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1 July 2013

Afghanistan and Syria: Actually, it’s not all about us

You might not think that those in favour of the NATO-led intervention in Afghanistan have got much in common with those against it. One side sees it as a vital part of the 'war against terror', while the other side sees it as a war of neo-imperialist aggression – the ‘West versus the Rest’. However, the common link between these two interpretations is that we – meaning America, Britain and the other western nations – take the starring role (as hero or villain, depending on your point view).

But what if both sides are wrong? What if the Afghan conflict isn’t really about us at all?

In an extended essay for Brookings, William Dalrymple presents a very different perspective that we’d do very well to consider:

  • “The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.”

The local conflict emerges from Afghanistan’s ingrained ethnic and tribal rivalries:

  • Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.
  • “By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s.”

The local conflict is exacerbated by the regional conflict between India and Pakistan:

  • “...Pakistani [military] planners long ago developed a doctrine of ‘strategic depth.’ The idea had its origins in the debacle of 1971, when, in less than two weeks, India crushingly defeated Pakistan in their third war…”

The  Pakistani fear is that, in a fourth war, Indian forces could quickly take control of the Indus valley that makes up the bulk of Pakistan. Afghanistan, however, offers a fall-back position – from which to re-group and counter-attack:

  • “The porous border offers a route by which Pakistani leaders, troops and other assets, including its nuclear weapons, could retreat to the northwest in the case of an Indian invasion.
  • “For the idea to work, it is essential that the Afghan government be a close ally of Pakistan, and willing to help fight India.”

Dalrymple goes on to describe the interactions between the local and regional conflicts, which, while highly complex, beg a simple question: can the West intervene without globalising this mess?

We could ask the same thing about Syria, where again we see the intersection of a local conflict with a regional conflict, neither of which have much to do with us. 

In fact, in Syria’s case there is not one, but two regional conflicts.

The first and more immediate is the cold war between, on the one hand, Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and, on the other, their Shi’ite rivals  – principally Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies. The second of these regional conflicts is the re-emergence of the old rivalry between Turkey and Russia, who are backing opposite sides in Syria (just as they have in previous Caucasian and Balkan conflicts).

Like it or not, what we can see is evidence of an increasingly multipolar world. Even if we were willing and able to commit the military resources required to do so, we shouldn’t be be picking sides that we're not part of (and that aren't part of us). Rather the West should be promoting peace, both for our own sakes – and for those of the innocent civilians caught in the middle.


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