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.