POST-TALIBAN AFGHANISTAN AND THE BONDAGE OF EMPIRE
By Paul Kennedy
Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and author
of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- In 1917-18, as the Russian empire collapsed into
civil war and multi-ethnic chaos, and as the so-called "forward school"
of British strategists pressed for forces to be dispatched into Turkestan
to stabilize things, the world-weary statesman Lord Balfour urged caution.
He had listened to such talk for more than 40 years, he reminded the cabinet,
and had become wary of armchair generals who sought to achieve security
by assuming distant territorial obligations. Taken to its logical extent,
Balfour wryly observed, the British army might have to patrol the southern
suburbs of Moscow in order to ensure Britain's hold over India and the
safety of the oil supplies through the Gulf.
It would be interesting to know whether any analogous Balfourian cautions
had been raised in the secret Anglo-American councils before the decision
to destroy the Taliban and reconstruct the Afghan polity. Given the sheer
extent of U.S. military muscle -- the Pentagon's budget last year equaled
the defense spending of the next (ital) nine (unital) military spenders
-- it is not surprising that the Afghan skies are totally under Allied
control, that the U.S. Rangers and the SAS can be flown in and out, and
that the Northern Alliance and other tribal groups can be backed in their
vengeful conquests of Kabul and Kandahar. And if Osama bin Laden still
hides in a chilly Himalayan cave, it will also not be surprising if he
is apprehended sometime soon and, most likely, shot to death by a Marine.
The American nation, or at least a greater part of it, expects no less
for the appalling terrorist acts of Sept. 11.
Since that same U.S. opinion believes that this is a special war between
good and evil, analogies about earlier wars by European colonialists will
seem insulting and wrong. The United States, backed by loyal allies, simply
intends to destroy the Afghan-based terrorists (and supporters elsewhere)
and to assist, less avidly, in some form of U.N.-organized rebuilding
of a blighted nation. Most of the troops will surely (it is hoped) be
home by Christmas, if not shortly thereafter. The spanking of the Taliban
has been flawless -- contrary to the gloomier pundits -- and the campaign
can be wound down soon.
The military operations to date have indeed been stunning (and a great
tribute, incidentally, to the quality of the education of U.S. officers
in the war colleges since the early 1980s). But let us return to Balfour's
troubled mind. He was not an anti-imperialist MP or a left-wing professor.
He had impeccable conservative credentials, but his conservatism was intellectual
and reasoned. Like the famous American diplomat George Kennan, he mistrusted
excess, enthusiasm and jingoism, and was surely less than charismatic.
Yet -- and this the reason for summoning his ghost -- he was deeply interested
in the measurement of power and in the proper application of power. He
worried that a democracy could not sustain its early enthusiasm for a
war in faraway places once the first easy conquests were replaced by messier
and more protracted conflict. He worried about colonial campaigns distracting
policy-makers from the maintenance of Great Power relations or forcing
compromises with other powers.
Balfour worried a lot -- he was, after all, also a professional philosopher
as well as a former prime minister -- but his instincts were usually sound.
It was not the deployment of massive force abroad that concerned him.
He had been around when Sir Garnet Wolsely's troops crushed the Egyptian
nationalists in 1882 and Lord Kitchener's army smashed the Mahdi's "fanatical"
forces in the Sudan in 1898. He remembered even earlier how General Roberts
had punished the Afghans in 1880 for their attacks against British forces;
not for nothing was his title Lord Roberts of Kandahar, where he had routed
the Afghan army.
But that victory had been followed by a prudent British withdrawal, back
through the Khyber Pass, since London and Delhi had no desire to "civilize"
the Afghans. By contrast, the victories in Egypt and the Sudan, initially
taken to stabilize affairs, were followed by decades of British administration
and earnest efforts to provide good government: William Gladstone's "bondage
in Egypt" was a common joke of the time. From Tunisia and the Caucasus
to Burma and Indochina, the world was studded with similar examples of
attempts by the West to shore up crumbling frontiers and suppress sources
of instability. Often, a brief period of rule was envisaged; almost as
often, the victor power had to assume more and more responsibilities.
By 1918, Balfour was convinced that the last thing a war-weary Britain
needed was the long-term supervision of tribal conflicts in Central Asia.
Is this analogy useful? Well, like all analogies, no and yes. No, no,
no, because America in 2001 is not Britain in 1918; the technology is
different, the politics are different and so on. But yes, yes, yes, because
the same question arises: Once you have smashed the foe in distant hills
and plains, do you pull back swiftly (the Roberts option) or stay there,
for the long haul, to rebuild and control (the Kitchener option)?
So far, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, U.S. Secretary of
State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and in the background George Bush senior have
been a terrific combination. They have worked all the angles -- economic,
political, intelligence cooperation, police work -- right across the globe.
It is inconceivable to think of a Clinton or Gore administration having
such sure-footedness. The Taliban are still fighting for Kandahar and
a few other Afghan cities that 99 percent of the world until this time
had never heard of. They may have surprises, but the fate of those cities
is on the wall. Some Afghan "experts" on television and in the
press (how many of them have actually lived there for long, one wonders?)
opine that the Taliban prefer living in the mountains. Other pundits tell
us that they are really urban guerrillas, so if they are driven out of
the cities their days are numbered.
Whether or not this war is close to formal completion, the United States
now faces Balfour's cautious reflections. Logically, there are three options.
The first is simply to get out of Afghanistan as soon as there appears
to be no further opposition to American armed force and Osama bin Laden
has been killed or captured. Casual conversation at the local dry cleaners
or the wine store here in Connecticut suggests that that is what most
American citizens want: go in, blast the enemy to pieces and bring the
boys home, without suffering any casualties. They have no time for pundits
who suggest that we might also take this opportunity to effect a change
of regime in Iraq and Iran and further afield. Should tougher fighting
in the foothills around Kandahar cause losses among U.S. troops, this
sentiment will increase very swiftly, and many a nimble congressman will
run along with it. But the idea of America helping to complete the devastation
of Afghanistan and then turning its back upon the tragic aftermath seems
irresponsible, and Powell and Bush senior in particular would strongly
oppose such a course.
The second option, then, would be to pass the whole messy business onto
the platter of the United Nations, something for which Secretary General
Kofi Annan and his advisors are already bracing themselves. The "heavy
boys" like the U.S. Rangers and the Royal Marine Commandos would
have done the necessary destructive work, and now the "softer"
international actors would commence the reconstruction of the Afghan polity
and society and economy. Some American aid would be forthcoming, but a
lot more would be expected of rich bystander-nations like Japan and Saudi
Arabia to rebuild this ravaged country. International agencies, from the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund to the U.N. Development Program,
UNICEF and all the rest -- so recently scorned as ineffectual by American
conservatives -- would be rolled into play. And, as for the law-and-order
problems, they could be handled by a force of Blue Helmets provided by
a coalition of the willing: a Turkish contingent, an Indonesian contingent
(gasp), some well-meaning Swedes and Tunisians and Nigerians and Bulgarians.
But if Afghan history is any guide, the option of "rebuilding without
the Americans" will be a precarious endeavor. Right now, lots of
weapons are being hidden away -- for the next round of internal wars.
The recent death of a Taliban leader or a tribal warlord commits family
and followers to seek revenge. A coalition of factions -- Pushtuns, Northern
Alliance, ex-Talibans, independent tribes -- is unlikely to last long
and, when a disgruntled party withdraws, the weapons will be taken up
again. Does anyone seriously believe that U.N. peacekeepers from smaller,
neutral countries will be able to contain that violence? Or will be respected
by anyone? It sounds crude to say it, but it is hard military power --
from Lord Roberts' redcoats to President Bush's B-52 bombers -- that gains
respect in this part of the world.
This leaves America with the third option: to stay in Afghanistan for
a much longer period of time and, in conjunction with other countries
and the United Nations, to undertake a nation-building task that could
make the reconstruction of Angola, Cambodia and Bosnia seem easy. There
would be a U.S. military presence, in protected air bases and camps. There
would be American advisors, civilian and military, to advise the restoration
government. The head of the international peacekeeping and police forces
would be an American, too; how could it possibly be an Algerian or Polish
general? No time limits would be set for this enterprise (we have surely
learned by now that statements like "We will be out by Christmas"
are counterproductive); the withdrawal would come when a reasonable civic
society was evident.
And how long will that take? Five years? Fifteen years? Who knows? Will
the American Congress and public, aroused as it is by the Sept. 11 attacks,
remain so determined at the prospect of year-after-year policing, with
occasional losses caused by booby traps and snipers? Has President Bush's
team, hitherto so sure-footed, started to prepare the nation for the long
haul? As it ponders its options, it might want to consider earlier case
studies of "bondage in Egypt." Saying this is not to advocate
a fast American pullout; in fact, all present evidence suggests that options
one and two would lead to bloodshed and disaster. But the option of staying
on to rebuild a decent Afghanistan is likely to be much more trying and
unsatisfactory than the dropping of blockbuster bombs onto cave mouths.
Since President Bush is not oblivious to that fact, the time may be approaching
when he should caution the American people that swift victories in the
field do not always translate into easy and quick political settlements.
Phase Two is about to begin.
(c) 2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune
For immediate release (Distributed 11/26/01)
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