Notes From the Margins…

Dan Hodges Wins the Afghan War

  • March 18, 2014
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The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges has offered his readers some spectacularly dumb reflections on  the British contribution to the Afghan war.  It would be more accurate to describe   Hodges’s column as a collection of words thrown together and arranged into sentences rather than thoughts, since there is little evidence of thinking at all in this crass piece of war propaganda from the New Statesman’s former ‘Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest.’

The good news, from the point of view of those who sent British troops into Helmand province in 2006, and those who want to see more ‘adventures’ like this is that the withdrawal of British troops this year doesn’t mean that the Afghan War was a failure.   In fact,   Hodges happily informs his readers, it was a spectacular success.

The bad news is that there is likely to be a lot more of this kind of fact-free, parallel-world wishful thinking as the troops come home, by a British establishment that never admits that its wars have failed and cannot stop plotting new ones.    For these reasons it’s worth looking at Hodges’ reasoning, such as it is, in a little more detail.

Hodges rejects the suggestion that Afghanistan has ‘been now seen as a failure. Militarily. Morally. Politically and accompanies this assertion with the usual Cohen-ite/Aaronovichian dig at the ‘pacifist Left and isolationist Right’ that has a contrary view.   After dismissing the nation-building/democracy building/women’s rights justifications for the war, he reminds his readers that:

We were there because Afghanistan attacked us. Or at least, because Afghanistan was used as a staging base for an  attack on us. Three thousand dead in a single morning. The citizens of 60 countries; men, women and children. Murdered in cold blood. Crushed. Burnt. Stabbed. Suffocated. Forced to jump to their deaths while we watched them die live on television. They are why we went to Afghanistan.

They are why we went to Afghanistan. We went because, long before Fallujah and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Afghanistan had become a sanctuary for people who wanted to murder each and every one of us in our beds. And who under the benign eye of their Taliban protectors were acquiring the means and methods to do so.

Thanks to the NATO invasion and occupation, they can’t, because

Bin Laden is dead. His network has been smashed. The umbilical chord between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been severed. Unfashionable though it may be to point it out, these are also the products of our Afghanistan ‘failure’..

There is a lot wrong with this.     First of all, ‘Afghanistan’ did not attack ‘us.’     19 hijackers carried out the 9/11 attacks, who were as connected to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as they were to Afghanistan.   Most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, some of whose origins have never been fully clarified or investigated, because the Bush administration refused to investigate them.   Following Hodges’ logic, ‘we’ should have attacked Pakistan and Saudi Arabia too.

And perhaps we should have bombed Dublin and invaded Ireland when the IRA started carrying out attacks on the British mainland, and Spain should have attacked France because ETA used the French Basque Country as a refuge/rearguard weapons depot.

In addition,  there is no credible evidence that the Taliban were acting as the ‘protectors’ of the Bin Laden network, let alone that they were aware of the planning for the attacks.  Mot of these preparations took place in Europe and the United States anyway.

Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s An Enemy We Created: the Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010, make it clear that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was actually quite problematic, and certainly bore little resemblance to Hodges’ indictment.

Had the US taken the trouble to analyse that relationship, then it might conceivably have induced the Taliban to give up Bin Laden and close down the jihadist camps in Afghanistan – camps that were largely filled not with al-Qaeda terrorists, but with members of an international jihadist movement that ‘we’ had once supported.

Had that happened, then some 20,000 Afghan civilians would not have died, and nor would the British, American, and multinational soldiers who invaded and occupied the country and helped install a warlord/puppet government that has so little credibility with the Afghan people that it is only in power through rigged elections.

As far as the removal   of the Bin Laden network was concerned, that objective was already achieved by the spring of 2002 – even though it was undermined by the collusion of Pakistan – a nominal US ally – which allowed Bin Laden and other key AQ members to escape Afghanistan.

The British deployment in Helmand in 2006 had very little to do with al Qaeda, but with the reconstructed Taliban.   It was supposedly intended to deliver reconstruction, governance and security, as part of Nato’s ‘nation-building’ program.  In practice, according to a senior British intelligence officer in 2009,  it has been a bloody failure, whose   ‘hearts and minds’ efforts have generated the ‘opposite effect’ and resulted in a massive boom in opium production in the province.

In 2012, the US army officer Colonel Daniel Davis made very similar observations in his searing account of US military failure in Afghanistan Dereliction of Duty.   Hodges does not seem to be aware of any of this, and doesn’t seem to care, in his eagerness to offer Telegraph readers a happy ending and a feelgood narrative.

Like others who have made similar arguments about al Qaeda’s ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan, Hodges entirely fails to appreciate that a network/movement like al Qaeda does not, and never has, needed Afghanistan to further its agenda.

It doesn’t even need Bin Laden – despite his undoubted skills as a propagandist.   Such movements draw their strength and their ’cause’  from the mistakes of their enemies, and the US has made a lot of mistakes in the last thirteen years.

The war in Afghanistan was one of the more egregious examples,  and its failure has helped AQ to grow and expand and find its way into countries where it previously had no presence.   As Patrick Cockburn argued in the Independent yesterday,

The US has spent billions of dollars on its “war on terror” to counter the threat and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden three years ago. And yet al-Qa’ida-type groups are arguably stronger than ever now, especially in Syria and Iraq where they control an area the size of Britain, but also in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond.

Cockburn, unlike Hodges, is a real journalist who actually goes to the places he writes about and informs his reportage with a real knowledge of history.

It can only be hoped that his views, and not those of the ‘Blairite cuckoo’ are taken on board. Because it’s often been said that those who cannot learn from the mistake of history are doomed to repeat them, and on the strength of this outing, Hodges shows no evidence that he is capable of understanding them at all.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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