One War, Four Myths

IssueOctober 2010
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle
  • Myth 1: We’re finally “turning the corner” (deputy prime minister Nick Clegg) and are starting to win the war in Afghanistan.

    Clearly, principled opponents of the war oppose it on the grounds that it is immoral rather than unwinnable. Nonetheless, arguments about the war’s winnability continue to play a key role in public debate.

    For example, in September’s parliamentary debate on the war (see p2), defence secretary Liam Fox claimed that: “Over the past few years the strategic position of the insurgency has begun to crumble”.

    In reality, a December 2009 briefing by the director of intelligence for NATO forces in Afghanistan concluded that the insurgency was “increasingly effective” and “growing more cohesive”, that it could “sustain itself indefinitely”, and that “Taliban influence [was] expanding; contesting and controlling additional areas.” (

    Little appears to have changed in the last 10 months to change this assessment. Indeed, the Afghan NGO safety office, which advises humanitarian organisations on safety conditions across Afghanistan, recently announced that by almost every measure the country is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001.

  • Myth 2: A troop “surge” can reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan, just as it did in Iraq.

    In reality, “The primary factor responsible for the decline in violence in Iraq [in 2007] was the culmination of the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis – principally in Baghdad, formerly a thoroughly mixed ethnic city... by the newly empowered Shia majority in their drive to national pre-eminence.” (John Agnew and Claudio Guler, “False Advertising About the Iraq Surge”, Truthout, 13 June 2010

    In 2008, a team of geographers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) used night-time satellite images of Iraqi cities to assess the impact of the 2007 US troop “surge”, reasoning that “electricity production and consumption as indicated by night time lighting provide a plausible measure of human presence and activity in particular places” (John Agnew and Brian Min, “Baghdad nights: evaluating the US military ‘surge’ using night time light signatures”, Environment and Planning A, 2008,

    Noting that “massive residential segregation and population loss happened anyway even when US forces were present in increased numbers”, they concluded that the surge’s only tangible role in improving security was to help “seal off neighbourhoods from one another” once they had already been ethnically-cleansed. In other words, escalation didn’t “work” in Iraq and there is no reason to believe that it will in Afghanistan.

  • Myth 3: There is now a clear exit strategy for British troops: training Afghan forces (army and police) to provide security.

    The final communiqué of July’s international conference on Afghanistan, expressed US/UK support for the goal of having Afghan forces “lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014”.

    However, the Independent’s Afghanistan correspondent Kim Sengupta notes that the communiqué’s language “does not mean British and Western troops w[ill] be out of the country in four years.” In July, Sengupta “accompanied Afghan troops in the first such operation… and the Afghan force of 680 was accompanied by about 170 British ‘advisers’ and NATO airpower.” “Western and Afghan commanders are in agreement,” he notes: “this type of involvement is likely to continue for a long time”.

    Moreover, as the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has noted: “The US can only increase the military strength of the Afghan state swiftly by skewing it towards the Tajiks, who were always the core of opposition to the Taliban”, thereby fuelling sectarian strife.

  • Myth 4: We have to stay in Afghanistan to protect Afghan women

    Earlier this year, US feminists blasted Time magazine for running a horrific front cover bearing a photograph of a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been cut off (allegedly at the behest of the Taliban) and the headline “What happens If We Leave Afghanistan”.

    Sonali Kolhatkar, who co-directs the Afghan Women’s Mission – a US-based non-profit organisation that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan – explained: “There are incidents happening every day in Afghanistan of women and girls being harassed, raped, flogged and killed by pro-US warlords and local commanders that are not working with the Taliban – these incidents are rarely covered by the Western media.…

    Afghan women activists I work with prefer to resist two threats to their security (the Taliban and the US-backed central government) instead of three (the third being the US/NATO occupation) and have long called for US forces to leave. Time magazine is playing to age-old racist stereotypes: that brown women need a foreign white army to save them from their men.” The sad reality is that US and British policymakers don’t care about Afghan women – except, that is, when they can be used to sell their wars to a sceptical public.

Topics: Afghanistan