To answer that question, we need to first define who “we” are.
For that, let’s turn to Terry Glavin who recently penned an essay that spells out the "we".
This is not merely a "western" project. The countries that devised the Afghanistan Compact and the Bonn Agreement in the first place include several Islamic republics, along with western democracies. This is a United Nations mission, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan includes soldiers from such places as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. That's who "we" are.So then "we" are a UN force consisting of a smattering of non-Western sidekicks but buttressed primarily with Western power. “We” have sunk blood and treasure into Afghanistan, but to what effect? Judging by the growing scepticism and calls of “It can’t be done”, one might think that little, if anything, has been accomplished. Yet, if a measuring stick is applied, one that a historian might use, the progress in Afghanistan has been enormous.
Once again, Glavin sums it up:
Several million Afghans were refugees, wandering the far corners of the world or rotting in refugee camps. Roughly two million Afghans had already been slaughtered in the country's abattoir of war, and by the summer of 2001, five million Afghans were on the brink of starvation. In the northern provinces, people were reduced to eating grass and rats. Women were slaves. Music was banned. Even kite-flying was banned. The Taliban had shut down the UN's polio immunization program. Aid workers, foreign doctors and UN food program officials were routinely harassed and arrested on charges of spreading Christianity or consorting with Afghan women.Of interest to me then, is what are the implications if “we” abandon Afghanistan.
Eight years later, millions of girls are in school. The country has a constitutional government that reserves a quarter of its parliament to women. There are a dozen universities, several dozen newspapers, radio stations and television stations, and one in six Afghans owns a cellular phone. Five million refugees have returned. More than 80 per cent of the people have access to basic medical services. Almost all children have been immunized against polio and childhood diseases. The big debate in Afghanistan these days is whether the incumbent president, who was elected peacefully four years ago, has earned enough votes in a scandal-plagued run for a second term to avoid a runoff against his nearest rival.
First, let me point out that our entire endeavour in Afghanistan is very “un-Western”; it’s simply not the way our civilization has generally done things.
The West has a penchant for impatience in war that has given us the Western way of war. We seek decisive engagements where the enemy can be crushed. Victor Davis Hanson spells it out convincingly in Why The West Has Won. To the Western mind, there are better things to do than “build” nations from scratch or get bogged down in protracted dirty little wars. The Western way is focussed solely on getting things over as quickly as possible ... it was so with the Greeks and Romans ... and it is so with us. The result is that when faced with armed conflict, the West has always sought decisive and crushing confrontations which allowed its citizen to get back to focussing on wealth creation and individual pursuits.
Western warfare tends to be incredibly costly in lives and treasure as a result, and when non-Western forces seek war with the West it is best they avoid head-on confrontation. In modern parlance, we often hear the phrase “Go big, or go home” bandied about. It represents perfectly the Western Attitude; besides, how can one go about pursuing excess while simultaneously wasting money on Afghan schools?
A caveat of sorts must be applied, for there have of course been scores of asymmetrical wars fought by Western powers, but usually they involved the protecting of colonies; hence, the acquiring or buttressing of sources of wealth. Even there, however, Western interests sought decisive battles wherever possible.
As such, “we” have become tired of Afghanistan. “We”, want either a win or a loss; in fact, in many quarters a loss is viewed as better than a protracted win. This view is often couched in terms that bemoan the waste of soldier’s lives; yet this seemingly heartfelt point of view makes no sense. Those complaining know full well that Western professional armies are made up of volunteer soldiers who are chaffing at the chance to get into the fight. It’s logically impossible to be overcome with a desire to want them out in order to save their lives, while knowing full well that they want nothing more than to be in.
Perhaps we are faced with deeper cultural reasons for wanting out. Nation building is an expensive and icky task that clashes with our pursuit of wealth. Backwaters like Afghanistan have little to offer in terms of financial benefit for the West. The war is hard on the psyche ... after all, how can one enjoy a luxurious Western lifestyle while being jarred regularly by pictures of dead soldiers appearing in the news. It’d be better to simply turn off the switch and go back to life without terrorists, flag draped coffins, collapsing towers, and massive expenditures on irrigation systems and roads.
What are the implications then, of a loss in Afghanistan? What does it say about us if we give up, fail to build a nation from scratch, and allow a rag tag band of murderous barbarians to chase us out?
It means this: That the incredible military power of NATO, ISAF, and America, along with its collective economic might, couldn’t tame Afghanistan to the point that it became a functioning state, and the failure came about simply because the citizens of the West didn’t have the will to stick it out. The implications of that reality are staggering long term ... simply staggering. It means that the survival of our civilization in times of conflict rests only in our ability to utterly destroy an enemy ... his cities, economy, and people ... but not in assisting him in building a civil society. It means that the West is not willing to suffer long term but limited pain, in order to prevent potentially cataclysmic confrontations in the future. It means that the West would rather lay waste to a land, than raise it up. It means, that little has changed in several thousands years of Western dominance.
The implications for our foes are also profound. They can exist comfortably, knowing full well that as long as they don’t cross some magic line ... like bringing down two of the world’s tallest buildings, we will let them be. Our enemies have already figured out that they can become nuclear powers, can kill our soldiers using proxy forces, can meddle in our economies, can meddle in our domestic affairs, can fund political forces within our very borders, can meddle in the affairs of their neighbours, possibly even invade... and we will not lift a finger.
Sadly, the West may once again get its decisive conflict. My son, a serving Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, reminded me recently that we are in Afghanistan partially to avoid just that; a confrontation which will require us to take massive retaliation (think Iran) where Western might is turned against civilians in order to get at the villains. We’ve done it before. How sad, that our pursuit of decadence ( often masquerading as pursuit of health and happiness) just may be the cause of greater loss of life and destruction than anything we could envisage happening in Afghanistan today. It doesn’t take much to imagine the young men and women protesting the Mullah’s in Iran today being incinerated when the West or Israel take revenge for some future beastly crime perpetrated by Iran’s nuclear leadership.
Not only is our Western civilization one that seeks out decisive conflicts and avoids protracted ones, it is also a civilization that has time and again miscalculated and ended up in brutally bloody affairs simply because the price of vigilance was considered too high; and it was more important to live in ease at home, rather than deal with a barbarian while he was still a minor problem and far away on the frontier.