A football quarterback punts when he gets into trouble. In politics, you ask for a report by an “independent” panel to ensure that nothing sticks to you. The Manley Report on the future of our mission to Afghanistan is a political sidestep by the Prime Minister around the land mine that awaits him. Public support for the mission has been less than overwhelming and not likely to improve as deaths of soldiers are announced on a continuing basis.
First, the PM indicated that he would abide by the will of parliament on the question, providing an appearance of respect for the will of the people. Secondly, the composition of the committee was selected from those who would be sympathetic to his ultimate aim. The chair chosen was John Manley, a prominent liberal. This gave him the best of all worlds, the likelihood that a “non-partisan” report would provide favourable justification for his choice and the ability to paint opposing views as being out of step with the majority.
Reports normally use a chain of logic to justify the position that is taken and the Manley Report is no different. Where we start from determines our world view. A simple example illustrates – Today, Israel takes the view that rocket attacks on its land are unjustified and retaliates. The Palestinians view Israel as occupiers of their lands, and that Israeli helicopter gunships attacks are unjustified and retaliate. Looking back 60 years, the entire area belonged to Palestine and Israel didn’t exist. But looking back over 2000 years, a Jewish state did exist. Choosing different starting points for a report can lead to vastly different opinions and approaches to the problem.
The Manley report begins its story with September 11, 2001, but the history of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda didn’t start there. The story is more complex and there are questions to be answered. Is this fight a continuation of Afghanistan’s colonial past? If it is indeed a worthwhile venture, how might it be “won” or at least brought to a reasonable conclusion. If we are to commit money beyond the $6 billion and 78 lives already expended, perhaps we should look beyond the simplistic tale of John Manley to the history of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a land of war and assassination punctuated by peace and mismanagement. Some 31 million people of multiple ethnic groups and many languages live in an area slightly larger than Alberta. The modern country was formed in 1747 but experienced internal conflict for a large number of years in the late 1700’s and the 1800’s. There were also great conflicts with outside forces – Russia, England and Persia (Iran). Afghanistan loses territory to all three, but a bright note occurs in 1842 when the British are defeated with the massacre of over 16,000 soldiers. One survivor makes it back. In 1859, it becomes land locked when the British take Baluchistan and attach it to British India and eventually Pakistan.
A third Anglo-Afghan war in 1921 ends with the withdrawal of English troops. The early part of the 20th century is rife with changes of leaders and assassinations. The country remains neutral in WWII. In the 1950’s historical conflicts with Pakistan over borders cause problems with exporting for the landlocked country. This leads to an alternate trade route and foreign aid from the Soviet Union. A coup in 1973 ends the monarchy and a republic is formed. In the late 70’s, the CIA started funding of Islamic militants here as a way of countering Soviet influence and encouraging a Soviet invasion that is intended to become their “Vietnam”. The financing of Islamic fundamentalism has been part of American cold war strategy since the 1950’s, such as countering Nasser’s nationalism in Egypt. This occurs throughout the Middle East.
Another coup d’etat occurred in 1978. Mass assassinations of teachers and insurrections by Islamists lead to instability of the new communist government. The Soviets believing that the loss of their client state was imminent, invaded in 1979 killing President Amin in the presidential palace, and installed Babrak Karmal as their puppet.
The new government was no more successful in gaining popular support. Multi billion dollars of weapons and training were supplied to the resistance from the US and Saudi Arabia making the cost of the war to the Soviets higher than they deemed acceptable. Pakistan’s secret service (ISI) was the conduit for billions of dollars of arms sent to Afghanistan. The radical Islamists received most of the money and training support, with Bin Laden being one of the leaders to gain useful experience in organizing war and mayhem. A peace treaty was signed in 1988 and the inter-tribal civil war for control began.
As the Soviets withdraw, the funding from the US spirals downward and the country descends into civil war. In an interview given in 1998, Z. Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, was asked whether he regretted arming and training future terrorists, “What was more important in world history? The Taliban, or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few over-excited Islamists, or the liberation of Eastern Europe?”
In 1994, one of the mujahadeen factions called the Taliban (meaning “student”), led by Mullah Mohammed Omar became popular with its call for peace and unity to a war weary population. With the help of outside powers, they become the new “stability” everyone desires. The harsh nature of the new regime soon becomes evident. Poor Afghanistan, after almost 20 years of war and deprivation, is now rewarded with life in a prison.
Next article: The US and the Taliban do the tango.