Afghanistan, David Cameron and the perils of bad history

Posted on September 7, 2011

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The political use of history, including bad history, has always interested me, and the way bad history can persuade a politician to make bad decisions. In his survey of the British Foreign Secretaryship, Douglas Hurd warns that the most dangerous form of ignorance ‘is that smidgeon of shallow knowledge which lacks any understanding of the characters or contexts of past decisions.’ Robert Dallek wrote an essay last November about how American foreign policy is influenced by a few historical morality tales which all presidents buy in to, dubbing it the ‘tyranny of metaphor’. My latest Egremont article, published on Monday, looks at the way in which one of the newest morality tales – the ‘abandonment’ of Afghanistan in the 1990s – influences David Cameron’s foreign policy.

I have been working on an expanded version of the article since I wrote it early last month and have come to realise a meta-flaw in using the abandonment of Afghanistan as the basis of a foreign policy doctrine. We are not going to see again the coming together of so many unique historical events in a random failed state which reproduces the Afghanistan of the 1990s and the threat it then became to the international community. The Early Warning System, which the British government has set up to look out for another Afghanistan scenario developing in the world, will be looking a long time for another Central Asian state whose leadership has been suffering from governance and legitimacy problems for decades and is then invaded by a Communist superpower, whose occupation is undermined by a religiously conservative military dictatorship across the border that provides support to Islamist resistance fighters, some of whom develop a close personal relationship with a rich Arab called Osama bin Laden, who later uses these ties to find sanctuary in that country and then launches a global jihad against the United States and its allies…

The point about the ties between Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen is, I think, especially important, because, as a recent report by the West Point Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) makes clear, it was the unique relationship between Osama and Jalaluddin Haqqani that was key to the early development of al-Qa’ida and in enabling them to launch jihad around the world – not that Afghanistan was a failed state c. 1992-2001.

Afghanistan is a fiendishly complicated issue that has been produced by world-historical events that are unlikely to be repeated anywhere in the world again. If we ignore the characters and contexts of those events and produce a general, misguided doctrine about failed states, then we are likely to find ourselves poorer and stuck in countries that are unfortunate, but strategically unimportant. That will prove costly to a government with dwindling resources in a time of austerity.