Editorial: Afghanistan venture an exercise in futility

19:21, Jan 19 2014

Afganistan remains a dismal country after 12 years of Western occupation. A United Nations report finds that it is once again becoming a narco-state, with a huge rise in opium poppy cultivation. Corruption is rampant. The Karzai Government controls only a small part of the country. Torture is widely used. The Western intervention in Afghanistan, in which New Zealand played an important role, comes to a dismal end.

The invasion of the country after September 11 was justified and New Zealand was right to back it. The Taliban Government was sheltering Al Qaeda, the terrorist group which had committed the outrage in New York. The United States and its Western partners were justified in responding.

There were also idealistic reasons that attracted Western liberals. The treatment of women under the Taliban was truly appalling. Afghanistan was mired in a dark age of repression, terror and tyranny. The urge to bring democracy to this terrible state was a noble one.

But it has failed, and the West has no alternative but to leave. President Obama is now arguing with Karzai about leaving up to 10,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan after the main body is withdrawn before the end of the year. Karzai is stalling, complaining about killings by American troops. Many believe he wants to leave the final decision to whoever wins the presidential election in April.

All of this won't make much difference in the long run. The Taliban is likely to return to power, and democracy will not come to Afghanistan. It will continue to be a narco-state where power is held by warlords, religious fanatics and tribal mafiosi. The occupation of Afghanistan has shown that it is futile to try to impose democracy on failed states at the end of a gun. It is impossible.

The war in Afghanistan long ago became not a crusade against terrorism but a nasty civil war in a broken country that was no longer a serious threat to Western interests. Al Qaeda is no longer a serious presence in Afghanistan. A recent estimate put its forces at about 100.


The West got bogged down in a war where the official Government was weak, undemocratic and guilty of barbarous mistreatment of its prisoners. Official reports by the UN and many other respectable sources showed that torture is widely practised. The West could not avoid complicity in this, because its troops played an essential role in taking prisoners.

New Zealand could not avoid this complicity either. The Key Government claimed, as other Western governments did, that Afghan troops led the military actions which led to prisoners being taken. This meant the Afghans were responsible for handing prisoners over to be tortured, which is against the laws of war. But this was splitting hairs. In the chaos of war, the question of who "led" and which troops were merely "mentors", was academic.

The best that can now be hoped for in Afghanistan is that the eventual Taliban-led Government will not be quite as brutal and backward as the 2001 version. But it won't be a democracy.

The Dominion Post