During a much-bally-hooed two-day June visit to British troops in Afghanistan, new British prime minister David Cameron claimed that he could “sum up this mission in two words”: “It is about our national security back in the UK. Clearing al-Qa’eda out of Afghanistan, damaging them in Pakistan, making sure this country is safe and secure – it will make us safe and secure back home in the UK.”
A major mistake?
According to the Guardian, Cameron believes that one of the two “major mistakes” made by the Brown government was its failure to explain to people back home “in simple terms” why British troops were sacrificing their lives in a distant country.
In reality the problem wasn’t Brown’s failure to provide sufficiently simplistic soundbites (what US theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once termed “emotionally potent oversimplications” to cater to “the stupidity of the average man”).
Indeed, Cameron’s latest pronouncement is barely distinguishable from Brown’s earlier claim: “It comes back to terrorism on the streets of Britain”.
The real problem has always been that most people simply don’t believe these claims.
For example, an April poll by ComRes found that a majority (51%) of the British public agreed that the threat of terrorism on British soil is increased by British forces remaining in Afghanistan, with only 36% disagreeing.
Such an assessment is entirely justified. Indeed, Richard Barrett – who formerly headed counter-terrorism for MI6, and now leads the UN’s al-Qa’eda and Taliban Monitoring Team – dismissed Cameron’s assertion: “I’ve never heard such nonsense.... I’m quite sure if there were no foreign troops in Afghanistan, there’d be less agitation in Leeds, or wherever, about ... what western intentions are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Choice, not necessity
Cameron claims that: “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” This is similarly at variance with reality.
War was certainly not the only option in 2001, when the US and Britain chose to invade Afghanistan in spite of Taliban offers to extradite bin Laden, and dire warnings from international aid agencies regarding the likely humanitarian impact (see PN 2514).
An ideal platform
Britain’s major escalation in 2006 – when over 3,000 British troops were sent to southern Afghanistan – was also not driven by necessity. Indeed, according to a two-month investigation by The Times, involving interviews with 32 senior military, political and civil service figures, this escalation had its origins in 2004 when, inside Downing Street and the MoD, “planners and policy advisers started to regard the neglected campaign in Afghanistan as an ideal platform for Britain to reaffirm its status as a global military power and close US ally.”
On the basis of an initial foray into Helmand in 2005, the SAS produced a report warning that the planned escalation would fuel the war. “They noted that there wasn’t much of an insurgency in Helmand, but that if you wanted one then send the British there,” an officer who has seen the report told The Times. The escalation went ahead anyway.
Military posturing and service to US power, knowing full well that escalation would only boost the insurgency. Choice, not necessity.
Negotiations to end the war are a real alternative to the current carnage – an alternative favoured by most Afghans, and most people here in the UK (see PN 2521).
However, like his predecessors, Cameron is more concerned with maintaining Britain’s status as “a close US ally”, and has given strong backing to Obama’s escalation or “surge”, whose centrepiece - the much-anticipated Kandahar offensive - is now mooted to begin in September. The likely consequences are not hard to foresee.
Indeed, according to Barrett, attempts by US and the UK to expand their control over Afghan territory over the past 12 months have only served to make things worse: “Foreign troops push into areas where they haven’t been before, and if the Taliban are there they will start fighting. Then it’s not calm. It’s not calm because foreign forces have pushed in”, he notes – an analysis dramatically borne out by recent field research by the (pro-war) International Council on Security and Development.
Propaganda redux Cameron is well aware that the Britain’s war in Afghanistan is unpopular back home. According to polls, 55% “oppose the military operation involving UK soldiers in Afghanistan” and 77% want to see a phased withdrawal leading to “the end of combat operations within a year or so”. Like Brown, Cameron’s response has been to try and shield an unpopular and unwinnable war behind the public’s (largely uncritical) support for the armed forces.
Thus his assertion that he wants “a new atmosphere in our country, where we back and revere our armed forces.... [putting them] front and centre in our national life again”. Let us therefore give the last word to a soldier.
A soldier’s declaration
In his famous July 1917 letter to his commanding officer (“Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”) Siegfried Sassoon wrote in “protest against the deception which is being practised upon” ordinary soldiers, noting that a war that he had “entered as a war of defence and liberation has... become a war of aggression and conquest” and was now “being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it” by negotiation.
Plus ça change.