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Afghanistan is often termed “the graveyard of empires” and, the problem is, the cliché is absolutely and unequivocally true.
In an attempt to overthrow the leaders and install their own dictators of choice, the British invaded and were defeated twice, lead by William Elphinstone in 1839 and Frederick Roberts 1878. The Soviets invaded in 1978 and were defeated by the US-backed Mujahedeen, some of whom are now members of the Taliban, resulting in the deaths of two million Afghans and fourteen thousand Soviets.
We have largely forgotten about these wars, they are old remnants on the dusty pages of history. But the Afghans haven’t forgotten, the Afghans never forget. As the Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk states, we always come into the Middle East with our Abrams tanks, our Apache helicopters and our F16 fighter jets. We come with our grand promises of freedom and liberty. And every single time we manage to deliver so little. But we hardly ever enter with our doctors, teachers, and social workers; the people of the Middle East would prefer the latter I think.
It is the very nature of modern warfare that leads to the destruction of infrastructure, and “collateral damage” – a technical term referring to the death of civilians; history tells us that we cannot win in Afghanistan by force of arms, and we can see the evidence for this empirically. The Pakistani offensive on the Taliban in south West Pakistan which boarders Afghanistan in June 2009 code-named Operation Path to Salvation lead to the displacement of two million civilians and the death of two hundred soldiers. What did it achieve in the long run? Nothing. The Taliban simply decided to withdraw from the area and go into hibernation. And when the troops left, the Taliban regrouped and heavily recruited more members – those who had lost their homes and livelihood through bombardment. For every civilian killed in this war, the motive to seek revenge increases tenfold. There is a reason behind why we keep sending more combat troops to Afghanistan, ten years of war has not made the Taliban weaker, it has made them stronger and more determined.
Traveling through the bustling city of Karachi, with its military checkpoints and cramped narrow alleys ways, I found myself reading the same graffiti scribbled over signposts, bridges and barracks: “save education, save Pakistan.” I did not need an explanation as to why the city was littered with this phrase. Pakistan is a country in which radicalization is becoming rife, as US drones bombard Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the “collateral damage” steadily increases, and with it so does the thirst for revenge. The Taliban target those who have been inflicted with this injustice, and these are often the poor, illiterate and needy of its society. The Taliban is not just a militant organisation; it is a perpetuating ideology that is fuelled by injustice and vulnerability. The only way to defeat the Taliban is to end combat operations and to educate those who are most vulnerable to indoctrination. We need to have more focus on rebuilding infrastructure and allocating resources so that the civilian population can itself improve its stability through productive means.
The conservative society of Afghanistan is very different to ours, their values and customs are alien to us and we must recognize this fact. The attitudes towards the role of women, for example, will only change if they themselves wish to change. The Turkish population of the Ottoman Islamic empire radically changed its views during the 20th century when Kemal Ataturk led the transition for Turkish independence; the new state that was established was built upon modern secular principals. The cultural fabric of their society is now radically different to the Ottoman era; there is much greater freedom for women, economic growth and stability. How did Ataturk revolutionize Turkey, once the heart of the Islamic empire, into a secular state?
“Today, our most important and most productive task is the national education affairs. We have to be successful in national education affairs and we shall be. The liberation of a nation is only achieved through this way.”
We always lose in Afghanistan because both our aims and strategies are deeply flawed and do not serve our national security interests. If we continue with our current strategy, terrorism will not be eliminated, it will be exacerbated.