Afghanistan: the Great Name Game

February 10, 2009

Afghanistan is beginning to accumulate cliches. If it’s not “Obama’s Vietnam”, then it’s the “graveyard of empires”.  (The British press, never one to be bamboozled by the big picture, says it’s the end of bully beef for the troops.)

It is perhaps a measure of how little people really know about Afghanistan after more than seven years of war that such a complex conflict has to be simplified into labels.  Afghanistan’s history of defeating the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th century certainly lends itself to dramatic comparisons. But they are not entirely accurate. Britain’s failed Afghan campaign in 1838 was not the graveyard of the British empire — it went on to defeat the Sikhs and rule India for another 100 years.  And the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 may simply have accompanied rather than precipitated the collapse of an empire that had been rotting from within years before Soviet troops reached Kabul. 

What the 19th century British and the Soviets had in common was in the extent to which Afghans did not want them there. And that’s where the comparisons become not only inaccurate, but potentially misleading.

According to this BBC survey  of more than 1,500 Afghans carried out in all of the country’s 34 provinces, 63 percent support the presence of U.S. forces. That is down from 71 percent in 2007, reflecting uncertainty about where the country is headed and resentment about civilian casualties in U.S. air strikes, but still a sizeable majority.  The survey also shows that the public is still very much opposed to the Taliban, with 58 percent judging them to be the biggest threat to the country.

If the survey is accurate (a difficult challenge in a country at war), then you have to wonder where the wishes of the Afghan people fit into the new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan ordered up by President Barack Obama.  Much of the discussion recently has been on what the war in Afghanistan will mean for the United States. But what will U.S. success or failure mean for the Afghan people?

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