Zombie Meme Watch: Transatlantic Politics and Afghanistan

Hey, it’s the Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus meme again. This is what programmers call an anti-pattern – a classical, typical example of how to do something wrong. You might have thought that, with the Bush years finally behind us, this would have been retired at long last; but no. Now, the UK is being accused of becoming “Europeanised”, supposedly because it doesn’t want to put more troops in Afghanistan.

First, the UK cannot do this because, having spent the last 8 years chasing various US-inspired missions, it doesn’t have the troops, and more to the point, it doesn’t have the air transport fleet to support them in the interior of Asia. Simple. But more importantly, there are two huge unexamined assumptions here. The first is that the Europeans have to come when the US calls them. What is in it for us? After all, NATO declared that the alliance had been invoked back in September 2001, and was told that its assistance was not required, at the same time as hordes of rightwing publicists accused it of not helping. Then, later, the US accepted the need for an international peacekeeping force, which was led by European NATO members for most of its existence.

And then, the US withdrew much of its own forces in Afghanistan for use in Iraq. Specifically, the special forces whose mission in counter-insurgency and as military advisors was crucial in the vast majority of Afghanistan away from Kabul were drawn on, as were the satellite and other reconnaissance assets. This was a loss in awareness of what was happening out there that ISAF never really recovered; it is no coincidence that, as Antonio Giustozzi writes in Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, the Taliban resurgence began in 2003.

Now, after several EU states have been prevailed on for troops and have sent many more, things seem to be worse. If, as they do, the Americans whine about having had to contribute to IFOR/SFOR in Bosnia (which consisted of two European divisions and a partly-US one), why should EU member states happily fork out for a much more dangerous, violent, expensive and uncertain commitment which is not much more remote from their real interests than Bosnia was to the US? If they don’t want NATO to be seen as a club for the furtherance of US interests out-of-area, this is not the right way to go about it.

Secondly, there is the question of whether more troops – anyone’s troops – will do any good. Even US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates is doubtful of that. After all, even with many more troops, they will still be spread very thinly, but they will create more of the perception of a blundering occupation with fortified bases and car-bashing road convoys and edgy privateer guards. More and more money will be spent in expanding the sector of the economy devoted to supplying “the internationals”. The strained and politically dodgy supply route through Pakistan will get even more strained and dodgy.

Further, the planned US “surge” is a surge; a temporary increase in forces. Surely, what is required is a sustainable solution – one that might serve our supposed goals after the captains and the kings depart as the US military’s arms-plot requires. And that is only going to be achieved through political and economic means. If EU states should contribute more of anything, it should be more advisors, more reconstruction aid, more doctors and engineers – not more wedding-party strikes-in-error, and the kind of combination of well-meaning NGOs, PRTs and other TLAs with chaos and sinister spookery Robert Young Pelton brilliantly evokes here.

Friends don’t let friends drink and drive; neither do they help friends get into open-ended two-front wars. Europeans are entirely right to behave as if Iraq and Afghanistan had erased US credibility, and to expect it to be earned back rather than freely given. They are also right to look to their wooden walls, or their reconnaissance satellites.

19 thoughts on “Zombie Meme Watch: Transatlantic Politics and Afghanistan

  1. Well the question is whether the proposals coming form the Obama people are smart enough to get behind or not. I don’t think it’s a good idea to say, a priori, “yes more” or “no way a’tall”.

  2. “What is in it for us?”

    Isn’it obvious?
    -Deny violent islamist elements sanctuary in southern Afghanistan. And don’t tell me Pakistan’s border area is a sanctuary, it’s not. It’s under constant surveillance and US forces regularly attack targets there. Al Qaeda cannot operate in the open, cannot set up it’s training camp, to be short they don’t enjoy the freedom of action they had before 2001.

    -Prevent further destabilization of central and south Asia. Events in Pakistan clearly shows that the army no longer control the taliban, allowing them to control Afghanistan and to continue to operate in Pakistan is not good.

    It’s a popular opinion that terrorism can only be fought with police and counter-intelligence. It’s non-sense, it contradicts the most fundamental principles of warfare. And while we might not like it, our little friends wage war. Waiting for them behind our walls and giving them time to build up their capabilities and planify their attacks is dangerous. We can’t let the enemy take the initiative, we must be on the offensive. Disrupting their lines of communications, their financial means and denying them any sanctuary. The more breathing space we give, the more dangerous they will become. September 11 has shown what they can do if the threat is not taken seriously.

    And don’t tell me that this is the “leaderless jihad”, the threat is homegrown,etc…Yes, in part but last time I check Al Qaida and they have launched successful attacks.

  3. We don’t go to war due to someone’s credibility. Is it in our interest to let the US and NATO be defeated in Afghanistan? If not, what are we willing to do to prevent it? Would that be enough?

    And terrorism is closer to the EU’s interest than Bosnia. London and Madrid are within the EU.

  4. On the contrary, Afghanistan has everything to do with terrorism. How far the European powers are willing to go to avenge terrorist attacks is a very important question.

  5. Alex, there is no “sustainable solution” to Afghan “problem”, whatever these words could mean.

    The only goal of the West meddling in Afghan hornet nest is to prevent it to serve as breeding ground to Al Qaeda militants.

    No more no less.

  6. Can I just say that Alex, you’re goddamn right?

    Even one hundred Finnish soldiers in the ISAF is one hundred too many. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the “need to contain violent Islamist elements” or how “Central and South Asia might be destabilized”; we have no business and no interests to maintain troops in those parts of the World, period.

    The “necessity to construct a civil society in Afghanistan” is basically just a re-hash of White Man’s Burden. As far as I’m concerned, if the locals can’t build a civil society on their own, it’s none of our business to do it on their behalf. We didn’t break it, so we don’t have to buy it.

    Besides, at the same time when businessmen and government officials in Europe and the States are busy translating and memorizing “Ruhnama”, it’s sort of hard for me to see why they have such difficulties in getting along with the Taliban. Perhaps the destabilization of Central Asia might not be such a bad thing.


    J. J.

  7. We do have an interest to strike back when we are attacked. Stationing troops in a remote Asian places is not something I would prefer, but what is the alternative? And what is the price of being forced to give up on a response that has been chosen, whether we like it or not.


    We are having a debate because the issue hasn’t been resolved. Prevention is better, if it works. It didn’t work several times. What about that? Ignore it?

  8. Winning in Afghanistan will need steps that are hard to sell. Essentially it will mean adoping strategies similar to what the US did to solve its own “Indian problem”. So this could mean relocate villages and basically destroy the sources of Taleban personel and provisioning.
    I know, for the people sitting in Brussels hiding behind a zillion bodyguards and security measures, this will be frowned upon. If you are a soldier there though, you do not want to risk your life for nothing, especially for a situation that you had nothing to do with.

  9. Oddly enough, Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe only started happening once we allowed ourselves to be embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq. Being there to fight terrorism has therefore been counterproductive.

    And expensive.

  10. Ah, enter Martin Wisse, with some patent false info. Of course, to be fair, it may be just a generational thing.

    … there were several terrorist attacks mounted by Islamic fighters in Europe well before anyone (apart from the Soviets and the Israelis) was considering any offensive actions against Afghanistan or Iraq. Some of these attacks, especially the ones carried out by the PLO and the Abu Nidal organization, were quite famous, and they continued from the 1970s to the 1980s.

    Of course, these fellows were still (mostly) directing their attacks primarily against American and Israeli targets based in Europe, with the local Europeans ending up merely as collateral victims. Still, I don’t see any practical difference. They were terrorist attacks on European soil.

    … this doesn’t mean that the ongoing peace-enforcing action in Afghanistan makes any sense whatsoever. I do not believe that it breeds terrorism; but nor do I believe that it prevents any terrorism, or that the potential Afghan or Islamic terrorism would be of such a special kind that it inevitably necessitates overseas preventive military campaigns.

    The mess in Afghanistan makes no sense. I’m sick and tired of seeing the men and the women from the ISAF getting shot at for no purpose and no gain, while the local poppy cultivation is at an all-time high and honour killings are still an everyday phenomenon. The whole region is a _pays barre_, and I’m in favour of letting it go hang. Leave now, and don’t look back.


    J. J.

  11. Alex,

    Love your blog but you’re on the wrong track here.

    The US only ever put 7,500 troops into Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance providing the bulk of the troops that overthrew the Taliban. Those troops are still there.

    I’m Australian and I must admit that the ‘what’s in it for us’ attitude pervading Europe these days is somewhat alarming.

    Freedom must be fought for by those who are capable of doing so. It’s our moral duty.

    Thus, we should do whatever is necessary to topple Mugabe, repair Sudan etc etc to stop the bloodshed.

    Keep up the good work.

  12. We have no moral duty to fight for somebody else’s freedom. On the contrary, us defining what freedom is would endanger world peace.

    But nevertheless the US was attacked on 9/11 and most of Europe is in an alliance with the US. Thus we need to have a sensible response.

  13. Indeed we do.

    Personally, I think putting more brigades into Afghanistan is probably counter-productive; more bases, more road convoys, more wedding-party strikes-in-error, and more stress on our incredibly strained logistics.

    We need to concentrate on building up the Afghan government, negotiating with anyone who offers anything better than all-out talibanism, and delivering population security and economic aid. That includes security from us. If the EU should send anything, it should send more advisors (OMLTs), doctors, and engineers (PRTs – Provincial Reconstruction Teams), and money.

    Everyone knows, after all, that even if the Americans do go through with sending significantly more troops, they can only do so by bringing forward some deployments and pushing back some returns – it’s temporary, and in a year’s time their numbers will be falling again.

    We certainly don’t want a no-decision (as Robert MacNamara would say) with falling US troop levels but still a bigger, more logistics-intensive footprint and the Taliban still in the field, after a year of intensified violence. In that scenario there would be a real risk of disaster.

  14. We can build more infrastructure. That would help. But then we must be ready to defend what we build. Building stuff that is destroyed very soon after it is finished is worse than building nothing.

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