Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 07:39 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 07:39 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The language of defeat

15 June 2012 11:38

Gregory Collins, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, writes:

Raoul Heinrichs' piece on Afghanistan poses some interesting questions about the very nature of success. I accept most of his argument that Western states are not being realistic with themselves and their publics about the failures of Afghanistan. However, I believe that the argument he presents, and this may be a constraint of its brevity, gives no clear indication of what constitutes success/failure in winning a war.

I appreciate that in this blog post he wasn't able to expand on which of the 'any other measures' Afghanistan has been a complete disaster. But I wonder, what is the measurement that he is looking for? What is the language of a war won?

Heinrichs is correct when he says '"Transition" and "political solution" are two talking points we'll be hearing more of as the Afghanistan war ends'. He is correct because, for other than creating an empire and establishing permanent control of Afghanistan, there has to be 'transition' and a 'political solution'. Admittedly, any political solution is not winning, but then again, not achieving a political solution is also not 'winning' either. I therefore disagree that 'Transition becomes code for managing defeat'. Otherwise winning looks like owning a new vassal state in the formation of an empire. Without transition, you have empire.

In Clausewitz's time this rather binary and simplistic understanding of war and winning may have been applicable. However, in a liberal international order the notion of geographical empire has been somewhat de-legitimated. Transition to indigenous self-determination is the goal; the winning of the war.

In order to understand Henrichs' position I would like to know what exactly are strategic failures of the West in Afghanistan? Yes, the West has failed to create Switzerland in the Hindu Kush. But is anything less than this failure? Failure will unfortunately only present itself with the West's withdrawal. Failure may be seen as the collapse of Afghanistan into civil war, the return of the Taliban and the return of al-Qeada bases supporting international terrorism. An optimist (read: Western governments) would see that avoiding this outcome in Afghanistan would be 'success'. But this too is overly simplistic and self-deluding.

I would question that 'very little has been achieved, and certainly nothing commensurate with the costs'. Nation building is expensive. Unless Henrichs is able to point to a case in central Asia where it has been cheaper, then yes, this point can stand. Otherwise, the cost for rebuilding Afghanistan can only be commensurate with building a state like Afghanistan. Arguments of cost relativity need to be highlighted by illustrating 'relative to what?'

Heinrichs' piece is a welcome investigation into the notion of success in Afghanistan. However I am as sceptical of binary understandings of winning and losing as he is with the optimism of defining success and winning in modern wars.