Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 December 2007

Saint Tony becomes a Catholic: a conversion of heart and mind?

Commenting on Tony Blair’s reception into the Catholic Church on Friday, the Vatican is reported to have stated that the decision by someone as authoritative as Tony Blair to join the Church can “only arouse joy and respect”.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic myself, I have to say that while I respect the former PM’s decision, it doesn’t fill me with joy. I’m with Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP and Catholic convert, who wonders whether Mr Blair has now changed his mind over the many decisions he took and supported that ran contrary to Church teaching and advice.

Mr Blair is a profoundly ambiguous figure from a moral perspective: hero or villain; morally courageous or moral coward? The decision over which he faced the biggest moral dilemma – and over which he has been most condemned – is of course that of taking the UK into the US-led war in Iraq. What I’m concerned about is that Tony Blair’s acceptance into the Catholic Church could lend the impression, especially in the Middle East, that the Church endorses that decision. In fact, almost every senior figure in the Church, including the late Pope John Paul II, spoke out against the war and affirmed that it did not meet the criteria for a Just War.

Tony Blair is known to have prayed over his decision back in 2003. While this fact, or at least the public admission of it, provoked a combination of shock, derision and outrage on the part of many non-religious people in the UK, this behaviour is the minimum that would be expected of Christians contemplating doing something that would inevitably result in the loss of many thousands of innocent lives. Even so, Mr Blair went ahead with the war, ignoring the personal advice against doing so he’s known to have received from the late Pope along with the consensus in the worldwide Catholic Church and the opinion of most senior Anglicans.

Moral courage or moral cowardice? Probably a bit of both. Who knows, really, what motivated Mr Blair’s decision? Judgement is mine, says the Lord. All I can say is that, in my opinion, informed by my own Catholic faith, it was a profoundly wrong choice, both morally and strategically. It was not a Just War; it did result in the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; it has destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East; it undermined the political consensus and moral authority behind the USA and Britain in the ‘war on terror’; and it has increased support for so-called Islamist terrorism.

Elsewhere, I’ve expressed the hope that there may have been nobler, hidden reasons for Tony Blair’s backing for the USA in Iraq, such as the need to be ‘in’ with George Bush in order to exercise influence over his choices and steer him away from even more disastrous courses of action. Also, I wondered whether Mr Blair’s new role of Middle East peace envoy had been taken on partly out of a wish to make reparation for the damage to the whole region and the escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which the Iraq War has been responsible. Mr Blair is a highly intelligent man, and his decision to become a Catholic demonstrates he’s also a man who is finally having the courage of his convictions. He must know that it’s the divisions in Israel-Palestine that are the ultimate source of Islamically inspired terrorism; and that bringing peace in the Holy Land, rather than bringing war to the Middle East, is the only way to defeat the terrorists.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The proof of Tony Blair’s religious conversion will be if he can show that he is one.

8 December 2007

From a UK Of England and Semi-Autonomous Regions To a UK Of Autonomous Nations

We English, for all our faults, are very polite and respectful of other nations’ sensitivities. So much so that we don’t even call our own country by its name so as to make sure that all who live here feel included and equal. However, now it’s got to the point that the very existence of our country as an officially recognised nation is under threat. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are able to govern significant parts of their own domestic affairs and have been awarded official constitutional status as distinct nations within the UK, England remains without such privileges. The territory known as England is, officially, just the part of the UK whose affairs, domestic and international, continue to be regulated exclusively by the central UK government. In addition, as is well known, there are some who would like to dismember the territory of England altogether by splitting it up into a number of regions with devolved powers similar to those of Scotland and Wales. This would be the political fulfilment of a concept of the UK, in Gordon Brown’s words, as a “Britain of nations and regions” – England having been finally wiped off the map as a nation and replaced by regions.

One of the forms in which the official non-existence of England is manifested is by the way in which the government, and also the opposition parties to a large extent, carry on as if legislation, decisions and public services that effectively now relate to England only are still matters for the UK as a whole. I don’t mean this just in the sense that MPs from the other nations of the UK are entitled to vote on them even if the corresponding matters for their own countries are now dealt with by devolved administrations (the so-called West Lothian Question). I mean this also in the symbolic sense: that in discussion, debate and presentation of legislation and the work of government, the fact that so much of it concerns England exclusively is barely remarked upon; and everything is referred to as if it affected the whole ‘nation’, i.e. the UK. As I’ve commented in several previous posts, Gordon Brown himself has a pathological aversion to uttering the words ‘England’ or ‘English’, even when he’s speaking about policies and legislation on matters such as education and health where his government’s remit is for England only. There is an obvious reason for this avoidance, of course: that if he was more honest and did make explicit which bits of his legislative programme and ‘vision’ for ‘the country’ related to England only, English people would question even more his legitimacy as a de facto English prime minister in so many respects, but one who does not even represent an English constituency.

Countless examples could be given of the way that official documentation and websites relating to Westminster government departments whose powers in all but England have been devolved continue to describe themselves as the UK / national bodies, while referring readers or website visitors on to the separate bodies and regulations for the other countries of the UK. Of course, this asymmetry affects the very name of those ministries or public bodies: there is no ‘English Department for Education’ or ‘Department of Health for England’ to match the Scottish Education Department or the Welsh Department for Health and Social Services; only The Department for Children, Schools and Families, or The Department of Health. I was again struck by these disparities yesterday when replying to a comment on the Campaign for an English Parliament News Blog accusing Gordon Brown of lying when he stated that there is only one – British – NHS. This is clearly not true, at least not in the way Gordon Brown intended it. There are quite distinct NHS organisations in England, Scotland and Wales – different names, different structures, different websites and, as we know, differential funding. Visit the websites for NHS Scotland or NHS Wales (otherwise known as GIG Cymru), and you’re in no doubt which country’s health service is involved. Do a Google search for ‘NHS in England’, however, and you’ll be sent to the ‘national’ NHS website where, from the home page at least, you’d be hard put to realise that this was the NHS site for England only and not the UK as a whole. You have to dig a bit further to realise that you won’t find any information specific to health districts or services in Scotland or Wales, but only in England.

Usually, ‘England’ is mentioned explicitly in such official documentation or political debate only when it is critically important to spell out the fact that the points being made affect England alone, e.g. in the actual text of Acts of Parliament; or where people in Scotland and Wales need to be referred on to the information that concerns them – as they, too, could easily be misled into thinking that information that passes itself off as UK-wide does relate to the whole of the UK rather than to England alone (see, for example, the page on the ‘UK’ NHS website describing the NHS’s organisational structure, where they have to spell out that the information is for England only, and links are provided to the NHS sites for the three other UK countries).

The erasure of the word ‘England’ from the nomenclature and language of what is effectively English government and politics can engender an understandable sense of paranoia, especially in a context where England is bereft of any separate constitutional status, and where so many influential figures (including Gordon Brown) seemingly want to wish it out of existence.

But there is a different way of configuring all of this. You could say that one reason why the government and ‘impartial’ media (such as the BBC and ITN) refuse to refer to the government and public bodies in their England-only aspects as those of England is that this could create the impression that the nation is England. The people of Scotland and Wales have always felt, with much justification, that the UK government was – in all but name – the English government; and that, given the overwhelming numerical, economic and political dominance of England within the UK, they were effectively ruled by England as if they were a part of England. Now that, post-devolution, the Westminster government serves a dual purpose as both the government of the UK (in retained matters) and the government of England (in matters devolved to the other countries), if you started to explicitly refer to the government in the latter respects as the English government, then people could start thinking of it as the English government in the retained areas as well. Far better, from this perspective, to keep hammering on about it being the British government – even in England-only matters – than to let the impression develop that what devolution is really about is England devolving some but not all of its powers to ‘nations’ that have for centuries effectively – in terms of the realities of power – been English regions.

As I have remarked in a previous post on devolution, the British / UK government, parliament and state are effectively the English government, parliament and state. This is not just a default position (‘they’re what serves as the English state and parliament in the absence of a properly autonomous constitutional status for England’); nor simply a reflection of the above-mentioned political realities (‘the UK state is the English state because it is, and has always been, controlled by the English in their own national interest’). The UK state (more loosely referred to as ‘Britain’) is the English state because it is the form in which England has defined itself in official national and constitutional terms ever since the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.

I aim to go into this aspect of the question in more detail in a subsequent post. But the paradox I’m trying to point out here is that English official organisations and media find it impossible to refer to themselves verbally as English because the very discourse through which Englishness has articulated itself officially for centuries is that of Britishness. English may have become the international language; but there is no place within it, officially, for the nation of England. In its international persona as Britain, England belongs to everyone, just as does the English language – but not in any special way to the ‘English’. But the point is that this self-effacement of the English behind Britishness and internationalism is, and has been, precisely an English self-effacement and the form that the English have chosen to give their statehood and statesmanship. Britain is the political identity or persona of England; British political and national institutions, where no separate English-only equivalent exists, are English institutions in all but name; and Britishness is a projection of part of Englishness – and not always the best part.

So Britain is England. This is something the Scottish and Welsh have always understood, defining their own nationhood in opposition to the English-British overlords. But that doesn’t mean that England is Britain. England is real and distinct: the national identity – the heart and soul – of most of the people born and brought up in the part of the UK whose affairs are entirely regulated by the Westminster government. Britain is the English state: created by the English and shared with (and increasingly spurned by) the rest of the UK. As I stated in that previous post on devolution, this symbiosis of England and Britain is one of the reasons why the British political establishment is so blind to the very concept of devolution for England: the logic being that England cannot be devolved from itself (i.e. Britain). And on this logic, devolution makes sense only for the non-English parts of England-Britain, which, precisely, are devolved from England.

But the British establishment is trying very hard to perpetuate the identification of England with Britain. This is, indeed, the only way it can ensure the survival of ‘Britain’ as the English state: a unitary structure through which the English have fooled themselves they were not the unwelcome, autocratic masters of the Scots and Welsh by transforming themselves and everyone else into equal, democratic Britons. How much of the oft-voiced fear about the dire consequences of breaking up the ‘Union’ is to do not so much with the supposed break up of the United Kingdom per se but the shattering of an English illusion of greatness: the illusory identity of ‘Britain’ itself as the projection of England’s historic ideals concerning the greatness of its international power and civilisation – of Great Britain? The more the reality of that greatness fades into a historic past, the more certain parts of the establishment cling on to the dream. But as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland distance themselves from the centre of British power, the only nation over which the establishment can continue to impose Britishness is England. But this denial of Englishness on the part of the ‘British’ establishment only shows that establishment up all the more as, at core, English.

The establishment may wish to deny England in the name of an international Britain: to call England Britain. But the people of England increasingly seek to be called by their own name and to determine their own destiny – just as do the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: freed from the British shackles. So one way in which we can begin to effect this change is to start calling Britain England. This would be a way to resist the systematic suppression of all references to England within official discourse and national institutions: by systematically reinserting ‘English’ and ‘England’ into all mentions of the ‘British’ state or nation. This would point up the fact that Britain / the UK is the English state in all but name; and by naming it England, this would highlight the fact that Britain is not yet the kind of properly English state or nation that English people want and deserve: English government for and by the English people.

The best way I can think of doing this is through combinations of ‘England-Britain’ or ‘English-British’, etc. For instance, where a government body or representative is referring to their work or policies for the nation (meaning England), in describing those policies, one could strive to always add a reference to England. So in the case of the national NHS website referred to above, it would be appropriate to call this the ‘national UK website for NHS England’ (on the analogy of ‘NHS Scotland’ and ‘NHS Wales’). Similarly, while talking of the (UK) Department of Health, one could refer to it as ‘the UK Department of Health for England’. Prime minister Gordon Brown could be termed ‘the UK prime minister for England’ or even the ‘Scottish English prime minister’ in relation to devolved matters; and the ‘England-UK prime minister’ in all other matters.

The point of these constructions is that they involve deliberately incongruous combinations of England + Britain or UK; and the combinations should be both as explanatory and incongruous as possible – in other words, showing an awareness of the ‘official’ status of the body or person concerned as ‘British’, while signalling the fact they are doing double duty for England, too. In matters where one wishes to suggest disapproval, from an English perspective, of the conduct of the British state carried out in England’s name, one could put ‘Britain’ before ‘England’; e.g. ‘the involvement of British-English troops in Iraq’. Conversely, where you want to suggest that a ‘British’ policy or action, domestic or international, is the expression of English values or attitudes, ‘England’ could be put first: ‘English-British fair play’; ‘England-Britain’s Special Relationship with the USA’; etc.

The point being that ‘Britain’, up to now, has been an English creation and entity; but one which, as the Scots and Welsh are freeing themselves from its grip, is turning its attention to subordinating the English themselves. So what I’m advocating is English-linguistic insubordination to point out the realities suppressed by the illusions of Britishness. Britain / the UK is the English state; and the partially devolved constitution we have now is a UK of England and semi-autonomous regions (Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland). Some of the Britologists, as was pointed out above, want to re-imagine this as a Britain of nations (Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland) and regions. But how much is that not ultimately a kind of endgame of English-Britishness: the self-denial of England along with the levelling of any real difference between England and the other countries of the UK in an all-embracing Britain. Because, effectively, such a scenario would just create multiple British regions of equivalent status, thereby stripping Scotland and Wales (if they were locked into such a federal scenario) of any distinctive political and constitutional status: as nations defining themselves as distinct from England, rather than as homogeneous British regions. Such a federal Britain would be in none of the existing nation’s interests because they would cease to exist as nations: because there would be only one nation – England-Britain.

We don’t want either a UK of England and regions, or a Britain of nations and regions – but a United Kingdom of autonomous nations. Until that day arrives, the establishment will continue to try to absorb England into Britain, and Britain will continue as the de facto English state. But English people must continue to point out the ambiguous duality of this ‘UK government for England’.

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.