A majority in search of a party on Afghanistan
Mark Ballard once, with a smirk on his face, told me that Nigel Farage (the then UKIP leader) listed his interests as real ale, military history and cricket. He suggested it was a bit like a Green liking gardening on the allotment, muesli and woolly jumpers. Sadly real ale, military history and cricket are prominent among my interests (not that I’ve ever had much sympathy for the crazies in UKIP).
For military historians there is a definition of an overseas venture that’s a futile, un-winnable waste of resources. It’s called a ground war in Afghanistan. From Alexander the Great to the USSR all invading forces have found Afghanistan extraordinarily difficult to subdue. The image below (“Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler) is of the sole survivor of the invading British force of 16,000 in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).
So, more than 8 years after the US backed invasion it comes as no surprise that little progress is being made in achieving stability in Afghanistan. The use of drones to bomb villages in an apparently indiscriminate fashion and the brutal insensitivity of US troops have made the invading force unpopular. The reluctance to commit substantial numbers of ground troops has made the force ineffective.
The invasion is a failure by almost all standards. The widespread allegations of corruption in the elections and the ability of the Taliban to intimidate voters in Helmand calls into question the notion that the invasion is democratising Afghanistan.
The war itself is immoral. More civilians are getting killed. The presence of western troops is strengthening political Islam. The war is also increasingly un-winnable. As more and more civilians are killed, so local war lords and the Taliban are strengthened. This is a vicious circle leading, eventually, to defeat.
That leaves me wondering why there is an impenetrable political stone wall on this. None of the major Scottish parties have come out against the war. Some parties are bounded by a desire to support British troops. But surely removing the army from an un-winnable combat situation, and saving the lives of our soldiers, is the best way to do this.
Opinion polling suggests that a very large section of the population is in favour of withdrawal. Of course the mainstream media is very focused on ensuring that the war continues. In June 2009 a poll suggested that the public were in favour of cutting defence spending first. This was followed in July 2009 by a heavily media backed campaign from Richard Dannatt and Jock Stirrup, the heads of the army and air force, for more helicopters in Afghanistan. Of course the easiest way to avoid casualties in Afghanistan is to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Those with an eye for military history will note that it was US-supplied Stinger shoulder mounted surface to air missiles that did much to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This was achieved by shooting down Soviet helicopters – there’s no reason to suppose that more helicopters are a solution to the problem of troop movements.
I can see no reason why the Scottish Greens, the SNP, and the Labour left are not taking a much stronger line on this in the run up to a Westminster election. It’s the right thing to do – especially if it encourages others to speak out for an end to this senseless conflict. It’s the right time to do it. And it’s likely to be popular with the electorate, seeking a voice for their opinions.
When ‘we’ first invaded, I remember my grandmother (now 97) commenting that her uncle (or another close relative) had fought in the Second Afghan War, that the idea of invading Afghanistan was never a good one.
If only we all had such a long memory.
One thing I’ve come round to in recent years is that you cannot impose democracy on people. Through the ages, whether it’s universal suffrage, the fall of the Iron Curtain or democracy in China, the demand for self-determination must come from within.
At the recent Afghan presidential election many people were shocked that village elders were telling their people who to vote for and the villagers were accepting this without question. What I saw was a culture that has not yet evolved to demand anything else. Our role is to support and encourage change – best done by example and communications play a big part in that; which is why the debate over removing internet censorship in China is hugely important in that sphere. Sending in guns will do nothing but help those who argue that their culture is being invaded and will only serve to isolate rather than educate.