Afghanistan: the dog that still doesn’t bark in the night
It’s extraordinary that the national political discourse isn’t dominated by the war in Afghanistan. We have been engulfed in it for nine years already and almost every bulletin brings news of yet more deaths of young British men and women — not to mention the far more numerous deaths of innocent Afghan men, women and children at our and our allies’ hands. As soon as any of our leaders tries to define our current objectives in Afghanistan, it’s instantly obvious that none of them makes any sense, and that there’s not the remotest prospect of achieving them, however long we continue the war. If al-Qaeda is to be prevented from re-establishing its terrorist training camps and anti-western terrorism planning from a safe haven in Afghanistan, which was the perfectly proper original intention of the western intervention there after 9/11, it must be obvious that the Taliban must be persuaded that the rewards for keeping al-Qaeda out will be greater than the rewards for letting al-Qaeda back in. Equally obviously, we’re unlikely to persuade the Taliban of this by killing them and burning their crops, filling their country with unwelcome foreign troops, and throwing all our support behind corrupt warlords and their principal cheerleader in Kabul. A resumed Taliban régime would be deeply unsavoury, especially for women and girls, harsh and illiberal: but the only people who can decide between the Taliban and the warlords — or perhaps some day a third and more democratic option — are the Afghans themselves, and our military interference in their choice can only be counter-productive.
So why, when these are all statements of the painfully obvious, are the streets of Britain not seething with anti-war protestors, and our MPs not bombarded with angry demands to bring it all to an end, not in another five years’ time as David Cameron now seems to be half-promising, but starting now? The streets of Wootton Bassett are filled not with angry protestors but with silent weeping mourners as the coffins of our slaughtered servicemen are slowly driven past, day after day after day, and the hospitals and rehabilitation units are filled with the terribly wounded and maimed victims of the war, bodies broken and young lives wrecked in a cause that hardly anyone can credibly define.
But perhaps the prospects are not all black. I think the media missed the most significant remark by the prime minister in his comments on Afghanistan from the G8 meeting in Canada. “Troops out by 2015, says Cameron” was the Guardian’s lead story’s headline on 26 June 2010, with the subheading: “Prime minister wants forces to leave Afghanistan before next election”. The rest of the mainstream media focused on the same remark. But they also reported, without apparently recognising its significance, what the prime minister went on to say:
“We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.” Cameron said: “I want us to roll up our sleeves and get on with delivering what will bring the success we want, which is not a perfect Afghanistan, but some stability in Afghanistan and the ability for the Afghans themselves to run their country, so they [British troops] can come home.” (Emphasis added.)
Both Cameron and especially the defence secretary, Liam Fox, have already sent out much more sceptical signals about the purposes and prospects for ‘success’ in the Afghan conflict than anything hinted at by their Labour predecessors. The present government’s ambitions appear much less ambitious and therefore far more realistic. Of course Cameron has had to take care not to open up a public rift with the Americans just as he was about to have his first face-to-face bilateral meeting with President Obama. But the UK’s and the Americans’ options and commitments are very different. If British troops were to be withdrawn in a planned and phased withdrawal, to be completed by the end of this year, that would not precipitate the collapse of the whole US-led NATO operation in Afghanistan in the way that an American military withdrawal would be bound to do. Given enough advance warning of our withdrawal, NATO could replace British forces by contributions from other NATO member countries which have either not taken part in the military operation at all hitherto, or which have not contributed anything like as much as Britain in the past nine long years. If no other NATO members could be found to volunteer to take Britain’s place, that would send an important political message of which NATO and Washington would have to take proper account. It might result in a major shift of emphasis from the military to the diplomatic, political and developmental dimensions of the international effort. There would be every reason for Britain to redouble its diplomatic, political and developmental contribution to a solution of the problem while withdrawing every last British soldier in as short a time frame as logistics permit.
So why are we not acting accordingly?
Our political leaders are, I think, inhibited by two fears, neither of which can possibly justify a single additional death or maiming of another British soldier.
The first is the fear that our withdrawal will be interpreted as a failure, and a defeat for British arms. But it need not be so. Britain has been second only to the Americans in the size and effectiveness of our contribution to the war over nine years, and in the cost of it in blood and treasure. It can reasonably credibly be claimed that our war effort has real and tangible achievements to its credit: al-Qaeda’s presence and power virtually eliminated, Taliban control of towns and villages removed and girls’ schools reopened, social development schemes instigated and funded under British military protection, Afghans given political options denied to them in the years before 9/11 and the arrival of NATO forces. British forces have not been defeated: they have made their contribution to the progress made, and after nine years it’s time for others to replace us and also for political, diplomatic and social priorities to replace the military effort in pride of place.
The second inhibiting fear is that our British dead and maimed and their stricken families will seem to have suffered in vain if we withdraw before we can make any meaningful claim of ‘victory’. But here again, we can justify withdrawal by reference to the progress made in Afghanistan during our nine-year military presence, progress that would not have been possible without a military effort which has been costly but indispensable in progressively removing a major threat posed by al-Qaeda’s Afghan activities to Britain’s and the western world’s security. There’s also the point that if we wait for a recognisable ‘victory’ before we bring our troops home, they will be there for ever; sooner or later we’ll have to face the reality that there will be no such thing as an outright demonstrable ‘victory’ and that to go on leaking the blood of our young men and women while we wait for a chimera, the waste will be unforgiveable.
These claims of sufficient success in improving the situation in Afghanistan to justify our military withdrawal now will of course be hotly disputed. Those forced to make them won’t all sincerely believe in them. Not all the bereaved and maimed will be altogether consoled by them. To many they will appear no better than a fig-leaf. But what’s the realistic alternative? If we struggle on for another four or five years, how will we be any better able to justify our withdrawal then, after what will then be nearly 15 years of war and loss? It’s a cliché to remark that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. But it’s a useful truth. It looks as if Cameron and Fox understand it. But they need the help of public opinion and of the chattering classes and of the enlightened media in creating a climate of opinion in which they can begin the process of military withdrawal without being accused of admitting defeat, or of causing the bereaved and maimed to feel that their suffering was all for nothing. Which of the candidates for the Labour party leadership is going to come out loud and clear for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2010 with heads held high and a wave of national pride in what our boys have achieved?
“We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.” If David Cameron can say that, why can’t the Milibrothers, the other Ed, Diane or the other Andy — not Murray — say it too, and draw the logical conclusion from it even more boldly? Meanwhile the slaughter in Afghanistan continues, with hardly a peep of protest at home apart from routine muttering from the usual suspects. A 2.5% rise in VAT looms much larger. Our deadly, unwinnable war is truly the dog that still doesn’t bark in the night.
 Actually Diane Abbott has got this right, as she has so many other things right: “I would tackle the deficit by coming out of Afghanistan, slashing the defence budget and scrapping Trident.” (Candidates’ answers to questionnaire, The Observer, 27 June 2010) Make it the centrepiece of your campaign, Diane: now that England’s out of the world cup, perhaps people will sit up and take notice.