Ten years of western occupation of Afghanistan led the UN this week to plead that half the country's drought-ridden provinces face winter starvation. The World Food Programme calls for £92m to be urgently dispatched. This is incredible. Afghanistan is the world's greatest recipient of aid, some $20bn in the past decade, plus a hundred times more in military spending. So much cash pours through its doors that $3m a day is said to leave Kabul airport corruptly to buy property in Dubai.I spent some effort looking at the issue of hunger in Afghanistan. You can read the full post here, but the short of it is that directly contrary to Simon Jenkins’s claim that “western occupation of Afghanistan” has led to starvation, wheat production (the central issue in Afghanistan’s food shortages) has never been as low since the 2001 defeat of the Taliban as it was before. This is despite drought, primitive agricultural practices, the absence of a viable milling industry, and the underfunding of the WFP. I hadn’t originally intended to spend so much effort on that one claim, but the subject is a serious one.
That earlier post also includes a passage from Terry Glavin’s excellent new book, Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan, to demonstrate why Simon Jenkins’s phrase “western occupation of Afghanistan” is the exact opposite of truth.
Now I’d like to go through the rest of the column. A lot of it is just abuse, which is pointless to argue with, but as well as looking for clear falsehoods like the ‘western occupation causes hunger’ claim, I’d like to clarify the argument behind the abuse and lies.
Here’s another lie to make clear that my use of the word isn’t just rhetoric: he writes of “the decade-long punishment of Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden.” To believe that the US or NATO has been punishing Afghanistan is to disbelieve the opinion of the majority of Afghans. The graph below is taken from the December 2010 ABC/BBC/ARD/Washington Post poll, Afghanistan: Where Things Stand (ABC story here and full PDF here) and it shows support for the presence of US forces amongst Afghans surveyed ranged between 78% and 62% in the years from 2006 to 2010.
The graph also shows satisfaction with US efforts dropping faster than support for their presence, suggesting that while the majority of Afghans want the US military presence, they also want them to do a better job. But for all the dissatisfaction, this is clearly not a nation that believes it is undergoing “punishment” by the US as Simon Jenkins claims.
Another Jenkins quote: “The demand that [Afghanistan] also abandons the habits of history and adopt democracy, capitalism and gender equality was imperial arrogance.” On capitalism, a 1999 article, The Life of a 102 year-old Afghan Entrepreneur: An Economic Perspective, by Mir Hekmatullah Sadat, gives an interesting view of 20th century developments in Afghan capitalism. On gender equality, the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan didn’t begin with the fall of the Taliban; here’s a short chronology. As for democracy, in every democratic country, the struggle for democracy has been a struggle against the habits of history.
And this, his opposition to democracy’s struggle against the habits of history, can be the key to unwrapping Simon Jenkins’s argument, and showing how perverse it is that he has become a resident favourite in the pages of The Guardian, supposedly a paper of the liberal left.
Simon Jenkins is on the side of of tradition against change, Tory against Whig, Lords against Commons, feudalism against democracy.
His anti-war argument is not the same as that of the anti-West anti-imperialist kitsch left, though it sounds it at times. His stand against British imperialism is rooted in nationalist isolationism rather than second-campism. He claims that the West’s Afghanistan policy will likely benefit “those who lost the cold war, Russia and China”. Similarly in a more recent column, Why is Britain ramping up sanctions against Iran? he writes that it seems as if “every utterance from Washington and London at present is scripted to bolster the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his insecure throne,” and laments that:
The attempt to set up pro-west regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan led the west to upset the balance of power established by the Iran-Iraq war and the Taliban-Pakistan regime in Kabul. Now the Iraq occupation has secured for Tehran unprecedented influence in Baghdad. Its influence also penetrates deep into western Afghanistan, and its support for resistance movements in the Gulf sheikhdoms is said to be growing by the year.Be very clear about what he’s saying in the quote above. He laments the loss of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and of Pakistan’s domination of Afghanistan via the Taliban, because these regimes helped contain Iran, a greater enemy in his view. This is the brutal talk of a right wing ‘Realist’ rather than a second campist hoping for the overthrow of Western hegemony. I don’t like the latter any more than the former, but I do find it extraordinary that The Guardian gives regular space to the kind of reactionary views I remember seeing in The Sunday Telegraph in the 1990s.
I’ll have mercy and stop there. If I can suppress the nausea, I might do a third post on the bigotry of Mr Jenkins, but I’m not promising.