Posted by: John Elliott | August 2, 2009

Britain agonises about the futility of its war in Afghanistan

When I was in Britain in June, the country was consumed with a frenzy over how members of parliament had fiddled and fixed their expenses claims, sometimes illegally. I have been back again over the past month and again the country is deep in agonised debate, but this time it is over a much more serious issue – whether British forces should be engaged in a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and, if not, whether and how quickly they can get out.

Britain’s basic problem is that its government, which has ruled for too long, is coasting erratically towards a general election due next year and is riven with internal dissension and personal rivalries. Prime minister Gordon Brown has hordes of critics and enemies and very few supporters, and he lacks the authority or charisma to assert any form of leadership on major issues (apart from the economic crisis where he performed well last year).

Afghanistan dominates the front pages of newspapers and tv screens. Helmand, a province that few in Britain would even have heard of just a few weeks ago, is on everyone lips, and just about everyone I have met has a view – predominantly that Britain should not have gone to Afghanistan in the first place, that the war is unwinnable because there is no definable victory target, that the government doesn’t know what it is doing, that troops are under-staffed and under-equipped, and that it is criminal that British soldiers should die there to no purpose.

The government has failed to lead the debate or events. Worry about a dire lack of helicopters triggered a war of words a few days ago between the army chief and government spokesmen. The government went to court this past week to cut financial compensation awarded to wounded soldiers just as dead soldiers’ coffins were flown home to emotional receptions. And London police were even banned from wearing badges supporting the British troops.

Nearly 200 British troops have been killed (more than in Iraq), and many many more have been injured since the western invasion of Afghanistan began after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Gordon Brown argued a few days ago that the “tragic human cost” had not been “in vain”, and said how important it was to try to make the country ready for a general election later this month. He was speaking after a five-week military victory at Panther’s Claw in Helmand, where Taliban insurgents had been killed or driven away.

He claimed land had been made “secure for about 100,000 people”, that the Taliban had been “pushed back”, and that a start had been made on breaking the “chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain”. He and others said that Panther’s Claw had housed camps training future terrorists as well as heroin poppy fields, and that, this time, the army would stay and hold on to the area, instead of moving on elsewhere, as they had in the past, allowing the Taliban to return.

But what Brown did not say is that Panther’s Claw is a tiny tiny part of a country and will no doubt be infiltrated again by the Taliban, and that (as one army commander admitted), the plan to hold on to the area means there will not be enough troops to mount other attacks.

Nor, of course, did Brown say that the Taliban has simply been driven elsewhere where fresh training camps will quickly be set up, and that flattening a few poppy fields scarcely has any impact on the drug trade. More importantly, killing Taliban fighters and terrorists does not reduce the number in the “chain of terror” that wants to attack Britain – it increases it.

It is scarcely surprising therefore that a poll in the Independent newspaper this week showed a majority (58%) believed that the war is unwinnable, with 52% saying troops should pull out immediately. By nearly two-to-one, the view was that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily while 58% said the war was “unwinnable”. That compares with a poll in The Guardian earlier in July that had 42% wanting immediate withdrawal.

The tragedy is that the military campaign is futile. Afghanistan is a mountainous country that has seen off British and Russian invaders in the past, and it cannot be conquered militarily and returned to some form of stable government. It is splintered into too many ethnic and religious groups, whose interests are complicated by rival political factions, war lords and endemic corruption, and by the involvement of Pakistan, for such a simple solution. And the more Britain and the US fight the Taliban, the more they encourage young Muslims elsewhere to joint extremists groups and become potential terrorists.

Western politicians are now talking about building links with the “moderate Taliban” and of increasing development aid. That of course is laudable but it will not end this war that should never have started.

Eventually, Britain will have to withdraw, and America too.  But not before many more young soldiers lose their lives.

And the lessons? Attacking Osama bin Laden’s supposed Afghanistan bases after 9/11 was a logical act of revenge for America, but turning it into an eight-year war has been futile. The primary focus for attacking terrorism should be in Britain, and elsewhere in the west, so as  to reduce the risk of Muslim youth becoming disenchanted extremists and terrorists.

This post is also on the FT website at,dwp_uuid=a6dfcf08-9c79-11da-8762-0000779e2340.html

and on Hong Kong-based where there are more comments in addition to those below


  1. The USA still believes it owns the world, and Britain would like to believe that it still has clout, and would like to ‘own’ an empire all over again, albeit by attaching itself to the US’s apron strings.

    In all honesty, why did Bush and Blair go into Afghanistan, when they themselves had sent in the Taliban in the first place? Bush went into Iraq merely to remove the snub from Saddam Hussein – that ‘Daddy Bush’ was no longer in office, while he (Saddam) was still the President of Iraq, as well as to take over Iraqui oil.
    Recently, a former FBI translator admitted publicly that the Americans had used the Taliban and Al Quaida for ops in Central asia, and parts of the erstwhile USSR – including (possibly) drug running into the USSR. Of course, with the collapse of the uSSR, those drugs went to the m ost lucrative markets – in the USA and Western Europe.
    The main reason appears to have been to take over ALL the oil and reserves in the middle east. Unfortunately for bush, Iran started on their nuclear (?) programme, which made things a little ‘dicey’. However, NOTHING HAS EVER BEEN SAID ABOUT THE ISRAELI NUCLEAR ARSENAL. WHY? Under the circumstances, what else could Iran do? When Iran is surrounded by the USA(in Iraq), Israel, and NATO (including USA and Britain) in Afghanistan, and PAKISTAN – ALL of whom are nuclear powers, how else can they even begin to defend themselves?
    Thus, being in Afghanistan is not just for the sake of being there – the hidden agenda includes the oil in the middle east by ‘white European’ powers, as well as the Caspian oil and gas reserves, via pakistan, with Israel providing the ‘stick’ to keep the others in west Asia, and the region running for cover under the American jackboot.
    True, the Americans well take most – if not all the oil/gas, and Britain provides the ‘immoral support,- with NATO. So, unless the rest of the world wakes up, much of the resources will be colonised and taken over by the American jackboot – and THAT is why they are all in Afghanistan – not because their hearts bleed for the sufering of the Afghans, especialy as these (USA, Britain, and NATO) caused the suffering (of the Afghans, and the muslim world) in the first place.

  2. You are right.Afganistan is a quagmire historically for any invading force.Engaging in Afganistan to fight terrorism is like trying to catch a thief who has stoles from your home in your home in another house trying to eliminate thieves.Best course, as suggested, is to integrate the Muslims in the UK rather than toeing Uncle Sam’s Line.

  3. Today’s news from Oz of terrorists trained in Somalia rather than Afghanistan does tend to confirm the futility of efforts to fight back against terrorism through conventional ‘boots on the ground’ approaches, particularly in countries that lack a history and tradition of effective national government. The problem facing Brown, Obama and other leaders is that when you commit so strongly to an inappropriate course you eventually get boxed in by the sad inability of most politicians to ever say ‘we got it wrong’.

    An interesting angle on the UK response that John Elliott omitted was the extraordinary widespread groundswell of popular support for ‘the troops’, reversing (albeit perhaps temporarily) the traditional British disdain for the soldiery except when threatened with real war. Kipling would be amazed!

  4. Mr Parthasarathy may well be right about the dire consequences of precipitate military withdrawal. Unfortunately, history makes it hard to be optimistic about the prospects of Afghanistan developing stable and effective institutions – by definition, a very long-term task – or a strong and disciplined army.

    In any case, the future of Britain’s presence in Afghanistan will ultimately be decided by public opinion at home, rather than by geo-political considerations and the situation on the ground. It is unlikely to be swayed much by negative cases, particularly if advanced by a government that appears quite clueless about what it is up to there and staggeringly callous about the fate of UK troops.

    John Elliott’s post captured the national mood well. This seems to be just one more instance of Gordon Brown’s incompetence and lack of direction. Even if he could formulate some persuasive arguments, his and his government’s credibility is now so depleted that it is doubtful whether anyone would bother to listen.

  5. Precipitate withdrawal by Coalition forces would result in a return to the situation prior to 9/11. Every radical Islamic group worldwide would find a welcome in Afghanistan.

    In my view the UK should not have got into this venture if it was not prepared to stay the course. And while a British withdrawal alone will be of little consequece for the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, its fallout on American public opinion could be very negative.

    Any American withdrawal would have serious security implications for India if it led to the return of a rejuvenated Taliban to Kabul. India would be forced to review its policies and return to our earlier support for the Northern Allaince, in cooperation with Russia, Iran and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

    Phased withdrawal coinciding with the development of Afgahan institutions, including the Afgan armed forces, is what is required.

  6. Unfortunately military adventures have become a part of the show of “leadership” by political leaders. It doesnt need lot of explanation from the recent expenses scandal in Britain that politicians who are supposed to be public servants have “spun” a 180 degrees and turned it to private good.

    The only choice left to common man is to vote out these leaders. Alas! what do you get ? Another so called public leader keen to demonstrate “leadership”. I feel we need a transformation keeping out the so called “leaders” to be able opt for a (to be derived) third option as to actually accurately represent their opinion.

    Will the current politicall class allow it ?. I doubt it! They have so much of established vested interests that they will spin why it can not be done and will unite to create another virtual enemy (?Iran) and divert peoples attention and again demonstrate “leadership”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: