Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Post-Afghanistan world, part 1

In keeping with the theme of my recent Remembrance Day and Afghanistan posts, I thought I might talk a little about what we might possibly, maybe do in the wake of that conflict. It helps to brush away the accumulated detritus of subsequent rationales for being there, and revisit the original immediate reason.

We can more or less agree that we went to Afghanistan because the Taliban government at the time harboured the man responsible for the events of 11 September 2001. Why we're still there is a little more complex, but at its heart we went because a small non-state terror group sheltering there used that country to launch a catastrophic attack on major western targets.

The clumsy emotionally driven response by the US and its allies resulted in an invasion and occupation of a state. [OK, two states, one of which really had no connection to 9/11, but satifisfied certain US preoccupations with oil and old grudges at losing friends.] On a certain level Afghanistan made sense and I, like a good many people, supported the original effort.

However, we now see that the original effort was misguided and misapplied. We're stuck in a quagmire and certifiable goofs like Stephen Harper and Airshow get a little too priapic for most people's comfort in keeping us there. To some degree it makes sense that we've got this sort of politician at this time, as this sort of big war against poor brown people appeals to those who buy into the ideas about biblical end times prophesies or philosophical arguments around civilisational clashes.

No western state with liberal internationalist tendencies had heretofore been attacked at such a scale by anything less than a state. It made sense that we'd respond as if we had been hit by a state, maybe because the idea that something so small as a evil yoda crazy rich dude in a cave could pack such a wallup. Of course, all big men in big states with big armies are big stupid in the same way - just look at who threw the British out of India.

Thus, what we we were missing were experientially derived guidelines - international legal frameworks and institutions - for dealing with major attacks by non-state terror groups. The advent of the machine gun, fighter and bomber aircraft, chemical weapons, and the sophistication of artillery science combined with great power alliances resulted in the unexpected slaughter of a generation we call the First World War. "Oops," thought the 'victors', "let's not try for a repeat." Of course they punished Germany hard, and instituted the failure of that was the League of Nations, which, combined with some nonsense in Japan and China, saw the Second World War happen. "Oops" again. Next thing you know we have the UN, peacekeeping, Cold War, codified human rights, etc and we largely avoid number three. Lots and lots of small wars, which in part came about as old colonial powers met mobilised colonised populations and lost and the neocolonial powers of the US and USSR attempted to make their mark and failed. Still, there were legal frameworks in place and military conflict followed a certain pattern of which the cause of the state was a key element. All this messiness operated at the state level either in the birth or destruction of a given state and often in the name of the broadly legitimate cause of indigenous self-determination. The UN was active, and a global ruleset existed to mediate some of these conflicts through mechanisms like Paris peace talks and the like.

And then, like Germany's rebellion against the victor's punishment that resulted in WW2, some marginalised people infused with god and pissed at being subject to the whims of the big neocolonial powers, flew some planes into some buildings.  They weren't trying to create a state (vague claims of Caliphates notwithstanding), they were striking back at what they saw as injustice wrought unto them by neoimperialism and needed a great cause to go from fringe to popular.

We of course failed to understand this at the political level, and thus our response failed and continues to fail. Our security insitutions weren't designed to combat this kind of threat. NATO? Formed to defend states by fighting Soviet armour punching through Europe, not poor people in dusty places on the other side of planet, not to build liberal states from nothing.  Article 5, the collective defence bit of the North Atlantic Treaty was engineered around state conflicts because NATO is engineered around state conflict. Afghanistan was a state, Al-Qaeda was there, ergo...

Likewise for the UN. You don't see any non-state reps sitting around the big room in New York. [It would be an interesting dynamic indeed if Karen or Pashtun, or even Haudenosaunee were sitting at the table voicing grievances.] The institution revolves around state interests because those are still code in the operating system we run on for war and peace. 

So, like the machine gun and the gas chamber and the atomic bomb, the advent of the super-terrorist, the fourth generation war, is a new phenomena in the international atmosphere. We fucked up WW1 and got another one, much worse, for our efforts, but so far have managed to figure out how to avoid a third. What we need to do is work out how do avoid, as we're often told by military intervention fans, a second 9/11.

Part 2 to follow soon.


Kim said...

Excellent commentary Boris, may I share? Looking forward to part two!

Boris said...

Thanks, Kim. Share away - it's the internets ;)