You might not think that those in favour of the NATO-led intervention in Afghanistan have got much in common with those against it. One side sees it as a vital part of the 'war against terror', while the other side sees it as a war of neo-imperialist aggression – the ‘West versus the Rest’. However, the common link between these two interpretations is that we – meaning America, Britain and the other western nations – take the starring role (as hero or villain, depending on your point view).
But what if both sides are wrong? What if the Afghan conflict isn’t really about us at all?
In an extended essay for Brookings, William Dalrymple presents a very different perspective that we’d do very well to consider:
The local conflict emerges from Afghanistan’s ingrained ethnic and tribal rivalries:
The local conflict is exacerbated by the regional conflict between India and Pakistan:
The Pakistani fear is that, in a fourth war, Indian forces could quickly take control of the Indus valley that makes up the bulk of Pakistan. Afghanistan, however, offers a fall-back position – from which to re-group and counter-attack:
Dalrymple goes on to describe the interactions between the local and regional conflicts, which, while highly complex, beg a simple question: can the West intervene without globalising this mess?
We could ask the same thing about Syria, where again we see the intersection of a local conflict with a regional conflict, neither of which have much to do with us.
In fact, in Syria’s case there is not one, but two regional conflicts.
The first and more immediate is the cold war between, on the one hand, Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and, on the other, their Shi’ite rivals – principally Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies. The second of these regional conflicts is the re-emergence of the old rivalry between Turkey and Russia, who are backing opposite sides in Syria (just as they have in previous Caucasian and Balkan conflicts).
Like it or not, what we can see is evidence of an increasingly multipolar world. Even if we were willing and able to commit the military resources required to do so, we shouldn’t be be picking sides that we're not part of (and that aren't part of us). Rather the West should be promoting peace, both for our own sakes – and for those of the innocent civilians caught in the middle.