"Out of harm's way"?

IssueFebruary 2010
News by Gabriel Carlyle

The British Government is considering plans to redeploy British troops in Afghanistan from the more dangerous, northern areas of Helmand province to its quieter central districts, in an attempt to undermine growing anti-war sentiment here in the UK. 71% of Britons support a one-year withdrawal of all British forces (see PN 2516/17).

McChrystal’s thinking

The move is apparently the brainchild of the head of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

According to the Independent on Sunday: “Crucial to [McChrystal’s] thinking is that the US needs Britain to remain in Afghanistan to maintain the political alliance more than for military reasons ... It was vital to keep Britain ‘in’ or the alliance would crumble” and he “believes Britain’s continued involvement would be politically more palatable at home if its 9,000 soldiers were moved ‘out of harm’s way’ from the frontline.”

Growing fears

Since the outset of the current Afghan campaign in 2006, senior British army officers have recognised UK public opinion has a “key strategic factor”. Now, according to the Observer, there are “growing fears [in the Government] that the loss of public support for the war could spread to the forces community.”

These fears have found their echo in the reception accorded to Lance Corporal Joe Glenton – the British soldier now facing jail for his refusal to fight in Afghanistan (see PN 2516/2517) – on his return to barracks following an appearance at an anti-war rally in London last year: “There were handshakes and lots of pats on the back. Someone said I was saying what everyone else is thinking. I heard that from several people.”

Threat & opportunity

Opponents of the war therefore face both a threat and an opportunity in 2010. If public opposition turns out to be mainly rooted in a narrow concern for the lives of British soldiers – and this is not a given, but something that the peace movement should be contesting – then the redeployment plan may achieve its core objective of stemming public pressure to withdraw. If, on the other hand, the anti-war movement can find new and constructive ways to engage with and support the war’s opponents within the forces, then perhaps it can help make those “growing fears” a reality – and thereby hasten Britain’s withdrawal.