaliation of 9/11.There was not justification for America to invade the country.It was’t Afghanistan that attacked the World Trade Centre.It’s obviously ‘might is righ’ and an ‘eye for an eye’ decision of the US administration.

The US can only bully weak and defenceless nations.Ask George Bush whether he would dare to attack Russia or China.The American people should have impeached this dangerous man. He is nothing but a hound dog.

The American, no matter how hard they tried, can never win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.They have succesfully wrecked two innocent nations.To pull out now would be total anarchy.

America, the aggressor, should pay war reparations to both countries.


BruceR 10.15.07 at 4:29 am

“Wrecked” Afghanistan? In 2001? Bounced the rubble, maybe.

“To pull out now would be total anarchy.” Exactly.


BruceR 10.15.07 at 4:36 am

Anyway, this post wasn’t originally about what should have been done in 2001, but what *Australians* should do now, as I read it. There’s several hundred of them doing good reconstruction work under difficult conditions alongside the Dutch in Uruzgan province; good on ’em. There’s no conceivable reason I can see to disagree with Mr. Quiggin that this remains a worthwhile undertaking on their part.

As a Canadian, my respects to Trooper Pearce, and also his friends and family.


albertchampion 10.16.07 at 4:34 am

it’s so sad. this is purportedly an erudite site.

but it is so ignorant.

usama bin laden had nothing to do with the events of 11/09/01.

if you can proffer any proof that bin laden or his fellows did what the usg said they did that day, put it up here.

never forget, bin laden is still not on any fbi list for any crimes against the usa. what does that tell you?

more to the point, consider the large number of bin ladens and other al-fresco financing saudis that the bushit regime allowed to leave the united states. i think that says that the usg knew damn well that ubl and al fresco was a notional enemy.

so afghanistan had no more to do with the events of 11/09/01 than did ubl and his associates. so, why the invasion of afghanistan? it was just another chapter in the great game for the control of hydrocarbons and heroin.

prior to the “stolen” election of 2000, the “oilies” had this belief that there were considerable quantities of hydrocarbons that could be extracted and transmitted across afghanistan into the new economic “tiger” – inja.

the taliban, though created by the cia and its surrogate, the isi, were not keen on that western disruption of their theocracy. they said no.

after the bushit invasion of afghanistan, a major exploratory drilling program commenced. it was intended to find and produce the hydrocarbons that the “proposed” pipeline was going to transmit.

guess what, those anticipated hydrocarbons weren’t there. the need for the pipeline had been nullified.

but then there was the opium. by 2001, the taliban had shut down virtually all of the opium poppy production in afghanistan. this was a very real hardship on the black budget of the us intell services[always involved in the traffic since 1947]. and for an acolyte of the russell trust[skull & bones], it was a considerable loss to that secret society and its members[not inconsequential controllers of the usa].

so, since the bushit invasion of afghanistan, what have we seen concerning opium cultivation? well, in 2001, the taliban had eliminated that crop, virtually.

but after the bushit regime’s invasion, everything seems to have changed. afghanistan’s opium harvests have climbed to a record level. and where does that opium go for refining to morphine base, then heroin?

this refining operation is not occurring in afghanistan. where is it occurring?

and how is the opium reaching the refineries?

us mercenary and military aircraft.

as i said before, for a purportedly erudite bunch of posters, you sure are ignorant.

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