Why is Britain in Afghanistan?

IssueOctober 2009
News by Gabriel Carlyle

In Peter Davis’s documentary Hearts and Minds, Walt Rostow – a man with ample blood on his hands – famously lost his cool when asked to explain how the US got involved in Vietnam, demanding that the clip be dropped from the film… while on film. Rostow’s fulminations are a high point of the movie, and his eventual answer (“The problem began in its present phase after the Sputnik…”) incredible in the literal sense of the word. It was a good question, and I’ve yet to give a talk on Afghanistan when the analogous question – why is Britain in Afghanistan? – wasn’t raised.

The simple answer

The simple answer – we’re there because the US is – is undoubtedly correct, but never satisfies people. The question they really want the answer to, of course, is: why is the US in Afghanistan? The best treatment of this that I’ve seen appears in Sonali Kolhatkar’s and James Ingalls’ book Bleeding Afghanistan (still the best book on the current war up until early 2006), and is worth recapping.

All about oil?

Noting sensibly that “any attempt to discern the ‘motives’ of a government or other complex institution is necessarily speculative and imprecise”, they begin by drawing a necessary distinction between the reasons why the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place, and why it remains in the country.

Turning to the former, they first examine an explanation that has been widely touted in anti-war circles (both in 2001 and since): “it’s all about oil.”

According to this theory – a one-size-fits-all, that was also dragged out, somewhat incongruously, to justify NATO’s 1999 attack on Yugolsavia – the Bush administration wanted to obtain lucrative oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan, and the 9/11 attacks provided them with the perfect pretext to invade.

After careful examination Kolhatkar and Ingalls conclude – correctly in my view – that “[a]lthough control of energy resources is certainly a long-term goal of US officials and corporations, there is no evidence that Washington entered Afghanistan chiefly to obtain oil and natural gas.”

In particular, there is no evidence for the oft repeated claim that Hamid Karzai (whom the US installed as Afghanistan’s president following the invasion) was a former employee of Unocal, the US energy company that had earlier negotiated with the Taliban to build such a pipeline.

The “pacifying deterrent”

Instead, they highlight two more persuasive factors to explain the invasion: maintaining “imperial prestige” (sometimes referred to, euphemistically, as “credibility”) and creating a stepping stone to Iraq.

Failure to respond militarily would have sent the wrong message around the world, and the Taliban – who had sheltered bin Laden – were a useful proxy for the amorphous network behind the 9/11 attacks, which could not be directly attacked.

At the time, Charles Krauthammer – later named by the FT as “the most influential commentator” in America – wrote: “If… the United States… cannot succeed in defeating some cave dwellers in the most backward country on earth, then the entire structure of world stability, which rests ultimately on the pacifying deterrent effect of American power, will be fatally threatened” (emphasis added). “Success,” Krauthammer argued, “therefore requires making an example of the Taliban.”

“Moving forward”

Likewise, following 9/11, the Bush administration debated Iraq for four days before concluding that Afghanistan would be a more publicly acceptable target, with Bush telling his Cabinet: “Start with bin Laden, which Americans expect. And if we succeed, we’ve struck a blow and can move forward” to Iraq.

Crucially, neither the capture of bin Laden nor the prevention of future terrorist attacks were ever central priorities for either the US or British governments. Both chose to invade in spite of Taliban offers to extradite bin Laden, and subsequently invaded Iraq – with no link to 9/11 – in the teeth of warnings from British intelligence (amply born out since then) that this would “heighten” the risk of terrorism in Britain.

Why we stay

As for the occupation, Kolhatkar and Ingalls run through several long-term interests that are served by the continued US presence: providing a rationale for NATO’s existence, positioning US power in the heart of Asia, and, yes, those oil pipelines.

As in Iraq, there are also people and corporations with significant influence on foreign policy who benefit from the war’s continuation, financially or otherwise – or who stand to lose from its termination.

In Britain, BAE Systems is making a fortune supplying armoured vehicles. Meanwhile, military chiefs – with one eye on future budgets – are known to be concerned that should they complain the government might not send them off to war again.

Finally, of course, the prospect of the US being forced out by the “cave dwellers” remains unthinkable.

As with the original invasion – which took place despite dire warnings from international aid agencies regarding the likely humanitarian impact, and which may have resulted in over 10,000 deaths as the bombing disrupted vital aid supplies and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes – the likely consequences for ordinary Afghans are of little or no concern to those making the policies.

Topics: Afghanistan