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 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7b3658a4-80b9-11de-92e7-00144feabdc0,dwp_uuid=a6dfcf08-9c79-11da-8762-0000779e2340.html
and on Hong Kong-based http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1993&Itemid=212 where there are more comments in addition to those below