Afghanistan shows how the West overestimates the appeal of its values

The idea that our way of life is so evidently superior is a bad mix of hubris and naivety

In the first half of 2009 I had the pleasure of completing my infantry officer’s course as a foreign student with the British army. I will always remember the boost in morale as we completed an arduous portion of the course in March that year. The relief of starting a less intense phase didn’t last long as the operational reality in Afghanistan reached into our course and into our small class groups.

A major operation called Panther’s Claw was due to commence that summer, and some of the young officers on my course would be deploying immediately after our training concluded. The atmosphere darkened and the look in young men’s eyes took on a focus I had never seen before, as one after another they would get calls from their home units to say they would be deploying to Afghanistan as soon as we were done.

I was home in Ireland one month when I got a message to say one of the lads in my section, a casualty who had been evacuated back to the UK after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Sangin, Helmand province. Visiting my friend and seeing the other young men in hospital who had been torn apart by war was one of the most sobering experiences of my life. The look in mothers’ eyes as they sat silently in corridors and at bedsides has stuck with me until this day.

Over the next year or so I went back over to the UK to visit another friend who was home on leave from another deployment. During our chats I learned that others from our 2009 training course had been killed or injured. I eventually asked what they were being told was the objective now. Ten years on since the September 11th attacks, what was the overarching intent in Afghanistan? Nation building, counter-narcotics, women’s liberation? My question did not go down well, so I let it be.


Superiority complex

“Inside every Vietnamese is an American, trying to break out.” With all the comparisons with Saigon this week, I was reminded of a scene from the great Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket. That line resonated with me for many years and grew louder after I saw the impact on my friends in Afghanistan and after I was deployed to train troops for another transitional government, to help hold the line against an Islamist Insurgency, namely Al Shabaab in Somalia. The niggling feeling in the back of my mind was that we, as western states and organisations, held an idea that our way of life, our system of government and society was so evidently superior, that the people we were dealing with were burgeoning members of the social democratic world order just waiting to break out of their shell.

The West may think of sanctions or not recognising the Taliban government. That may make us feel better, but it may have little impact

I was never entirely convinced about nation-building or even counter-insurgency and the more I witnessed the more I was convinced they are doomed to failure. Of course there are people within these societies who will align with western models, but to think that we can land into a country, rotate through in six- or 12-month intervals and fundamentally change how a culture has evolved always seemed to me to be an unbelievably bad mix of hubris and naivety. I say “we” here because I think it’s too easy to place the blame on just the US or its presidents. This is an issue the western world needs to address. We cannot lie to ourselves in thinking that we can engineer an entire society and we cannot lie to the people within those societies who think the West has the will to support them for as long as it takes.

Chinese approach

As Sun Tzu said, if ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril. We could learn from the great Chinese strategist, with an eye on his modern countrymen. I am not for a second calling China an enemy. I think in the very near future we are going to see an alternative strategy play out in Afghanistan and the wider region. The West may think of sanctions or not recognising the Taliban government. That may make us feel better, but it may have little impact. China’s Belt and Road Initiate may find its way through Afghanistan so that it can link up with the port it has built in Gwadar, Pakistan, a country that shares a border and tribal links with the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.

It's too hard to admit that all options are bad, and that we have overestimated ourselves and misunderstood the situation

If we assume that China will run into the same problems as the west in Afghanistan then we are assuming they will take the same approach. They will not. They will do business with the Taliban government as partners, with no preconditions or requirements for social change. China is very protective of how it manages its internal affairs, so it makes a point of not demanding internal change in others. I am not saying this is good or bad; it is simply the way it is. I advise anyone working in international affairs to stop thinking about what “should” happen, and instead assess what is happening and act accordingly based on what you want to achieve.

In the West and in Europe, we have an immediate issue to deal with and a longer-term one. We need to start planning for all the refugees that we can expect to come towards Europe. What we agree to do is a matter for policy makers, but we must plan, and quickly. We have no choice but to prepare. The longer-term issue is how will we deal with the Afghan collapse, also remembering the collapse of the US-trained military in Iraq in 2014 in the face of the Isis advance.

Talking heads will blame politicians, or military or intelligence services. The entire system gave a false picture, but mainly because it’s too hard to admit that all options are bad, and that we have overestimated ourselves and misunderstood the situation. As the West pulls back, we could use the time to assess how we engage with the world, even when we are dealing with those we find unsavoury. The Afghan campaign failed the taxpayers in the West (mainly Americans) who funded the whole operation, it failed the soldiers who died fighting for God knows what, and most tragically of all, it is failing the people of Afghanistan who believed in the whole project.