Afghanistan has now become a big concern for me. The situation in the country is even more complicated than that in Iraq, the schedule for withdrawal has been timed for several decades away, and the death toll of Afghans is unknown and impossible to log. I have a feeling of fear and dread as to what is going to happen next for the Afghans after years of control by the Taliban and now foreign occupation.
Last week I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about whether the UK should pull its troops out of the country. As the programme unfolded I felt increasingly annoyed at what the panellists had to say, but even more at the selection of people on the panel.
The discussion started with presenter Eddie Mair talking about a BBC/ICM poll which asked a random sample of 1,013 adults whether or not Britain should withdraw its armed forces from Afghanistan within the next 12 months.
More than two-thirds (68%) said the UK should pull its soldiers out during the next year, and less than a quarter (24%) said they believed the troops should remain. Despite a large majority of the public being in favour of troop withdrawal, the panel was far from representative of that opinion, with right-wing Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins being the only voice out of six arguing for complete withdrawal.
Other panellists included Pakistani writer and Telegraph journalist Ahmed Rashid, who argued that withdrawal would be a betrayal of the Afghan people, and Chris Alexander (part of the UN special envoy team in Kabul) who thought Britain has a moral obligation to continue the work already under way in the country.
I felt really surprised at the Afghan representative, as I was expecting an Afghan to have argued for troops out, but it was quite the opposite. Farid Popal, the first secretary for political affairs and public diplomacy at the Afghan embassy in London, made a plea against the polls and argued it is essential that the UK forces remain in the region.
The other two panellists, former diplomat Rory Stewart and humanitarian Michael Semple, were arguing for a reduction in the number of troops in Afghanistan, with Michael Semple hoping for a radical shift in policy towards the region and more co-operation with the Taliban.
It was somewhat baffling to me that many of the Afghan voices from the audience were also arguing to keep troops in the country. For example Zarghona Rassa, the founder and chair of the British Afghan Women’s Society, argued that the Afghan people must not be abandoned by the international community. From the outset of the programme I had felt excited that it might have been a progressive discussion about pulling aggressive UK troops out of the country.
After all, that’s what the opinion polls which opened the programme reflected. Instead it felt like I was listening to a panel made up of right-wing journalists, British Afghans and British military sandwiched between a few moderate thinkers – hardly representative of two-thirds of the population wanting troops out.
It is interesting to compare the BBC show with an anti-Islamophobia conference I went to a few days later. Organized by Media Workers Against the War, the keynote speakers were spread across the board from right wing Daily Mail journalist Peter Oborne to Socialist Worker Party leader Lindsey German, Muslim campaigner Inayat Bunglawala of Engage and campaigning lawyer Louise Christian. It felt as if there had been a concerted effort to put together a platform inclusive of gender, ethnicity and political beliefs. I had gone to the conference because I’m aware of Islamophobia in Britain.
I would have been seriously annoyed if I attended the conference to find the majority of speakers endorsed the argument for Islamophobia on the grounds that it is beneficial to every one’s safety. And yet that’s what the BBC did in its Afghanistan debate.
As a citizen represented in the opinion poll result, I tuned in wanting to hear arguments as to why UK troops should be withdrawn. It felt like the BBC had decided: “We know what the majority of listeners think but we are going to ignore that and impose what we have decided are the right opinions.”
There was also a serious shortfall in areas covered by the discussion. Many of the voices seemed to show a deep concern for the welfare of Afghan citizens and yet many of the atrocious acts committed by foreign troops such as aerial bombing, torture, extradition and the use of drone planes were not touched upon at all. I feel like the BBC is not reflecting the voice I and the majority of the population want to hear.