Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Harsh but Fair

Rolling Stone's now notorious interview with General Stanley McChrystal contains the following blunt summation of the state of play:


It's a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He's in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.


What about the ten thousand British troops, 300 of whom have paid with their lives for the UK's stalwart support of this mission - a vital national interest, we keep being told?" Not a word. Truly outrageous", thinks David Hughes, who worries that the oversight might reflect the thinking of Gen. McChrystal rather than of Michael Hastings, who wrote the piece. Certainly, it is a thoughtlessly tactless sentiment. But it's not an inaccurate one.

Yes, Britain does have twice as many troops in Afghanistan as any other NATO member. Proportionately, our casualty rate has been higher than any other country, including the US itself. The fighting has been intense, sapping, draining of resources. It has an increasingly high public profile, contributing to a sense that this is a nation at war, and that our involvement is vital both to the UK and to Afghanistan. The brutal fact, however, is that like Iraq the campaign in Afghanistan is an American show. It is indeed the exclusive property of Uncle Sam. It has been at least since the Americans had to rescue us in Helmand earlier this year. However brave, our over-stretched, under-resourced, technologically deficient soldiers are incapable even of bearing a limited share in the fighting without American help. We are there entirely on their sufferance.

Hasting's apparent rudeness (which probably isn't McChrystal's, but which certainly does represent feeling on Main Street) ought to serve as a useful reality check. The sooner we fully realised our peripheral status in this conflict, the sooner we can free ourselves of the delusions the Afghan campaign has fostered, pre-eminent among which are the delusion that Britain still matters militarily and the delusion that our participation in Afghanistan is vital to our national security. We are America's allies in that we're fighting alongside (or, rather, under) them. We are not America's allies in the sense that our participation makes a blind bit of difference. If British troops left tomorrow the Pentagon would scarcely notice the extra cost of replacing them. If American troops left tomorrow British troops would be on the same flight.

This isn't about gratitude, it's about military reality, and it's frankly pathetic to expect American gratitude for our help. Worse, it implies that desire for American thanks is a large part of our reason for being in Afghanistan. Perhaps it is: it makes more sense than the bizarre, oft-repeated claim that we're there to keep Britain's streets safe from Al Qaeda. But in that case, is the geo-political gain of being seen as a "good ally" really worth the billions of pounds and hundreds of lives it is costing? If US goodwill if what we want, it could be obtained more efficiently by spending the money helping to clean up the mess in the Gulf of Mexico. That's something the White House might even notice.