Friday, 28 August 2009

The Sun sets on Afghanistan


Will it be the Sun what lost it?

The paper's new editor, Dominic Mohan, has splashed with a picture spread of the 207 British casualties in Afghanistan and the headline Don't You Know There's A Bloody War On.

In what amounts to a thousand word editorial (in Sun terms, that's the equivalent of War and Peace) the traditionally gung-ho paper berates Gordon Brown personally for the equipment shortages and the traditional atmosphere of shambles at the Ministry of Defence which, in its view, is solely responsible for the lamentable state of affairs.

Each dead soldier "represents a sacrifice made for democracy and freedom in the name of Britain" sez the Sun.


Yet, to its shame, our Government doesn't seem to want to face up to the fact we are in the middle of a savage conflict. Our leaders are pretending the war isn't happening. Today, The Sun asks the Government and Gordon Brown: Where is your leadership?


Accusing Brown and other ministers of being "missing in action", the piece speaks of "an air of reality" in the country, and describes defence secretary Bob Aintworthit as "a fool who is out of his depth and with little experience". It also compares Brown unfavourably with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and even Tony Blair, who "assumed full responsibility when we invaded Iraq to topple Saddam" - though many people rather wished he hadn't.

Meanwhile Brown is "hiding beneath the parapet and delegating wartime command to a journeyman politician with no natural feel for the role and a department full of incompetents". Furthermore he MOD is "groaning with third-rate penpushers, riddled with petty turf wars and empire building, and paralysed by indecision" - the authority for this is former defence chief Lord Guthrie - one of several voices whose contributions feature in sidebars, including the mother of an injured paratrooper, Andy MacNab and Patrick Hennessey, author of the bestselling Junior Officer's Book Club.

It is, of course, possible to overstate the influence of the Sun, but New Labour has always regarded the paper with a kind of superstitious awe. And no paper is more astute when it comes to spotting a bandwagon worth jumping on. If Murdoch's main British mouthpiece does turn decisively against the conflict it could be the beginning of the end.

True, most of Mohan's complaints relate to under-resourcing rather than the more fundamental question of what we're doing in Afghanistan. I've never been convinced by the argument that, could we only get adequate equipment in theatre the situation would be transformed. The required investment would be vast, and military budgets have been stretched enough as it is. The shortages are not merely problematic in themselves, they are symptomatic of deeper problems with the campaign. Most military adventures, even the most successful ones, are under-resourced. The Falklands was on a knife-edge, fought with obsolescent make-do-and-mend equipment and much ongoing improvisation. But it didn't matter, because the aims were achievable and limited - and we won. Demands for better equipment, while certainly valid, tend to miss the point.

The Sun provides no analysis of the situation in Afghanistan beyond the claim that

"We are resolutely behind our troops and the war they fight. But it's increasingly a war our leaders would rather not talk about."


There's a difference between supporting the troops - which we all do, even if we're not all as trumpet-blowing about it as the self-styled "Forces' paper" - and supporting the war. The Sun's right to point out that our leaders have had too little to say about the situation - what the paper omits to say is that when Brown and Aintworth do attempt to explain the war, their words carry little conviction. The absurd notion that being in Afghanistan somehow keep terrorism "off the streets of Britain" has recently been supplemented by the even more puzzling idea that the fight against one lot of "Taliban" in Afghanistan is the only way of keeping an entirely separate group of "Taliban" from overrunning Pakistan, a state with one of the world's largest armies. Then there's the notion that it has something to do with "democracy" - rather undermined by an election at least as rigged as the one in Iran, and in which the ballot-stuffing was done right under the noses of NATO peacekeepers. Or - laughable were it not so offensive - supporting women's rights.

We're there because we're there because we're there. And most of the time we've been there, the Sun has been as uncommunicative on the subject as government ministers have.

"Our Forces are dying in increasing numbers for this war that the Government seems to be finding such an embarrassment" says the Sun. True enough. But why does the government find it such an embarrassment? Surely because they know perfectly well that it's an unwinnable mess - and that, for the next few years at least, we're stuck there. What can they say? What could they possibly say?

The Sun suggests three steps:

First, Mr Brown must take personal charge of the war in Afghanistan and tell the country clearly where we stand.


(Not clear why Brown taking personal charge would make things better. Who died and made him Churchill?)

Second, he must sack Bob Ainsworth and appoint a competent Defence Secretary who will work with the military, not against them.

(Which might help - but probably not much)

Third, he must make available whatever money it takes to supply the equipment urgently needed on the ground.


And then what? The Sun doesn't know; the government doesn't know; I sure as hell don't know.