Today, the sad milestone of the 200th, and indeed the 201st, death of a British soldier was reached in Afghanistan. Gordon Brown came out with the usual blandishments on such occasions, re-stating that while these deaths were “deeply tragic”, they were still necessary: “We owe it to you all [the families and communities of those killed] never to forget those who have died. But my commitment is clear: we must and will make Britain safer by making Afghanistan more stable”.
If those deaths were really, deeply ‘tragic’, Brown and all the others in the political establishment that support this war (but not to the extent of supplying our brave troops with adequate equipment to ensure their safety as much as possible) would not effectively write off the lives lost with such seamless ease under the ostensible justification that it is ensuring Britain’s safety.
I have written about this conflict extensively before (see here, here and here). Suffice it to say that it is far from obvious whether and how this conflict is really serving the security of the UK. In some respects, it has helped to make us more of a target for terrorism and has destabilised the whole region, including Pakistan, which is the real threat to our security, as it’s a nuclear power. Plus it’s highly unlikely that we could ever ‘win’ a war in Afghanistan or even stabilise the country through military means. Afghanistan has never been subdued by a foreign army in thousands of years of history; and the fierce and proud fighters that are resisting Western interference today, and all of their fanatical jihadist supporters from around the world, will never put down their arms until the Westerners leave Afghanistan.
Perhaps it’s this sort of reflection that led the incoming head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, to state last week that Britain might need to maintain a presence in Afghanistan for the next 40 years; albeit that he – grossly naively, in my view – thinks it may be necessary to maintain the present level of military engagement only in the medium term (so ‘only’ 20 years, then?); while the main task will be nation building. I’ve speculated before where people come up with this arbitrary ’40 years’ figure. I’m sure it’s some sort of subconscious echo of the nearly 40 years of the Cold War coupled with the biblical 40 years of exile that the people of Israel spent in the desert on their migration from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Not a comfortable cultural reference to evoke in the Muslim world! But are we supposed to accept this figure with blind, biblical faith?
If you want to build a nation, there has to be the will among the people who live there to become a nation. But Afghanistan is a deeply divided land, ethnically, and it’s controlled by feudal warlords that aren’t going to sit back and let Westerners take over and transform their power base into a modern democracy. Unless we’re prepared to pour shed loads of dirty money into their pockets, that is.
Maybe I shouldn’t write off Afghanistan so cynically. Maybe ‘progressive’ forces in Afghanistan will win out. Maybe. But I think the odds are heavily stacked against them; and meanwhile our national security is being undermined, not strengthened. And our young men and women are being needlessly slaughtered – as are thousands of Afghan civilians.
And how many more grim milestones of hundreds and thousands of armed forces deaths must we expect if we do indeed stay in Afghanistan for 40 years?