Sweden's war in Afghanistan

המדיניות השוודית באפגניסטאן

Published in The Local – Sweden's news in English, December 2010 http://www.thelocal.se/30858/20101215/


One of those catchy phrases about foreign policy is the one in which Winston Churchill explains why he cannot forecast Russia's actions. "It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", he said. Churchill knew what he was talking about, foreign policy can be complicated, and the war in Afghanistan is a perfect example. 

First, the conflict's history is long and full of twists and turns. Second, it's a war and like any other war it's a matter of life and death, which makes it an urgent moral issue, not just an abstract geopolitical one. Third, the story is told differently by different spectators, each holding a different narrative. The participants themselves meanwhile frequently say one thing while doing another, creating policy drowning in hidden interests and secret dealings. In fact, the dealings around the war in Afghanistan have turned out to be a war in itself, what a Frontline documentary called a war behind closed doors.

Afghanistan, which has been in a state of war or civil conflict since its ancient history, has seen many great powers fighting over it, from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the modern British, Soviet and American empires. The current war started just months after 9/11 when a combined US and British military attack toppled the Taliban regime which supported Al-Qaeda. An Afghan anti-Taliban front then created a local government and an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was subsequently formed by the UN to secure Kabul. ISAF is now led by NATO and Sweden is one of over 40 countries who is part of it.

Despite ISAF's successes there are many who now claim that it's fighting a losing battle and that the war in Afghanistan can't be won. According to American journalist Bob Woodward even president Obama is sceptical. "I'm not doing 10 years" he supposedly told Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I'm not spending a trillion dollars".

With these doubts and with more and more ISAF member countries planning exit strategies, what is the wider context of Sweden's new wide political agreement on a an Afghanistan strategy shift, changing the military's mission from actively fighting insurgents to training and supporting local forces?

First, it's worthwhile taking a look at the two parties opposing the government's proposal. Though both the left-wing Vänsterpartiet and the Sweden-Democrats can agree the Taliban is a fundamentalist war-mongering movement, they want the troops home earlier than 2014. The Sweden Democrats don't prioritize solving problems far away from home, and Vänsterpartiet won't support any kind of military strategy.

This should be seen in context. It's an ongoing debate if the west should be responsible for imposing freedom and democracy on the rest of the world. On the one hand, there are doctrines of using economic and military power to export democracy, liberalism and human-rights. The shortcomings of these doctrines are obvious – their disciples tend to choose targets according to their own self-interests, they almost always invest more in short-term force than in long-term education, infrastructure and civil service and often they make the situation worse than it was in the first place.

On the other hand there are those who reject any attempt to meddle in the affairs of others. Who are we to decide what's right and wrong? they say, why should we impose our values on others? Perhaps the most telling argument against this political moral relativism is that if it had been implemented in the 1940s it would not have allowed the war against Hitler. Taking this argument further, it may have been these attitudes that made concentration camps and genocide possible in the first place, since it was precisely the disappearance of clear definitions of good and evil that led the way to politics of strong and weak and ethics of superior and inferior. If you can't define evil, you can't fight it, you just ignore it.

Swedish decision makers are somewhere between these arguments. Most of them agree that the Taliban is evil and I assume all of them know that back in 2001 the Taliban wasn't going anywhere without military intervention. The Sweden Democrat's position is therefore somewhat self-centered and indifferent. Vänsterpartiet's attitude, on the other hand, lacks a basic ingredient – the civilian aid it speaks of could never reach Taliban-led Afghanistan without an invasion. Take away the support for an invasion, and your policy becomes either naïve or complacent.

The government's position and new strategy is, I think, more morally balanced. But in the real world moral debates are usually a disguise for other motives. It all goes back to the post 9/11 conflict within the Bush administration which ended up adding a war in Iraq to a relatively limited and reasonable reaction focusing on the actual terrorists and their hosts in Afghanistan.

The two-front war which shook an all ready trouble-ridden region, inevitably created political and social instability. This instability had many effects. When the part of the world which produces so much oil is in flames, for example, prices rise. That may be bad for car owners in suburban Stockholm but it's great if you're selling oil and even better if you're making money from the financial difficulties of industrial heavy oil users.

Though blaming greedy generals and over-eager military establishments is common practice, it's men in suits, not in uniform, who have hidden interests. There are many, in official offices and financial institutions rather than army HQs, whose livelihood or political aspirations depend on instability – advocates of nuclear weapons for example, opponents of regional peace negotiations and your usual suspects of international lenders, financial speculators, drug and arm dealers and money launderers.

So should Swedish politicians avoid destabilizing wars a long way from home all together? The answer, I think, is no. Once a war has started, the worst scenario for an occupied nation is a premature withdrawal which leaves it no chance of rebuilding. Take Iraq for example, even if the war was originally based on lies and deception, now that the old regime is gone and the country still isn't stabilized, the international community must take responsibility and help build a modern and stable Iraq.

This is also true for Afghanistan where the war made much more sense in the first place. Some in Islamabad, Tehran and even Washington and London have everything to gain from the chaos, but for most Afghans it's just a prolonged nightmare.

So it's no use obsessing about final dates. It's more important to create a situation which allows a safe home-coming for Swedish troops while not leaving Afghanistan in ruins. How is this done? As far as the military aspect goes it'll probably be wise to focus less on killing insurgents and more on protecting local populations while taking every possible measure to avoid civilian casualties. Politically, investments must be made in Afghanistan's industry and welfare and a wide international front must strengthen all branches of the local government and take tough measures against international actors supporting destabilizing forces.

Ultra-modern, super-organized, secular Sweden is a long way from Afghanistan. Stockholm's government offices and TV studios are safe; they're surrounded by prosperity and while the debate commences in parliament, first signs of Christmas decorations are popping up all over town. It's so easy to forget what it's all about. It's not about Lars Ohly's political loneliness or about Aliansen's brilliant parliamentary tactics. It's about one of the richest countries in the world participating in an international force in one of its poorest. It's about trying to make real people's lives better while other forces are cynically exploiting them. If Sweden can do this, its years of involvement in Afghanistan, I think, may both be valuable and as most people hope, soon be over.


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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