There has been a period of national mourning and reflection following the deaths of six soldiers in an explosion which wrecked their Warrior armoured vehicle like it was a Dinky toy. The explosion was caused by an IED (improvised explosive device) of the type planted by members of whichever resistance movement, and claimed by The Taliban, of whom more later. This brings the total number of British service personnel killed in Afghanistan to 404, as of 6 March 2012 (445 as of 15 Oct 2013.)
By comparison, 1,783 American forces had died in the same period out of a total of 2,769 Coalition deaths. Estimates for Afghan deaths in the same period suggest many thousands; what proportion are fighters and what civilians depends on whose version you believe, but the best information available suggests numbers of civilians killed in the conflict is rising steeply – 12,500-14,700 being the spread of figures quoted, since the war began in 2001.
Are these deaths, in fact are any deaths justified by “the mission”, as politicians and senior armed forces personnel are inclined to describe it? For my part I’ve never believed some lives are cheaper than others, and I will come back to this point later.
“Good progress” was how US military leaders used to describe the Vietnam war, which ultimately failed its objectives. You could argue that international troops in Afghanistan are part of the problem, not the solution, though no participating government would ever agree to that on the record. Party line is to praise the troops and claim they are working towards peaceful withdrawal and a successful outcome.
The war began, you will recall, in the aftermath of 9-11, on the pretext that the Taliban (an undeniably cruel fundamentalist body who ruled large parts of Afghanistan for some years up to 2001, and whose driving purpose is to enforce strict adherence to a very tight and rigid interpretation of Sharia law, as part of which they brutally repressed freedoms for women) were harbouring known al Queda terrorists and turning a blind eye to both the establishment of terrorist training camps and the country’s biggest export trade: opium poppies. Unlike Iraq and Iran, there was no oil trading to be protected.
Worth saying at this point that former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, among others, claimed that there is no such terrorist organisation, and that Al-Queda is effectively an imaginary big bad bogeyman created to apply a single focus for American public opinion, though others doubtless disagree. This is Cook’s quote, and remember as you read that Cook was no fool:
“The truth is there is no Islamic army or terrorist group called Al Quaida. And any informed intelligence agent knows this. But there is a propaganda campaign to make the public believe in the presence of an identified entity… The country behind this is the US” – Robin Cook
The objective of the war since then has gone through several re-evaluations, and what might arguably be defined as scope-creep. For British troops, we are told that it is to train the Afghan police force to provide law and order, and therefore stability for the government Hamed Karzai, which will be completed by 2014, at which point we are assured British troops will pull out. Whether this applies to American and other troops too is less clear, and precisely what is meant by withdrawal is unclear – the possibility of weasel words, which in the Humpty Dumpty tradition mean precisely what the military and politicians want them to mean, is never far away.
But even if the Afghan forces are all fully trained and capable of exercising their own leadership, so what? The leaders will be just as corrupt, the Islamic influences will still be there, the tribal elders will still command more respect and the society will not ever be a direct copy of downtown USA, and it is both stupid and trite for political leaders ever to think of such a complex country far from home as following an American blueprint. Blame Dubya for that.
The message is oft-repeated that the local people approve of British troops and welcome their removal of the Taliban from areas of Kandahar province, but equally the Afghan way is to make friendly noises towards whichever authority is currently holding sway. This does not imply a conversion to, or even any understanding of western values, though there is a naivety about politicians and military leaders who believe they are conducting a form of cultural enlightenment.
Anyone who knows anything about culture also knows that for the underlying cultural values of Afghans to change would require an occupation probably closer to 200 years than 12. Furthermore, lack of knowledge of local language and culture means misinterpretation is inevitable. Incidents like US troops urinating on dead Afghans, burning Korans and now killing innocent civilians, including women and children, by night, says far more about attitudes to the people on their own soil than a million words from a minister ever can.
There are many problems with the main justifications of the war, of which these are but a sample:
Even if there was a centralised form of Al-Queda organisation, execution of terrorist actions are devolved to independent cells who know nothing of the remainder of the organisation, and cannot therefore divulge anything under torture (even those held for years without charge in Guantanamo Bay detention centre.) Terrorist cells are by definition fluid bodies who might be based anywhere and strike anywhere, so wherever they are now they are almost certainly not in Afghanistan, and the death of a leader will create another martyr to be avenged but won’t stop the resolve – that will die out over time when it becomes obvious that nothing changes in the final instance. However, if there is evidence that western troop numbers have significantly diminished, they may well return to Afghanistan, regardless of the police activity.
Whatever is done with Afghanistan or anywhere else, the world will not be rid of terrorism. Worse, starting wars and engaging in conflicts is precisely the trigger jihadist groups want to encourage moderate Muslims to pick up arms and engage against what the fundamentalists believe is a common enemy. The more we engage the more likely it is we will be targeted and the conflict will extend geographically and in intensity.
Targeting the Taliban as the nearest de facto embodiment of a terrorist presence is severely flawed. To begin with, this is not one body with clear leadership, but many groups of sympathisers within Pashtun tribes. A hydra, some of which heads are moderate and others extreme, but they will always hold their own agenda regardless. No matter how many are killed or injured, there will always be a proportion of these tribes sympathetic to the Taliban mindset. The political mindset in countries culturally diverse from our own values is very different and infinitely more complex than reported in the West.
No amount of black & white pushing of the Taliban as the face of evil will disguise the many shades of complexity and subtlety among the different players. For the benefit of western eyes, all coverage has been way too simplistic, a fact which even senior military personnel (but apparently not politicians) recognise.
3) Exit Strategy
There never any form of an exit strategy when Bush Jr began the war, Blair hard on his heels. The supposition that you could apply a western-style democracy in a land with precisely no tradition for it, but many thousands of years of tribal councils, is naive in the extreme – and by blasting the supposed baddies (taking a very black and white view of who are which) and training a few police you will not impose stability and order. You get the impression that the entire strategy was dreamed up by watching a few old John Wayne movies.
Make no mistake, Karzai’s government is a puppet regime, funded and directed by the west, though what he says to us is not the same as what he says to his own people. Karzai seems now to be practising politics in the more traditional Afghan way: by doing deals with the various tribes to keep his support base, and by exchange repressing women and applying aspects of Sharia law abhorrent to many in the west. The likelihood is that over time tribal councils will re-emerge and the whole exercise will have proved costly and futile.
This is not a marriage made in heaven: while Karzai may be westernised and sophisticated, some of his governmental decisions are distasteful to the west, and he himself has rightly been critical of the coalition forces. What he says to his own people is not what he says to Western leaders, and that includes pandering to those who would repress women, for example. Do not believe for a moment he will take the path we choose, just because money depends on it.
4) Western hypocrisy
More to the point, however unpleasant the Taliban regime may have been, or Saddam Hussain, or for that matter any other dictator or fundamentalist cause, the ones where we in the West intervene militarily are those we deem to be in our strategic interests. Many other repressive regimes we ignore or simply chide from a distance about human rights abuses. Worse still, if we deem it to be in our interests we are happy to fund some of the most brutally oppressive regimes on the planet, or even fund opposition to democratically elected governments of a hue unsympathetic to American diplomacy.
In short, there is much hypocrisy in foreign policy, justified by rhetoric that rarely stands up to scrutiny. If we opposed the Taliban regime, why were we less keen to invade North Korea or China, to choose two countries at random? If we wanted to make a stand against human rights abuses, why did we not invade Saudi Arabia, or protect Palestinians in Gaza from Israeli military action?
Answer: because the reasons for invading or applying diplomatic sanctions are not as simplistic as often painted. We take into account what are deemed our best interests, political, strategic and commercial, oil flows and contracts, possession of nuclear weapons, the views of allies and enemies. Don’t kid yourself for a moment we are on a moral crusade here, that’s just stuff and nonsense. Neither should anyone be fooled that we are morally superior or any less expedient in our acceptance of moral wrongs.
But there is a more fundamental moral principle at stake in the deaths of our soldiers, namely that deaths of anyone in a cause of unclear virtues is not only regrettable but wholly avoidable. I recently watched a programme following British troops through a patrol in a war zone, where they ended up in a pitch battle against opposition forces. In the course of this battle, one British soldier was hit by gunfire and later died from his injuries.
During the course of the programme, a message flashed up on the screen to say that one British solder died, but 10 of the opposing side were killed. Several soldiers were captured vowing to repay the death of their colleague with 20 or 50 or 100 from the other side, which clearly suggested that retribution was a key motive and that life of people outside your own battalion is cheap, very cheap indeed. The justification was along the lines of “if we don’t kill them, they will kill us.” And to myself I repeated the age-old saying: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
The escalation of deaths on all sides cannot go on forever, and every death, on either side, is wrong, whether or not you believe the propaganda war being fought to justify this campaign. “Rogue soldiers” killing civilians will not help the cause (similar events happened in Vietnam, such as the Mai Lai massacre), nor will incidents of so-called “friendly fire.” But for Afghan citizens, the condolences of the US President or the British Armed Forces Minister about the death of innocent civilians will cut little ice.
So to answer my own question, whatever political goals are being applied and no matter how much praise politicians heap upon the armies assembled in Afghanistan, they are sent there on a fool’s mission which they and we ultimately cannot win. Whether that means we should not try to influence Afghan policy is a different question, but we are there now for one reason only: thanks to an ill-judged leap into Afghanistan in 2001, we were obliged to reconstruct.
Where reconstruction ends is the moot point. The biggest problem is a political one – we want an Afghanistan friendly to us, not self-determination for Afghans. The rigged election that saw Karzai stay in power demonstrates the dilemma, but since America can’t afford any other regime to be imposed, the US instead chose to turn a blind eye to electoral irregularities; who knows, the US may have aided them in order to get the right result! This is effectively a post-colonial war to maintain a proxy government. We are a foreign force invading the territory of the Afghan people.
We are and will forever be an invading force in Afghanistan. In any country in the world torn apart and occupied by an invading force, one which tries to impose a government sympathetic to its own causes, you could expect opposition. The common thread is that we are “dealing with insurgents”, though equally this is the country of those insurgents and we are the alien fighting force and they represent one strand of opinion within that country.
Remember also that the US ultimately could not defeat guerrilla warfare against the Viet Cong in Vietnam, in spite of vast resources thrown into that conflict, and ultimately chose illegal bombing deep into Cambodia with the tragic consequences that conditions were created that allowed the Khmer Rouge to seize power and begin a policy known as the “killing fields” – a genocide in which many million innocent Cambodians were murdered.
IEDs are deeply unpleasant, the deaths they cause are tragic and terrible, but ultimately there is very little that can be done to stop them if the people responsible are simply part of the community, a proportion of whom oppose the presence of an occupying foreign force on their soil, let alone one they believe to be an enemy.
Ultimately the spirit of the people will resurface and they will conduct their own power struggles in their traditional way. Whether or not terrorism is in any way reduced from this war is far from proven, either way. Osama bin Laden, public enemy no 1 to Americans, was killed in Pakistan, but what has reduced the incidence of terror attacks is greater vigilance on the part of security forces in every country, changes to airport security controls, and better use of intelligence.
Meanwhile, the cost of the war is still ticking, both in the US and UK. Public opinion will not forever endure swingeing cuts at home while funding foreign adventures at huge cost in money and lives. Opponents of the war are finding a keen audience, even among the parents of soldiers. And at some point politicians will decide enough is enough, be it 2014 or whenever – when public opinion deems this slaughter to be too morally repugnant. But will any lessons truly be learned? History suggests otherwise.
Of the post-exit scenarios, none exclude the Taliban and many include further conflict, despite the newly-trained police force, a significant proportion of which will not have forgotten or written off their cultural roots. But the brave face of Western governments says that no longer will Afghanistan tolerate or train terrorists. How sure are our politicians that that will ever be true? After all, what western governments care about more than anything is getting re-elected.
Here’s a question to consider: Was the war in Afghanistan worth a single British, American or Afghan life? Many would consider not.
If you do want to stop terrorist groups, you need a multi-level strategy and a long-term plan, not a tool in the arsenal of most politicians. The process would include several strands:
- Cut the sources of funding, especially from allies. If this includes black market sales of oil, those should be illegal and punished.
- Ensure local groups (eg. the Arab League) take ownership of their own affairs, which should include protection against terrorist activity.
- Do not get drawn into regional conflicts that will set off scores against other superpowers. Prevent any drawn-out conflict like Vietnam.
- Act legally and avoid ‘traps’ like creating hotspots in areas surrounded by innocent civilians.
PPS. This week a marine was found guilty by a Court Martial of murdering in cold blood an injured Taliban fighter in contravention of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention, captured by a helmet cam used by one of his colleagues. Various senior military names have said that a life sentence is too harsh and that leniency should be applied. The Chief of Defence Staff says otherwise: “Murder is murder, this is a heinous crime.” To my way of thinking, whatever pressures anyone is under, there is no excuse whatever for murder and that it should be punished every bit as severely as if it were a civilian murder. For that matter, I think this crime should also be dealt with by our conventional judiciary, rather than according the military any special privileges.
PPPS. A retired captain from the Territorials wrote a book from his PhD thesis criticising the “stupid” approach taken by the British in Afghanistan (see here.) Even among government sources the mistakes of under preparation and unclear mission are recognised as being the fault, jointly, of politicians and generals. The wrong mission at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.
4PS. 26 October 2014: the UK combat mission is finally over (see here), but my warning about the impact of what happens after our withdrawal remains as true as when I wrote it.
5PS. There was a sad feature on Peter Allen’s programme on Five Live about the plight of Afghan translators, who the army acknowledges were absolutely critical to winning hearts and minds of local communities in Helmand but equally in the American zones.
The MoD has paid off these people and denied them access to the UK, yet they are now in fear of their lives from the Taliban, who are just as much a force as ever they were. Worse still, America has put them on the same blacklist applied to members of the Taliban, which means they are in limbo – they can’t leave the country to save their skins, neither can they live openly for fear of being murdered.
What a disgraceful way to treat people who have risk their own lives to benefit the invading Western forces – I hope the politicians on all sides are shamed by this. As one of the translators put it: “We saved your lives, now you need to save ours.”