Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Afghan war in historical perspective

Terry Greenberg was nice enough to pass along this article he wrote for Middle East Times last month:

When Will They Ever Learn?

Middle East Times online - November 14, 2007

On Jan. 13, 1842, Dr. William Brydon, caked in blood and grime, his scalp half sheared off by an Afghan sword, his uniform hanging in tatters over his frost-bitten extremities, staggered through the gate of a British fort on the border of Afghanistan. He had left the mangled bodies of over 16,000 of his comrades in the snow and dirt of the Khyber Pass, and was the sole survivor of a British army division which had begun its retreat from Kabul just one week earlier. He was too exhausted to speak, but if there was one message in his experience, it was 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

The Soviet Union had not gotten this message when they entered Afghanistan over a hundred years later. They came to support a communist-led government in Kabul that was fighting a civil war against its own people. Amongst other things, the Kabul government was trying to promote, through the use of military force, more modernisation for the entire country; more equitable treatment for women; and more power for the central government over the hinterland. The Soviets, possessing one of the most powerful military forces on earth, much like the British had had in the 19th century, left Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, and learned the same lesson; 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

Canadian forces are now in Afghanistan essentially trying to do exactly what the Soviets tried to do. We want to promote, through the use of military force, more modernisation for the entire country; more equitable treatment for women; and the assertion of more power for the central government in Kabul over the hinterland. Einstein once defined 'insanity', as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Canada's military deployment in Afghanistan seems dangerously close to meeting that definition.

We should be asking ourselves a number of relatively simple questions, but there is no evidence that this is being done by the Canadian Government. For example, why did a tribal, religiously fundamentalist country like Afghanistan have a communist-inspired government in the first place, even before the Soviets entered on the scene? This happened because Kabul, the capital city, was a very modern and progressive place in the 1970s. It had the largest number of female doctors of any Muslim city in the world at that time. But Kabul was virtually a different country from the Afghan hinterland, and when it tried to impose its modernistic vision on the tribal majority, it encountered violent resistance. In a sense, Kabul tried and failed, in spite of Soviet assistance, to colonize the rest of Afghanistan. Canadian forces today are involved in a similar exercise in internal colonialism on behalf of the Karzai government.

Another question might be; what do Canadians really know about the culture and society of rural Afghanistan? The answer is: phenomenally little. No two cultures could be more different than those of Canada and Afghanistan, yet we claim we are there to rebuild and refashion that country. How much confidence can we have in a skyscraper designed by an architect who has no knowledge of the properties of steel and concrete? Canadians have only the most superficial knowledge of the essential building material in Afghanistan, the Afghan people and their culture. Our approach to regime change and rebuilding that country is no more sophisticated than that of children playing with plasticine. Whatever we construct over there is unlikely to have any structural integrity, and is doomed to collapse.

Lastly, what do we know of the motives of the Afghan insurgents that we are trying so hard to kill? Why do young men virtually condemn themselves to death by taking up the fight against the vastly superior military technologies of the West? It has nothing to do with virgins in Paradise, and everything to do with resisting foreign occupation and aggression. The Pathan code of Pashtunwali says a man is nothing if he cannot defend his honour and obtain revenge for abuses against himself and his community. In his poem, 'The White Man's Burden', Rudyard Kipling described the Afghans as 'half-devil and half-child'. Canada's General Hillier was even more racially arrogant, and not half as sophisticated, when he described the Afghan fighters as 'scumbags'. They are simply doing what we would do if a totally alien army had invaded Canada, and tried to violently impose foreign values on us. We would also deeply resent the killing of our women and children in indiscriminate aerial bomb- ardments, and probably see the foreign soldiers as legitimate targets of revenge, even if they had pretty little red leafs on their uniforms.

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure, because of our racial arrogance, our cultural ignorance, and our reluctance to learn the lessons of history. At this point we can still hope that the last Canadian soldier to leave Afghanistan will not stagger out over the Khyber Pass, covered in blood and grime, with his head cut open like William Brydon's. But we can be reasonably certain that his advice to the world will be, 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

Terry Greenberg is currently lecturing at Capilano College. He was with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1982-2003.
Below I append a couple of letters to the editor penned by Terry.
Vietnam haunts Canadian mission in Afghanistan
Letters - Publish Date: January 11, 2007 (link)

The prognosis of the article on Afghanistan [“NATO faces a bloody future in Afghanistan”, Georgia Straight, Jan. 4-11] will prove accurate, but it places too much emphasis on the harmful role of outsiders like Pakistan and other external supporters of the insurgency. The reality is that NATO itself is an outsider. NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is, essentially, a colonial presence. It consists of a group of rich, powerful, Western, Christian countries imposing its collective will on a poor, weak, Asian, Muslim country. Colonialism has not worked since the last quarter of the 20th century, and there is no reason to believe it will succeed in the 21st. Once a significant part of the local population has rejected the foreign presence, as they did in Algeria and Vietnam and are doing in Iraq, the foreigners are doomed. Given the lessons of Afghan history, in which every foreign invader was repelled, the same is inevitable here.

> Terry Greenberg / North Vancouver

Canada replicates role of Soviets in Afghanistan
Publish Date: March 22, 2007 (link)

Terry Glavin's article "Journalist speaks up for Afghan women" [March 15-22] failed to provide necessary historical context. The last foreign army to fight for women's rights in Afghanistan was that of the Soviet Union, and its defeat was greatly aided by U.S. support to the mujahideen. So our allies, the Americans, have very recently been on the side of Islamic extremism and suppressing women's rights.

The Soviet Union came to fight in Afghanistan to protect the Kabul regime that was trying to impose its communist values on the Afghan countryside. That effort had caused an uprising that it could not suppress. One of the values they promoted was women's rights, and Kabul was actually quite a progressive place at the time.

Today, Kabul is again trying to impose its own set of values on the Afghan countryside, and NATO and Canadians are playing the Soviet role.

We do have plenty of the women's-rights-suppressing mujahideen-warlords on our side, which sets us off a bit from the Soviets. The Karzai regime, which is totally foreign-imposed and protected, is much less credible and legitimate than the Soviet-supported Kabul regime, and corruption and drug trading are taking place on a much greater scale under our watch.

If we lose the fight, as the Soviets did—and we will—what good would we be doing the women of Afghanistan? Women suffer the most in wars.

The sad truth is that Canadian forces are in a combat role in Afghanistan primarily as an act of contrition for our failure to join the U.S. rape of Iraq. Using women's rights as a justification for our aggressive, militant actions in Afghanistan is tantamount to our own act of rape, not only against the women of Afghanistan but against the very principle of women's rights as well.

> Terry Greenberg / North Vancouver
The themes that Terry touches on are echoed in a Reuters dispatch:
KABUL, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The Afghan president says his country is improving -- schools and hospitals are being built and the economy is stronger, but problems remain with insurgents.

"The construction of new schools and hospitals ... are the characteristics of our social policy," he says. "Our brave armed forces have significantly developed ... carry out combat operations, smash extremist bands."

But the time is is not 2007, it is 1987, and the president is Soviet-backed Najibullah, not the Western-backed Hamid Karzai. Yet 20 years later, Karzai is delivering a similar message.

... While Najibullah's government held out for another three years after the Soviet pullout, Afghanistan endured a civil war that killed tens of thousands and made millions refugees.

"It is now like 1984-85, we have lost the countryside, Afghans cannot work for us because it is too dangerous for them, and in the next couple of years, allied countries will start dropping out and then it will be the end," said Kees Rietveld, a consultant working on Afghanistan for more than 20 years. (link)


Unknown said...

Canada, the UN, NATO and more than 35 supportive countries are not in Afghanistan 'trying to do exactly what the Soviets tried to do'.

Canadian Forces, development workers and civil servants are in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan people through their government; elected when more than 8-million Afghans turned out to vote.

In fact, the Afghan government is begging Canada to stay. (

Canada and our partners can do a better job in Afghanistan, but we cannot, as you would have us do, simply walk away and forget some of the most desperate people in the world at a time when we could make a real difference.


Josh McJannett
Canadians for Afghanistan

Dave Markland said...

I agree with you that the US/NATO project and the Soviet one are not identical - no two events ever are. However, the evidence you give to substantiate your assertion only shows how similar the two occupations are.
1. The Soviets, too, were in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government. Only the Soviets managed not to illegally invade until AFTER they were invited. They also held elections - which were, like the one that Karzai won, elections held under occupation.
2. The Afghan presidents during the Soviet occupation also begged Russia to stay.
So here's a question for you: If today were 1985, what would you say to a Soviet bureaucrat who said 'We cannot simply walk away from Afghanistan and forget some of the most desperate people in the world'?

Dave M