Afghanistan: the dog that still doesn’t bark in the night

It’s extraordinary that the national political discourse isn’t dominated by the war in Afghanistan.  We have been engulfed in it for nine years already and almost every bulletin brings news of yet more deaths of young British men and women — not to mention the far more numerous deaths of innocent Afghan men, women and children at our and our allies’ hands.  As soon as any of our leaders tries to define our current objectives in Afghanistan, it’s instantly obvious that none of them makes any sense, and that there’s not the remotest prospect of achieving them, however long we continue the war.  If al-Qaeda is to be prevented from re-establishing its terrorist training camps and anti-western terrorism planning from a safe haven in Afghanistan, which was the perfectly proper original intention of the western intervention there after 9/11, it must be obvious that the Taliban must be persuaded that the rewards for keeping al-Qaeda out will be greater than the rewards for letting al-Qaeda back in.  Equally obviously, we’re unlikely to persuade the Taliban of this by killing them and burning their crops, filling their country with unwelcome foreign troops, and throwing all our support behind corrupt warlords and their principal cheerleader in Kabul.  A resumed Taliban régime would be deeply unsavoury, especially for women and girls, harsh and illiberal: but the only people who can decide between the Taliban and the warlords — or perhaps some day a third and more democratic option — are the Afghans themselves, and our military interference in their choice can only be counter-productive.

So why, when these are all statements of the painfully obvious, are the streets of Britain not seething with anti-war protestors, and our MPs not bombarded with angry demands to bring it all to an end, not in another five years’ time as David Cameron now seems to be half-promising, but starting now? The streets of Wootton Bassett are filled not with angry protestors but with silent weeping mourners as the coffins of our slaughtered servicemen are slowly driven past, day after day after day, and the hospitals and rehabilitation units are filled with the terribly wounded and maimed victims of the war, bodies broken and young lives wrecked in a cause that hardly anyone can credibly define.

But perhaps the prospects are not all black. I think the media missed the most significant remark by the prime minister in his comments on Afghanistan from the G8 meeting in Canada.  “Troops out by 2015, says Cameron” was the Guardian’s lead story’s headline on 26 June 2010, with the subheading: “Prime minister wants forces to leave Afghanistan before next election”.   The rest of the mainstream media focused on the same remark.  But they also reported, without apparently recognising its significance, what the prime minister went on to say:

We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.”  Cameron said: “I want us to roll up our sleeves and get on with delivering what will bring the success we want, which is not a perfect Afghanistan, but some stability in Afghanistan and the ability for the Afghans themselves to run their country, so they [British troops] can come home.” (Emphasis added.)

Both Cameron and especially the defence secretary, Liam Fox, have already sent out much more sceptical signals about the purposes and prospects for ‘success’ in the Afghan conflict than anything hinted at by their Labour predecessors.  The present government’s ambitions appear much less ambitious and therefore far more realistic.  Of course Cameron has had to take care not to open up a public rift with the Americans just as he was about to have his first face-to-face bilateral meeting with President Obama.  But the UK’s and the Americans’ options and commitments are very different.  If British troops were to be withdrawn in a planned and phased withdrawal, to be completed by the end of this year, that would not precipitate the collapse of the whole US-led NATO operation in Afghanistan in the way that an American military withdrawal would be bound to do.  Given enough advance warning of our withdrawal, NATO could replace British forces by contributions from other NATO member countries which have either not taken part in the military operation at all hitherto, or which have not contributed anything like as much as Britain in the past nine long years.  If no other NATO members could be found to volunteer to take Britain’s place, that would send an important political message of which NATO and Washington would have to take proper account.  It might result in a major shift of emphasis from the military to the diplomatic, political and developmental dimensions of the international effort.  There would be every reason for Britain to redouble its diplomatic, political and developmental contribution to a solution of the problem while withdrawing every last British soldier in as short a time frame as logistics permit.

So why are we not acting accordingly?

Our political leaders are, I think, inhibited by two fears, neither of which can possibly justify a single additional death or maiming of another British soldier.

The first is the fear that our withdrawal will be interpreted as a failure, and a defeat for British arms.  But it need not be so.  Britain has been second only to the Americans in the size and effectiveness of our contribution to the war over nine years, and in the cost of it in blood and treasure.  It can reasonably credibly be claimed that our war effort has real and tangible achievements to its credit:  al-Qaeda’s presence and power virtually eliminated, Taliban control of towns and villages removed and girls’ schools reopened, social development schemes instigated and funded under British military protection, Afghans given political options denied to them in the years before 9/11 and the arrival of NATO forces.  British forces have not been defeated: they have made their contribution to the progress made, and after nine years it’s time for others to replace us and also for political, diplomatic and social priorities to replace the military effort in pride of place.

The second inhibiting fear is that our British dead and maimed and their stricken families will seem to have suffered in vain if we withdraw before we can make any meaningful claim of ‘victory’.  But here again, we can justify withdrawal by reference to the progress made in Afghanistan during our nine-year military presence, progress that would not have been possible without a military effort which has been costly but indispensable in progressively removing a major threat posed by al-Qaeda’s Afghan activities to Britain’s and the western world’s security.  There’s also the point that if we wait for a recognisable ‘victory’ before we bring our troops home, they will be there for ever;  sooner or later we’ll have to face the reality that there will be no such thing as an outright demonstrable ‘victory’ and that to go on leaking the blood of our young men and women while we wait for a chimera, the waste will be unforgiveable.

These claims of sufficient success in improving the situation in Afghanistan to justify our military withdrawal now will of course be hotly disputed.  Those forced to make them won’t all sincerely believe in them.  Not all the bereaved and maimed will be altogether consoled by them.  To many they will appear no better than a fig-leaf.  But what’s the realistic alternative?  If we struggle on for another four or five years, how will we be any better able to justify our withdrawal then, after what will then be nearly 15 years of war and loss?  It’s a cliché to remark that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.  But it’s a useful truth.  It looks as if Cameron and Fox understand it.  But they need the help of public opinion and of the chattering classes and of the enlightened media in creating a climate of opinion in which they can begin the process of military withdrawal without being accused of admitting defeat, or of causing the bereaved and maimed to feel that their suffering was all for nothing.  Which of the candidates for the Labour party leadership is going to come out loud and clear for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2010 with heads held high and a wave of national pride in what our boys have achieved?

We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.”  If David Cameron can say that, why can’t the Milibrothers, the other Ed, Diane[1] or the other Andy — not Murray — say it too, and draw the logical conclusion from it even more boldly?  Meanwhile the slaughter in Afghanistan continues, with hardly a peep of protest at home apart from routine muttering from the usual suspects.  A 2.5% rise in VAT looms much larger.  Our deadly, unwinnable war is truly the dog that still doesn’t bark in the night.

[1] Actually Diane Abbott has got this right, as she has so many other things right:  “I would tackle the deficit by coming out of Afghanistan, slashing the defence budget and scrapping Trident.” (Candidates’ answers to questionnaire, The Observer, 27 June 2010)  Make it the centrepiece of your campaign, Diane: now that England’s out of the world cup, perhaps people will sit up and take notice.


6 Responses

  1. ObiterJp says:

    Dear Brian
    I concur with much of what you say.  We have been there 9 years – 3 years longer than World War 2.  The reasons for going there were never adequately articulated by the Blair government and the Brown government never bothered to explain them properly either.  Reasons differed from “the war on terror” to getting drugs off British streets (as if) to restoring democracy in Afghanistan.   Whilst casualties remained low – (fewer IEDs in the early days) – the British public were not too worried about it.  After all, we are inured to British governments playing world policeman.  It’s what British governments seem to have always done – a finger in every conflict anywhere on the globe.
    Perhaps, I don’t know for sure, the real reason for Afghanistan is (a) the American need to surround Iran and (b) the fact that there is enormous untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan.  As we are seeing over Deep Horizon, the USA is a greedy country willing to use its military muscle to get is own way.
    Our withdrawal would definitely cause a rift with the USA.  Personally, I don’t think there is a “special relationship” worth bothering about.  However, I doubt that other countries in NATO would “step up to the plate” and replace our troops.  Most are not that daft.  Nevertheless, we should withdraw.  Quite simply, our country cannot afford to be there either in terms of losing our best young people or financially.
    “War” is always easy to get into and hard to get out of.  Politicians need to “save face” and the as the deaths mount they have to be justified.  You have argued well that there is justification in what Britain has achieved there though some detailed positive examples would help.
    Has the al-Qaeda threat been removed?  I am doubtful.  It is a threat that will never face anyone on a battlefield.  They operate in numerous places and in considerable secrecy.  They cannot be eradicated by military means and they know it.
    Interestingly, Cameron has demanded that the public support the Armed Forces.  Actually, they do in general.  What the public dislikes are politicians using the Forces to enhance their own grandstanding on the world stage.  Cameron was wise not to give any precise date for UK exit from Afghanistan but it cannot and must not in any circumstances exceed that of the USA which I think announced troop withdrawals from 2011.  Given this sort of uncertainty, the Taliban know that all they need to do is hang on.
    As for the Labour Party – perhaps the least said soonest mended.  The most likely leader to emerge is David Miliband and, as far as I can see, he is tarred with the Labour government’s strategy over Afghanistan.
    In short – let’s get out and stay out!

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree with virtually everything you say, except that I’m not convinced that our early departure, if skilfully handled, would necessarily cause a serious rift with the Americans. President Obama has been more specific than any British government about his preferred timetable for withdrawal of American troops, which will be far more traumatic than ours could ever be. The Canadians and the Dutch have set a fairly early date for the departure of their contingents, without (so far as I know) incurring the wrath of Washington in any serious or lasting way. We would not be acting so very differently from other western countries, even including the Americans.

    It’s strange that the debate in Britain, when there is one, tends to be conducted in terms of the disaster that would overtake the Afghans if we pulled out now, as if UK withdrawal would cause the whole NATO (and predominantly American) house of cards to collapse. It’s most unlikely to do so, at least before the Americans decide that enough is enough. As our own Tory Defence Secretary has usefully pointed out, Britain is not the world’s policeman. We have done more than our share for the alliance’s effort in Afghanistan and it’s time for others to take our place — if anyone thinks they could achieve anything useful by doing so.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    Has it really been nine years since we first sent troops to Afghanistan?  Nearly as long as the two world wars combined.  Meanwhile the Afghan army still appears unable to conduct operations against the Taliban, and al-Qaeda seems well established (with or without bin Laben) in what used to be the N-W Frontier province of Pakistan where we are unable to get at it, though doubtless we and the Americans have advisers and liaison people with the Pakistan counter-insurgency forces.  In Afghanistan itself, the Taliban know very well that the advantage lies with the guerrillas, and they’re not going to stand and fight to hold ground as if they were the Germans of 65 years ago: they have the advantage over our people that they can conceal their weapons and adopt the guise of peaceful farmers at short notice, whereas Westerners have no similar advantage.  It’s a hopeless situation, and in the long run less face will be lost by admitting it than by closing our eyes and pressing on.

  3. ObiterJ says:

    We are now seeing differences of emphasis between Cameron and Fox over Afghanistan.  Fox’s latest is to say that we will stay there “until the job” is done – whatever that means.
    In my view, the need to “save face” (which I mentioned above) shines through Fox’s words.

    Brian writes: Thanks. Yes, we’re getting conflicting signals. I get the impression that Cameron wants out, and soon. On 28 June Harriet Harman, as leader of the opposition, was unwise enough to attack Cameron at PMQs for talking about UK withdrawal in ways that would damage the morale of our fighting soldiers on the ground — an incredibly inept line of attack. But Cameron’s reply was very interesting, I thought:

    Let me put it to you the other way round. It was a Labour government that took us into Helmand province in 2005; are you really saying that in 10 years’ time after that we should still be in Helmand?

    That seems to me very different from talking about a British troop withdrawal starting in 2015, and also different from promising that our troops will stay in Afghanistan until some mythical state of internal security and the Afghans’ ability to maintain it on their own have been achieved, as Harman rashly implied.

  4. Andrew Milner says:

    Let’s see, what was the justification for invading and occupying Afghanistan? Something about kill and/or capture Osama bin Laden (international terrorist and recluse)? Well, you’d better pack a shovel, because OBL became part of the planet years ago.
    Or perhaps it was, “fighting um over there so we don’t have to fight um here”. Like the Taliban are going to start planting IED on the North Circular. Keep this under your hat Britisher pals, but your soldiers are dying so that Afghan opium can be produced and exported to the West. Shades of Vietnam where the drugs shared a body bag with dead soldiers. And of course so a US oil pipeline can be built; thus to stay best buddies with the United States of Torture.
    Did you catch Cameron’s speech to the troops? “When the Twin Towers were blown up”. BBC only showed that part once before it was edited out. Dave, you really have to get the story straight; don’t want the mug punters to start doubting the Authorised version.
    Afghanistan: Worst excuse for a war since Helen of Troy.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I don’t go along with all of it, though. The 9/11 attacks were on such a huge scale that an American military response was in my view both inevitable and justified, and it was right for America’s allies to take part in it too. It was also authorised by the Security Council, so its legality was never in doubt. There’s no proof that I know of that Osama bin Laden is dead, and although killing or capturing him was indeed one of the objectives of the action in Afghanistan at the outset, the main purpose was to terminate al-Qaeda’s terrorist activity in Afghanistan and to the best of my knowledge that has been achieved, although what will happen when western forces withdraw is anybody’s guess.

    However as the years have dragged on, with attention distracted for years by the illegal and unnecessary attack on Iraq, the purpose of the Afghan intervention has been partially forgotten and it has segued into an unwinnable war against the Taliban, which has been hugely complicated by the Pakistani factor and by internal divisions within Afghanistan. The only sensible objective now to my mind is to try to establish conditions in which it is in no-one’s interests (including the Taliban’s) to allow al-Qaeda to return and resume their training and plotting inside Afghanistan and in which there will be serious penalties if they are allowed to do so. Beyond that, the Afghans will have to work out their own salvation in the end. My main point, though, is that there’s no need whatever for British forces to continue to occupy and fight in parts of Afghanistan until those conditions are established. We have contributed more than our share of the effort and it’s time for others to replace us.

    Finally, I hope what you say about the suppression of Cameron’s remark about the Twin Towers having been ‘blown up’ doesn’t mean that you believe the conspiracy theories about the CIA — or Dick Cheney? who else? little men from Mars with green hair? — having blown up the World Trade Center, with the rest of us simply imagining that we saw the two planes fly into them, either with our own eyes at the time or by seeing the television clips over and over again. The truth of what happened is bad enough without the need for far-fetched attempts to twist it into something even more sinister.

  5. Andrew Milner says:

    Sad that you identify so strongly with Authority, but not entirely surprising. Buying into the Authorised version hook, line and rapture is something you’d be well advised to keep to yourself. Have you noticed how so many now refrain from direct comment on the 9/11 attacks, either to support or denounce the Authorised version? Essentially as “hedge your bets” insurance. “Little Green Men from Mars”; that’s a new one.
    Cameron actually said, “When the Twin Towers were blown up”. It‘s all over YouTube, as are similar slips by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. 9/11 is even bigger than the Kennedy assassination, so is not going to go away any time soon. And if 9/11 wasn’t entirely kosher (hint), those that identify with authority will be left without a chair when the music stops.

    Brian writes: I don’t begrudge the conspiracy theorists their fun with 9/11, but most of us would take a lot of persuading that what hundreds of people in New York and Washington DC saw happening with their own eyes, and what millions of us all over the world have seen filmed by several cameras at the time, didn’t actually happen the way we saw it happen. It also passes rational belief that a conspiracy could have taken place on such a vast scale, in which several thousands of people would have had to be in the know, without a single one of them having made a fortune by coming forward with evidence of what really happened, especially in a society as open as the United States where nothing stays secret for long. Moreover I find the obvious implications of the five words in your comment, “9/11 wasn’t entirely kosher (hint)” extremely distasteful.

    Anyway, this has nothing to do with the subject of this post, which is the need for the very early withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. There are plenty of places in the blogosphere for conspiracy theorists to vent their theories about 9/11; this isn’t one of them.

  6. John Miles says:

    The Russians weren’t able to sort out the Afghans with, if I’ve got it right, about 300,000 troops.
    Can we really “do the job” with around half that number?

    What about Stan McChrystal?
    His apparent contempt for military etiquette shouldn’t blind us to the possibility that he really did have a genuine beef.

    And can we afford it?
    When you add it all up – boots, body armour, helicopters, logistics, leave, repatriation of body bags, lavish funerals for the dead, hospital treatment and pensions for the maimed, psychiatry for the traumatized and prison for those beyond all hope – I doubt if ther’s much change from half a million quid to keep a fighting man in Afghanistan for a year.
    Where’s it going to get us?

    Is “Arithmatic on the Frontier” so out of date or irrelevant, allowing for inflation?
    “Two thousand pounds of education
      Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.”
    and later:
    “No proposition Euclid wrote,
      No formulae the text-books know,
    Will turn the bullet from your coat,
      Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
    Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can —
    The odds are on the cheaper man.”

    Offhand I can’t think of any war that’s been won by the first side to run out of money.
    Can you?