Afghan follies

Following his stuttering, incoherent, underbriefed performance on the Today programme this morning, surely the worst and most embarrassing by a major cabinet minister that I at least have ever heard, our so-called Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth - whose lowly place in the ministerial pecking order suddenly seems explicable - has made a big speech on Afghanistan to the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House.

There was little new in it. Defence Secretaries have been making this speech for the best part of a decade now. The message is always the same - we're making steady progress, we're working with the Afghan people, some Afghan girls are now in school, this is vital for preventing terrorism "on the streets of Britain", it's not over yet but we're confident of victory. Mention is made of investment in Afghan infrastructure (though none of the infrastructure that has been blown up). Tribute is paid to the bravery and professionalism of the armed forces. Details change. The names of the dead soldiers whose sacrifice the minister celebrates are different each time. The number of British forces in the country is larger. The identity of the minister changes. But the message remains consistent: the war in Afghanistan is both necessary and winnable.

From the Guardian, 30 November 2006:

Tony Blair made the startling claim yesterday that Britain and other Nato members were "winning" the war in Afghanistan despite increased Taliban activity and a sharply rising death toll....

Doubts about the military operation have grown this year as a result of a resurgence in Taliban operations that has left thousands of Afghans dead, as well as Nato troops. Two Nato soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb south of Kabul yesterday.

But Mr Blair, who along with George Bush is among the most bullish of the Nato leaders about the prospects for Afghanistan, said: "I think there is a sense that this mission in Afghanistan is not yet won, but it is winnable and, indeed, we are winning."

Ainsworth today:

Success will be achieved incrementally. Step by step and over time, the Afghans themselves will take full responsibility for their own security - and their own governance. This will make, in due course, the international combat capability unnecessary....There is progress, there is momentum. In this task we rely on the professionalism, skill and dedication of our Armed Forces and the civilians who work with them. They will not let us down. We owe them the support... and the patience…they need to get the job done."

And so it goes on.

Ainsworth claimed today that the Afghanistan adventure "goes to the heart of this country's national security and to the core of our national interests". It's difficult to see how. The argument that terrorism "on the streets of Britain" originates in Afghanistan is both specious and self-contradictory. Yes, there are (or were) training camps in that country where British-born extremists learnt their trade. But there are equally many Britons who have been radicalised in part at least because of British troops in Afghanistan. And if tackling domestic terrorism is the goal, then it could be done domestically at a fraction of the cost and without loss of life. Every pound spent in Afghanistan is not being spent in Britain.

Does the allied intervention have anything to show for it? Possibly. According to this report from Reuters, sales of burqas in some Herat are down as much as 50% - with some women opting for Iranian-style chadors instead. This, of course, counts as major breakthrough.

Ainsworth reminds us that, since 2001, 176 soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (the figure had to be revised upwards once again this morning to take account of the latest death, Ben Babington-Browne). And the rate of attrition is increasing steadily - seven this past week alone. So is the cost. According to MoD figures, in 2003-4 the cost of British operations there was £46 million. By 2006-7 (the last year for which figures were given) the cost had gone up to £738 million. Last year, according figures quoted in the Telegraph, it was £2.6 billion - money squandered, never to be seen again. Even Gordon Brown at his most mendacious would be hard pressed to describe money spent on bullets, bombs and missiles as "investment".

But let's stick to the cost in lives. Four years ago yesterday 52 lives were lost as a result of terrorism in the UK. There have been none since. Every death is a tragedy, of course, but that is less than a third of the number killed in Afghanistan in the line of duty. To say nothing of the ordinary Afghans accidentally killed by Allied forces (usually, but not always, by the Americans). On the crudest assessment, our presence in Afghanistan is costing us more lives than it can conceivably have saved, even if going into Afghanistan were a rational strategy for tackling terrorism at home. Which it isn't.

Belief in the efficacy, as a means of tackling domestic terrorism, of foreign campaigns is, in the strictest sense, voodoo. It is a quasi-magical belief in action at a distance - as though Afghanistan were some giant Britain-shaped doll, and sticking pins in it could somehow cure domestic afflictions. It is a delusion believed in by ministers, civil servants, serving (but less often former) top soldiers and their stooges in the media, who send out reporters who to be overawed by reams of statistics and filmed acts of derring-do. Clever, well-briefed, expert people all. But their expertise doesn't make them any less deluded. Many of the doctors who believed in bloodletting were clever, knowledgeable people too.

The slow motion train-wreck that is British (and US) policy in Afghanistan has unfolded with almost no public - still less political - debate. Some journalists are prepared to tell the truth - Matthew Parris, for one - but most media outlets are happy to trot out the MoD line. Such controversies as do arise tend to concern the shortage of equipment and the deaths which inevitably result. There is not nearly enough dissent, even on blogs. There are no mass marches. Opposition to Afghanistan remains vocal only in those sections of the Left who long ago got into bed with Islamist extremists.

This is not Vietnam, with its patent war crimes. This is not Iraq, with its dodgy dossiers and non-existent WMD, its UN and EU splits and its Bush-Blair axis of weevils. Yet Iraq was a winnable war, with clear(ish) objectives; we can at least now get out and move on. Ever since Western forces went into Afghanistan in 2001, we have been told that the mission is to rebuild a viable state which can take over security. Ainsworth said so again today:

Our challenge is to support the Afghan national government until it can tackle the threat posed by the Taliban on its own. Because for Britain to be secure, Afghanistan needs to be secure.

In the eight years since we went into Afghanistan we have gone into Iraq and come out again. The Iraqi government has achieved sufficient stability to take care of its own security and put down - with diminishing American aid - the domestic insurgents. The opposite has happened in Afghanistan. With ever year that has passed since the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul, what passes for a central government has become progressively weaker and more dependent on Western troops for its continuance. There is no prospect of this changing in the foreseeable future.

No politicians lied to get us into Helmand. They sent the troops with the purest, most honest intentions - well, as pure and honest as you can get for a politician. There is no scandal - apart from the scandal of the lost lives and the impossibility of victory. This is widely, and rightly, seen as a noble, well-motivated struggle against a cartoonishly unattractive foe. That's the problem. That's what makes it almost impossible to get out of.

Indeed, it's worse even than we feared. Barack Obama's increased commitment to the Afghanistan disaster has given it new-found and spurious legitimacy. We still like Obama. At any rate, he's some sort of improvement on Dubya, which is probably as much as we can hope for. But that doesn't mean he doesn't share in the general delusion about this crazy war. Like so many others before him, he will have to learn the hard way one of the perennial lessons of history. Stay out of Afghanistan.

Apart from anything else, Afghanistan is destroying our defence capability. At any time, even when demands for cuts are more muted than they are today, fighting wars should be the exception rather than the rule. It seems to me that we can either have well-equipped, impressive and effective armed forces, or we can use them. We cannot do both. It is Tony Blair who deserves the blame for the mess the armed forces are currently in. The endless procession of wars he got us involved in were to a great extent an answer to the question, "What are the armed forces for". He thought, I suppose, that they should justify their existence by being on continuous active service. But this is too great a strain - emotionally, morallly and above all financially. Fighting wars consumes vast resources, resources that cannot be spent on better equipment or shiny new ships and planes. It is, in the end, as we are finding out, unsustainable.

Ideally, our armed forces should look good and do little. They are trained, well equipped - and kept in reserve, just in case they are needed. They should be treated like the fire brigade - there if you really need them, but if they spend their time sitting around in the fire station waiting for the alarm that never rings, so much the better. This used to be the case with the armed forces. Margaret Thatcher had a reputation as a warrior queen, but between the Falklands in 1983 and the first - and extremely brief - Gulf War in 1991 there were no major engagements. The Major government later sent peacekeepers to Bosnia, but that was a small-scale operation, carried out without much fighting or loss of life. It was not a war. All this time, the British armed forces kept their reputation for effectiveness. They looked good. They were safe. This is how it should be.

It is now said that we cannot afford Trident, and that we cannot afford the expensive new aircraft carriers which are, at last, now being built. The money should be spent equipping frontline troops, it is claimed, so that they can do their job properly in Afghanistan. But money spent on battle is money lost - and counterproductive. The war will go on. It will cost more lives and more resources, and the final result will be failure. And, to keep this pointless campaign going, the armed forces will be starved of the equipment they need to preserve a long term future as a credible military presence in the world. And they will be worn out with incessant labour, and depleted by pointless and tragic deaths. It is horrible.

Buy Trident, I say. Buy the aircraft carriers. These things are valuable precisely because they are are unlikely to be used in anger. Like a stag's antlers, the true purpose of a country's armed forces is to impress and intimidate rivals. Once they have to be used, they have already failed. Concentrate on doing what the military does best - playing music, marching in parades, sailing the seven seas boosting Britain's prestige. Keep out of wars - unless, like the Falklands, British territory is directly attacked or, like the Gulf War, we are repelling an invading army.

But above all, get out of Afghanistan.


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