Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 November 2007

A government that minds its own business but not yours

What are we to make of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) missing CD-ROM scandal: the fact that someone popped a copy of half the UK’s personal details in the ordinary internal mail to the Audit Office and it’s now gone missing?

Nothing, possibly. It could just be a case of inexperience on the part of a junior subordinate. However, the mere fact that someone could even think it was acceptable to pop an unencrypted copy of intimate details about millions of families and their finances into the post and not even make it a recorded delivery is barely believable. Have they not got a secure, encrypted government data network they could use? If not, why not courier it from door to door to make sure it got there?

For me, it bespeaks an insufficient exercise of the government’s duty of care, which is something that should filter down to the lowest levels of the civil service. In this instance, inadequate regard was paid to the personal, human significance of the lost data to the people the government is supposed to be looking after. What was done involves regarding the data that was copied and sent in this way as just another bit of data: ‘well, if it doesn’t get there, we can always make another copy’. But it’s not just data: it’s precious, private information about people’s lives, which needs to be protected at all costs.

You can bet your bottom tax dollar that the government takes more precautions over its own secret data. Well, at least you’d like to think so; but maybe the next scandal to break will be someone leaving a laptop on a train containing all that the security services know about the 2,000-odd terrorist suspects in the UK they keep going on about. I don’t think so, though, do you? This government looks after its official secrets all right, just not yours and mine.

Alistair Darling tried to claim that the identity-card system they want to bring in will safeguard the sort of information that has been lost. How? What difference would everyone’s being issued with ID cards have made to the incident that has taken place? I can’t see the connection. It’s about administrative processes and enshrining in those processes an almost zealous determination to protect people’s intimate information as a sacred trust. But, of course, the type of information that will be gathered and stored via the ID-card system won’t be (just) mere bagatelles such as bank accounts, addresses, and names and ages of children: it will also involve ‘classified’ information such as criminal record, biometrics and, maybe, a means to access the entire history of a citizen’s interaction with the agencies of government and the public sector (medical records; births and marriages records; schooling; etc.) – basically, a card cloner’s or hacker’s dream!

I’m sure the government will take a lot more care over information of that sort, so vital for national security (but even so . . .). It’s just the information that’s vital for your security that can be dealt with in such a cavalier way. This government minds its own business, including looking after everything that it thinks it needs to know about yours – but it won’t mind yours.

And yet, the information that has been lost could have implications for national security as well as the personal security of many millions. Who knows, it might have been a terrorist inside job and, instead of being mailed to ‘The Audit Office, London’, the package could have winged its way to somewhere on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan – or to a PC from where it could be distributed worldwide. The data that’s been lost could certainly be extremely valuable to the likes of Al-Qaeda or to cyber-terrorists. Maybe, instead of distrusting its own citizenry, the government could begin by taking care of the information its citizens have entrusted to it; and maybe, if it wants to gather in one place (around the ID card) so much additional information about us all, it could start by ensuring that the information it already has is secure.

The government should put its own house in order if it wants us to trust it over things like control orders and 56 days’ detention without charge. As this incident demonstrates, national security, it seems, begins at our homes.

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21 August 2007

Afghanistan: A Liberal and Just Cause?

Am I alone in feeling disappointed at the statement of support for the war in Afghanistan provided in an interview on Sunday by Menzies Campbell, the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems)? This came in the context of his call for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some of the forces could then be re-deployed in Afghanistan, where they were needed and could be utilised more effectively, according to Mr Campbell.

I suppose I already knew that the Lib Dems (the only major UK party to oppose sending British troops into Iraq) supported our participation in the fighting in Afghanistan. But for me, Campbell’s endorsement provided confirmation of what I’ve been saying in different posts throughout this blog: that there’s been a concerted campaign recently to build support from liberals for the war in Afghanistan.

How is it that Afghanistan is a liberal cause while Iraq is not? The obvious answer is that the Taliban-Al Qaeda (often conflated as the one Enemy in Afghanistan) represents an anti-liberal, anti-democratic, tyrannical ideology. But so did Saddam Hussein. OK: the Taliban-Al Qaeda had proved through 9/11 that they were a serious threat to the West and that therefore they had to be eliminated. The war against them qualified as a Just War, whereas the WMD threat in Iraq was non-existent and we were hoodwinked into believing in it by Tony Blair.

Well, to qualify as a Just War, there needs to be 1) a strong chance that the just aims of the war can actually be achieved through the conflict; and 2) a rational basis for believing that the benefit that is sought outweighs the evil of the destruction and loss of life that the war brings about. If the first of these conditions is not met, it follows that the second condition also does not obtain. As I’ve argued in my previous two posts on Afghanistan, there is very little likelihood that the US and Britain (and whatever other NATO allies get involved) will be able to defeat the Taliban by military means. Nor is there much convincing evidence that the struggle against Al Qaeda or Islamically inspired terrorism in general has been advanced by the war in Afghanistan.

But even if one sincerely believed that the Taliban-Al Qaeda could be defeated militarily in Afghanistan, there would still be the question of whether the goal of removing them from power justifies all the loss and damage of innocent lives that has been the inevitable consequence of the war. Maybe if Al Qaeda was eliminated for good, you could think that this might constitute a moral benefit that was so great that lives had unfortunately to be sacrificed in pursuit of it. But who really believes that a putative military victory in Afghanistan would result in the demise of Al Qaeda? In some ways, it might strengthen support for them. And as for the Taliban, one is reminded of the old Cold War saying, ‘better red than dead’! In this case, ask the Afghans who’ve lost dear relatives and friends whether they’d prefer them alive if it meant the Taliban were back in power. Admittedly, some might say the sacrifice was worthwhile; but I bet more would say it wasn’t.

And yet, we’ve decided on their behalf that all those deaths are worthwhile – in the name of democracy. But what chance have we got of (re)-establishing democracy in Afghanistan: a country riven by regional and tribal differences, and in the hands of the warlords and drug barons? The US drive to democratise the Middle East is widely viewed in Muslim countries as a synonym for attempting to impose Western control and secularise Islamic states. So do we think we’ll win much support – inside and outside the country – for our efforts to defend democracy through military conflict with (nominally) Islamic forces in Afghanistan?

But maybe that’s what our presence in Afghanistan is really about – that ‘liberation of the Afghan people’ business being just so much PR fluff: we want the country to be under Western control and we want to replace an Islamic system of government with a secular democracy. Those are the objectives, aren’t they? So the (extremist) Muslim critics of our actions have got it right in this case. But we think we’re in the right.

We characterise the first of these objectives as ‘self-defence’: we have to be in control in Afghanistan, because if we’re not, the Taliban-Al Qaeda will be, and then we’ll be even more vulnerable to terrorism. Whether this consequence would actually flow from the Taliban getting back into power in Afghanistan is debatable: there are other and better ways of fighting terrorism than slugging it out with the Taliban-Al Qaeda in a South Asian backwater. But then, as I’ve argued in my previous posts on Afghanistan, it’s about more than just winning an isolated battle against the terrorists: at stake are the goals of maintaining Western control of the Middle East as a whole, isolating Iran, and preventing Al Qaeda from getting their hands on the potential nuclear arsenal of that country or the actual nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. It’s a region-wide strategic conflict, according to whose logic Afghanistan just can’t be allowed to fall to the Taliban.

Especially as the Taliban represent everything that we find odious, primitive and barbaric about Islam. The Taliban gives us a form of Islam that is a worthy object of our dislike and fear of that faith (our Islamophobia). Because the Taliban are so authoritarian, oppressive, sexist, and narrowly literalistic and dogmatic in their interpretation of Islam, this allows us to feel justified in ejecting them from power and attempting to set up a secular democracy in their place. It’s not ‘regime change’ as in Iraq, we say to ourselves, but a fight that has been elevated to truly symbolic proportions: one between our real Enemy – ‘Islamism’, ‘extreme Islam’ – and what we think we represent: freedom, equality, progress. On top of the whole strategic game, that’s the other reason why we think we can’t and mustn’t lose in Afghanistan: it could be used by the Islamists to show to the Muslim world that history is not necessarily on the side of the West; that the ‘end of history’ may not have to be the triumph of secular-liberal democracy everywhere – first against Communism, and then against Islam. And maybe defeat would shake our own conviction a little that the future belongs to us and our values.

But this is a long way from a simple war objective – ridding Afghanistan of a tyranny – that might provide a Just War-based vindication of all the carnage there, if we thought we could actually achieve it. It’s not ultimately about defending the Afghan people; seriously, how many people in the West really care about the Afghan people the way, for instance, they claim to care about the poor in Africa or other parts of Asia? On one level, we probably think they’re actually to blame for the misery of indigence and violent conflict that has been their lot for at least the past 30 years. They’re primitive, ill-educated people – we say to ourselves – that have allowed themselves to be easy prey to warlords and extremists; and not only that, but they produce opium crops on an industrial scale for export to the West. It’s not surprising that a people like that was so ignorant and docile as to accept the Taliban yoke.

In short, they’re the sort of Muslim for whom one can feel little sympathy. No wonder we think their lives are so expendable in defence of our Western interests and values. The liberal cause must be upheld after all – at any price.

2 August 2007

Afghanistan: Important Not To Fail; But Possible and Desirable To Succeed?

David Cameron, the beleaguered British Conservative Party leader, joined the debate on Afghanistan yesterday by reaffirming the government’s line that “we cannot afford to fail” in Afghanistan.

How is ‘failure’ defined? This is not so much losing the war, as no one is prepared to refer openly to the possibility of a rout such as that which the Afghan Mujahideen inflicted on the Russians or the Vietcong inflicted on the US in Vietnam. No, ‘failure’ is thought of as not seeing the mission through to the end: giving up on it and leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.

As Mr Cameron put it, “We need to look at how we’re working together with our NATO allies and with the Americans, to make sure there’s more unity in our command and in our purpose, and we also do need other NATO countries to do more”. In other words, we need to stick to our purpose and, in order to ensure that we don’t lose our morale and will to go on, there needs to be more commitment from America’s and Britain’s NATO allies. And underlying this, there is indeed the tacit fear that the whole thing could unravel and we could be staring military defeat in the face: “Britain is definitely bearing its share of the burden, but we need more helicopters, we need more support, and also we need other NATO countries to play their part”.

But while failure is giving up or (unspoken nightmare scenario) actual defeat, the politicians are not prepared to openly articulate what the nature and cost of ‘success’ might be. Mr Cameron merely alluded to this when he called for “gritty, hard-headed decisions” on how the international community operates in Afghanistan. This is code for being prepared to support an escalation of the US / NATO military campaign to defeat the Taliban. In other words, a new counter-offensive against the Taliban may be being planned, and we’re going to have to accept the brutality and destructiveness of this campaign, which may be the only means to avoid the afore-mentioned ‘failure’.

If truth is the first casualty of war, then real, human casualties are the first consequence of the warmongers’ deceits. One of the reasons why Western political and military will over Afghanistan may be wavering at the moment is that politicians realise the immense human cost that would have to be paid to secure anything reminiscent of a military ‘victory’ over the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies. A huge deployment of military personnel and firepower would be necessary: clearly, therefore, requiring the support of all the members of NATO. We’d be looking at a large-scale, probably long-term, intensive counter-insurgency / anti-guerrilla war waged on multiple fronts, including – most dangerously of all – across the border in Pakistan. And we’d have to be willing to undertake the mass killing of Taliban and Al-Qaeda combatants and supporters, including probably civilian sympathisers, suppliers and informers – difficult in a violent and fast-moving combat situation to make a clear-cut distinction between active terrorists (directly involved in acts of violence) and passive terrorists (those who provide the infrastructure, and moral and practical support vital for any insurgency to be prosecuted).

Are we really willing for a military campaign such as this to be waged on our behalf in Afghanistan? Would such a brutal war be morally justifiable, even apart from its uncertain prospects of success (see my opinion in the previous blog entry that we cannot achieve a military victory in Afghanistan)? Furthermore, if we enter into an all-out war such as this without our eyes being wide open to the scale of the conflict and the carnage that would be necessary, on our side as well as the enemy’s – and without being 100% behind the effort and prepared to accept all the human and economic costs – then we could well be heading for the even greater failure of military defeat, as opposed to the limited failure of abandoning the mission. We have to be aware and honest about what ‘success’ would entail in Afghanistan and make an open, conscious decision to embrace the measures necessary to achieve it. Then, at least, if (and I would say when) defeat came, we could at least say in all conscience that we took our choice and paid the price. But going into something like this without being honest about what’s involved entails accepting the casualties of war while lacking the will to take moral and practical responsibility for them – and making failure more certain than ever as our will and purpose is not set and definite.

And even if the unlikely event of military victory occurred, would this really constitute success? In two senses: firstly, by the brutality of our actions and the inevitable destruction of innocent lives, we would have demonstrated to those in the Muslim world who are inclined to be sympathetic towards extremist beliefs and movements that their hostility towards the West is justified, and that they should perhaps consider escalating their moral support for Al-Qaeda and other ‘Islamist’ organisations into practical and active commitment to the struggle. In this way, we would have strengthened the hand of the terrorists and ensured that the fight against them would last even longer. We would have won the battle but not the war. And if the Islamist cause was boosted in this way, how long would it be before we faced a new version of the Taliban and a new insurgency in Afghanistan?

Secondly, and related to this, we would have greatly damaged the moral credibility of our cause, with the possible consequence that our will to continue the fight against terrorism would be weakened at the very moment that our resolve needed to be stronger than ever, given the increased support for terrorism that our very actions had brought about. The ‘failure’ of the Americans in Vietnam and that of the Soviets in Afghanistan had similar consequences: undermining belief and confidence in the values and social structures of the defeated countries. Whether we were ‘victorious’ or – as is more likely – defeated in an all-out war against the Taliban, the demoralising effect could be the same – as could the ultimate outcome, in that the future and peace of Afghanistan would still be far from secure even in victory.

And this is precisely what the terrorists are striving to achieve: their long-term strategy all along has been to suck the US and its Western allies into a devastating long-term conflict that can’t be won; because as soon as the terrorists are thwarted in one theatre of war or tactic, they spring up in another war zone and come up with new terrifying forms of violence. Their ultimate objective is to sap the morale, the economy and the military power of the West – and to finally render us incapable or unwilling to resist their power grab in regions we can no longer control, and in societies where we have lost our credibility and influence.

Far better, then, to step back from the abyss that awaits us in Afghanistan. This would not be failure but a strategic retreat. The greater failure would be the long-term moral and tactical error that prosecuting war against the Taliban to the bitter end – victorious or not – would represent. And given that defeat in such a war would be the more likely scenario than victory, far better to carry out an orderly retreat while we can than to run into another Dunkirk.

If the Taliban subsequently seized back power in Afghanistan, this would regrettably be Afghanistan’s tragedy but not ours, which is what would result from going on in pursuit of a pyrrhic or elusive victory.

And this would not necessarily be the enormous setback in the war against terrorism that the politicians try to make out that it would be. Terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional military means. Terrorism springs from a combination of hatred and moral outrage supported by an absolute belief system. The only way to defeat it is to address the real grievances and problems upon which that hatred and outrage feed. We need to focus on being reconciled with the Muslim world and demonstrating that we are not its enemies. But to do this we have to be truly honest about the extent to which we are or are not really hostile or prejudiced towards Islam.

Only by openly confronting our fears can we begin to overcome them. One of the consequences of a failure to do this will surely be the moral and tactical failure of further futile violence in Afghanistan.

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

11 July 2007

Salman Rushdie Affair: Al-Qaeda’s Vain Threats, Britain’s Lame Excuse

Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.

Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.

In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).

Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.

But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?

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