What ever happened to the ‘good war’?

As Afghanistan starts to look more like Iraq, its image as a just war of self-defence is being questioned.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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Afghanistan has returned to the media spotlight in the past few weeks. The recent burst of military offensive in the south, the resurgent Taliban increasing casualties among British and Canadian forces, and the unseemly scrabbling and pleading for NATO reinforcements and military equipment have all placed Afghanistan back in the news headlines. Lt General David Richards, the British commander of the 18,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told the BBC that the British Army has not seen fighting of such prolonged intensity since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, two years after invading Afghanistan, many felt that the Bush administration had overreached itself. Without the legal sanction of the United Nations, the invasion caused a diplomatic rift within the West – with Washington on the one side and Berlin and Paris on the other – as well as provoking a popular wave of opposition from within many Western countries. The failure to mobilise the international community behind the Iraq invasion made many suspicious about America’s motives. It was seen as a selfish war for oil rather than an altruistic and ‘legal’ war for the benefit of the world as a whole.

By contrast, the invasion of Afghanistan was seen by many as a just war undertaken in self-defence. It enjoyed the support of America’s key allies. The chaos in Iraq since the 2003 invasion seemed to confirm this view of the war in Afghanistan as a speedy and low-cost victory, stabilised by apparently wise European peacekeepers. In short, this was the ‘good war’ that liberated the Afghan people from the Taliban and created global unity against terror. Iraq, on the other hand, was the ‘bad war’, led by gung-ho Americans and giving rise only to schisms and chaos.

But with Afghanistan now looking increasingly like Iraq, the ‘good war’ is being called into question. With 33 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the last three months, suddenly everyone in Britain has something critical to say about the war. Opposition parties and the media – both liberal and conservative – routinely raise questions about the war effort. How are wounded soldiers being treated? Is the army overstretched with simultaneous deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq? Do our troops have the right kit? Are other countries contributing as much as Britain? Are they doing their fair share of the fighting? Are our boys getting the support they deserve back home? And so on. But this shortsighted griping leaves the politics of the war unchallenged.

The politics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are very similar, even if only one has the support of the international community. Both wars have been marked by an absence of any overall strategic planning, with the Western military and political leaders trying to maintain momentum by constantly recreating war aims, offering up a new war aim in the face of any setback. With Iraq, US President George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair vacillated between several justifications for the war: urging the elimination of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, liberating the Iraqi people from tyranny, and spreading democracy in the Middle East.

We saw a similar pattern in Afghanistan. Following the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden (remember him?), the West’s war aims shifted to liberating Afghan women from Taliban oppression. This then turned into post-conflict ‘reconstruction’ operations, which have since shifted to helping expand the remit of the Western-backed government beyond Kabul. And now, by targeting opium production, the NATO campaign is morphing into a ‘war on drugs’ – that never-ending war with obscure and impossible aims that prefigured many aspects of the ‘war on terror’. Instead of pursuing a coherent war aim with fixity of purpose, it seems that Western armies are only discovering their aims and purposes in the process of fighting itself.

Originally established as an anti-Soviet military alliance, NATO has been tottering from one existential crisis to another since the end of the Cold War, in a desperate search to find its place in the new world order. Now locked in its largest conflict since its inception in 1949, the world’s most powerful military alliance seems to have at least temporarily resolved its identity crisis by fighting against Afghan villagers and tribesmen in military operations with embarrassingly adolescent names like ‘Anaconda’, ‘Medusa’ and ‘Mountain Thrust’. It seems the more the war effort is losing its coherence, the more verbose the names of operations become. NATO generals talk about the North Atlantic alliance facing a ‘fundamental’ test in the mountains of Afghanistan. But it would never be facing this so-called challenge if it had not gone out of its way to expand its operations in the first place.

It is clear that the myth of the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is rapidly fading away and the hollowness of the West’s war effort has been exposed. It is the attempt to find political meaning through the process of fighting itself, rather than realising premeditated war aims, that gives the war in Afghanistan its brittle character. Because it lacks any coherent principles, the war effort has grown in the past five years, quite independently of the Taliban’s activities, becoming increasingly destructive and violent.

The war in Afghanistan exposes the hypocritical image of peace-loving Europeans and Canadians, who supposedly devote themselves to humanitarian aid and social work in the Third World while Americans lob cruise missiles and cluster bombs. It is British, Dutch and Canadian forces that are at the cutting edge of NATO’s incursions into southern Afghanistan today. Accurate figures about Afghan casualties are hard to come by, but NATO forces routinely testify to hundreds of Afghan deaths in various skirmishes and battles. It is rarely clarified how many of these casualties are civilians. While justifications for the intervention in Afghanistan are constantly reinvented, the end results are always disastrous.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty, to be published in December 2006. He is chairing the debate on international law, Empire of Regulation or Lawless World?, at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2006.

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Topics Politics


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