What are Western soldiers doing in Afghanistan? Is it to “reconstruct” the country as some of our leaders keep telling us? Is it to root out Bin Laden? Does it matter still? Is it in preparation for the impending takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban? Is it to act as a potential shield given the tensions between the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and India and their WMDs?

Listening to recent pronouncements from our leaders, one wonders.

First President Barack Obama admitted to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in a recent interview that a “win” in Afghanistan (I am paraphrasing here) meant preventing the country from becoming a launching pad for attacks on the US and its allies. That is a very scaled down version of the lofty goal of George W. Bush which was among other things transplanting democracy to the Land of Burqas and Poppies.  

Then this week-end, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN said: “Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency! ” Now that is as blunt as anybody can get. Then there are the increasingly reluctant European allies who view this mission as similar to that other doomed one in Iraq.

So why is the West in Afghanistan given all these parameters?

I will venture some explanations here although as a word of caution, I don’t accept these as valid reasons for stationing thousands of troops in a foreign country. I simply think this is what is guiding our leaders’ decisions. So here goes…

I think first there is the WMD factor. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over Kashmir and other recent entanglements including the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is increasingly shaky given the military’s power over the executive branch and the Intelligence services’ links to insurgent groups. So since the worse case scenario of this situation is either a nuclear Pakistan leaking secrets to insurgents or a nuclear Pakistan going after a nuclear India, the West deeems it necessary to be present and ready to intervene. Here’s why this does not work however: preventing any conflict between these two countries is a matter of diplomacy. There is no military deterence for nuclear armed enemies. The presence of foreign troops in either of these countries has in the past only served to rally the population againts the foreigners viewed as “invaders”.

2- The perenial “let’s get them there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument: The Taliban is based in Afghanistan & Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other affiliate terror groups are also based in the Middle-East. So if they were to be fought and destroyed as units there, they will cease to be a threat to the West in the West. This argument works if one assumes that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all the other groups that hold a deep hatred of Western societies are units that once destroyed in a specific geographic location can essentially be eliminated and prevented from threatening societies anywhere. Ever. This assumption however ignores centuries of colonial adventures that prove the exact opposite. Nihilistic organizations or ones that view their mission as their people’s overarching cause tend to be very loosely structured. The guiding principle being their message. Once it catches on, leaders can be killed or jailed, bases can be ransacked, the message lives on. It becomes like a virus that can only be completely destroyed if all the infected victims are located, except as more are located, more are infected.  Think of the FLN in Algeria in the 1960s or the Mau Maus in Kenya in the 1950s or the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Insurgencies work because of their knowledge of  the terrain, of the language, of the culture and customs and their overall ability to hide or resurface depending on the conditions on the ground.  The history of Afghanistan is the blatant proof. That is perhaps why Stephen Harper recognized that they cannot be defeated in their own countries. So one has to wonder: why risk resources and lives trying when there are more pressing problems at home?