Max Hastings has said it for the UK’s role in Afghanistan, and Richard Haas much the same for the U.S. in the Middle East. Both engagements were undertaken as treatment for an identifiable condition, but with scant attention given to what should happen after the operation ended.
Armed intervention is similar to medicine. Action is often taken when a problem is identified. But in order to lessen the likelihood of the need for further intervention, political and economic measures are required. Both Hastings and Haas stress that neither the UK, the US nor their allies paid enough attention to what happens after the fighting stops. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, withdrawal of troops has resulted in a return to economic and political instability.
The political problem is similar to the case of obesity. Treatment occurs after obesity has become a problem. What is needed is for people to pursue a diet which discourages the onset of obesity. When I ask my doctor what I should do to remain healthy, she says avoid becoming diabetic. Once diabetes takes hold there is little that can be done and the various health systems begin to close down. Game,set and match, its all over.
In political terms, there is the state or conditions which prevail at the time conflict arises, while actions taking place before and after intervention account for the process leading to a new set of circumsatances.The UK with some Canadian help intervened in Afghanistan and the U.S. in Iraq after certain conditions had evolved.The health of these two countries had deteriorated over previous years and there is not much outsiders could have done about it once it happened. After intervention occurred, as Hastings and Haas argue, little or no attention was given to how the countries would be managed to ensure future security. In both cases that is now absent. There is no adequate economic and political health plan and in the future the countries will experience the political and economic equivalent of obesity and/or diabetes.
There was a different time. At the end of WW2, the Marshall Plan of financial aid was offered by the US to the war torn countries of Europe in the form of grants and loans. The amount was $17bn ($160bn in today’s terms). It was also offered to and refused by the USSR and its allies. Marshall Aid, later combined with the evolution of various European institutional arrangements helped restore these countries to postwar economic and political health. So far it has been a good news story, although not without setbacks.This period of seventy years contrasts with twenty years between the two world wars.
Contrast Marshal Aid with WW1, when the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty imposed harsh reparations, especially supported by France, which could not be repaid without causing political instability in Germany and its allies. Keynes warned of this in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written after he resigned from the UK Treasury in 1919 and retired to Cambridge. Twenty years later WW2 broke out and fighting resumed. The moral of this sad tale is that if you don’t take care of your political and economic health when you are fit or recovering, the future is not promising. That is the advice of Hastings and Haas.
With the withdrawal of British and other forces, Afghanistan has retreated to the tribal society it has always been, with a thriving opium backed economy. Thomas Dalrymple in Return of a King recounts the three times between 1839 and 1919 when the British invaded Afghanistan and were repulsed. In the late 1970s, the Russians tried and failed. A Russian general gleefully told Hastings that the British were making exactly the same mistakes which the Russians had made.In addition the US armed those Afghans opposing the Russians These Afghani are now causing problems for the west in the Middle East.
US withdrawal from Iraq today is being made with declarations that the Iraqi army is capable of keeping the peace between Sunni, Shia and Kurds and now the ISIL forces and those groups fighting in Syria. Matthew Fisher, a Canadian correspondent on the ground reporting on the troops in the Middle East describes the state of the Iraq forces and the Peshmurga. His is not the confidential assessment given by US and other politicians who watch the action from afar. The fire they face in Washington and Ottawa is not the same as that faced by those in Khobani.
If there is a moral to this story, it is that you cannot conduct war without planning for peace and working hard to maintain it. The past 100 years bears testament to this, probably the past 200 years and beyond. In Canada, it is not really helpful to argue over whether a killer is a terrorist or a criminal when you may be watching a replay of the Crusades, lasting over two hundred years from around 1100 AD which pitted Christians against Muslims.Planning for religious peace remains a challenge but needs discussion.