Afghanistan: The mistake was not going in, but not knowing why we were there

August 29, 2011

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The decision to go into Afghanistan was necessary as a kind of “acting out” to restore American national confidence and pride in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001, but it was done with little idea about what was to be achieved by it.

That was the claim of Jean MacKenzie, senior correspondent for GlobalPost and previously programme director for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in Kabul, about the decision of president George Bush to send troops into Afghanistan less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001.

"We had to go in, America had to kick ass because we had been attacked and we had to prove that we were big guys, and there was very little resistance to going in to Afghanistan, Afghanistan was a very convenient ass to kick, because it was not being really defended," said MacKenzie.

MacKenzie, who was taking part in a recent discussion titled: Counterinsurgency and the "War on Terror": Doomed to fail? agreed that America had to react to the terror attacks in New York and Washington. The problem was not the decision to intervene, but  the fact that it was done without a clear idea of what it would accomplish, she said:

"We didn’t need to go in with this open-ended brief of we’re going in there to get rid of al-Quaeda, now we’re going in there so that little girls can go to school and maybe we’re there so women don’t have to wear burqas and now we’re there, as Time magazine tells us, so that women’s noses are not cut off. Where does it stop? We needed to define our goals from the very beginning."

There was also a lack of clarity about who the enemy was, said MacKenzie, who claimed local groups could manipulate NATO or the International Security Assistance Force into fighting their battles by claiming their opponents were Taliban:

"We go into an area, like in Kunar, where two groups are fighting over logging rights – another gets close to us and says they are the Taliban. We start fighting them and they fight back and as soon as they do, they become an insurgency."

As a result of the lack of clarity the rhetoric about the US mission in Afghanistan had taken on a life of its own, MacKenzie argued:

"It’s a very broad statement but I think we are now fighting the Afghan people, the Afghan society. We say the Taliban stone women for adultery, the Taliban stone young couples, the Taliban throw acid in the faces of school children.

But in most of these cases, if you unravel it, it’s not the Taliban, it is the community that has done these things. So if we are fighting those manifestations of Afghan culture, we are not fighting the Taliban, we are fighting Afghan society, we are fighting a culture that we find noxious. That, I think, is quite a bit beyond our brief."

Ten years on, the mood in Afghanistan was one the “darkest despair”, said MacKenzie, adding that there is little trust on the ground in the ability of the Afghan forces to protect the people. In addition, things have gone "way beyond the point" when outside nations could impose anything on the country:

"There was a point at the beginning when there was a certain amount of hope and goodwill among Afghans, but I don’t feel it there any more," she said.

"The Afghans are more and more pessimistic, they have given up on their own government, how do you fight counterinsurgency when you have no legitimate government to partner with? How do we begin to do anything?

Yet the US is likely to leave Afghanistan with "honour and dignity in the strategic communications sense," said MacKenzie, who predicted that from now until the end of 2014 the US administration was going to be "busily engaged in painting a narrative of victory":

All that is required for us to have won is for the media to pack up and go home so there’s no focus on what’s actually happening and for us to redefine victory and to move the goalposts as it were."

Malte Roschinski, a security consultant, political analyst and author who reported from Afghanistan for AFP news agency, was also pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan and said he believed the best that the US could do was to "come up with a good PR strategy and hope for the next six months or so it’s going to stay fairly quiet".

"After that the media focus will have moved away from the country. There will be stories afterwards but the media works in cycles and public attention has just so much bandwidth anyway so it’s just going to be a PR exercise."