According to the UK’s new Chief of Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, speaking back in January, NATO can’t cut and run in Afghanistan because we can’t risk losing face in the developing world and “letting down” both the Afghan people and Pakistan. Sir Simon Jenkins, in an article in the Guardian today, rejects both arguments.
My feeling, based partly on the massive leak of relevant documents to Wikileaks, is that in this it is Sir Simon who is right.
I’ve never been to Afghanistan but I have been to twenty or so other countries where the cultural norm is to forge an agreement with polite, well-meaning Western visitors like me: we will make sure everything we say is positive, optimistic and flattering to you, honoured visitor, and you in return take what we say at face value. That way nobody gets hurt and the non-Western readiness to blur the line between those slippery concepts ‘truth’ and ‘untruths’ brought fully into play.
Thus, at a trade fair in Ethiopia once, I was shown an aircraft engine clearly marked Pratt & Whitney and was assured that it was made in (revolutionary marxist) Ethiopia. It became increasingly apparent that it was important for me to show them that I accepted this assertion; so in the end I did. All too often in my career people like this told me things they thought I wanted to hear or things they wanted me to believe about them (eg your car has arrived safely” or “we are a functioning democracy in this country”).
I cannot for one moment believe that the average Afghan would prefer NATO to stay. Whatever they say to us, however convincingly, they know a weightier truth: that their Pashtun-Tajik civil war goes on and they will have to deal with the leaders who emerge victorious at the end. As for Pakistan, an unstable nuclear power in contact with God knows whom in the tribal borderlands, is it of such threat to our interests that we have to privilege it so and thereby ignore 190-odd other countries? Where does liberal interventionism stop?
Cancel the aircraft carriers, Sir David, create a new inshore Navy ready to bar the coming waves of desperate boat people, give up Trident and the Eurofighters and set up a cyber corps to deal with the daily attacks on our online infrastructure. These are all touched on in your speech. And why not? They are part of our truth so let’s be realistic about defence. Leave the Afghans to their own devices. We have other things to worry about.