THE BLOG

Afghanistan: Could Britain be Losing its Appetite for War?

Now, I'm not usually one for p***ing in the soup but...

in Britain we are witnessing both political ineptitude and opportunism all at once. Again. Together with US forces, British soldiers are taking relatively heavy casualties in the firing line in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the usual pitch-fork battle that wages on the home-front, parallel to any international military deployment, shuffles impotently on. It's Round 2 of Hawks vs. Sandal-clad Surrender Monkeys and this time pacifists are talking up economic ruin for Britain, amid the escalating cost of yet another war they don't understand. A recent ICM Guardian/BBC Newsnight poll shows they account for a 56% tranche of the British public who want our troops out of the region within the next 6 months. 36% of the population knows we should be in Afghanistan, but can't quite pronounce the exact reason for our being there. 5% were unable to answer because they had the kettle on.

Many still appear to be missing the overall point of the conflict. Much of the blame for this has been laid at the feet of the Prime Minister (or "Dear Leader" -- until he is elected). The leaders of the opposition parties have naturally swooped in, eager to scavenge what political capital there may be in accusing Gordon Brown and the Government of failing to properly equip our soldiers in the searing conditions of South Central Asia. "Helicopters!" they cry, "Our boys need more helicopters!" yet still they come up short when offering intelligent solutions to the Afghan proposition.

But as the faces of fallen servicemen stare back at us from the front pages of our worthy Sunday newspapers, it seems all too clear that Brown is unwilling to send either more hardware or troops to support the 9,000 already in theatre. So is this political ineptitude: the perception of playing fast and loose with the lives of British soldiers or, rather, the inability to properly communicate the military objectives to an earnest public? After all, you don't just need to fight a good war, you need to know how to sell one. Ask former 12-term Democratic US Representative Charlie Wilson. More about him later.

Johnny English was recently told by the Dear Leader that clearing terrorist networks in Afghanistan would make Britain safer. Quoting intelligence sources, he said 75% of all terror plots that Britain has had to deal with have begun in the mountains of Afghanistan, going on to described a "chain of terror" linking these very hotspots to the streets of Britain. This is a startling claim and, if true, inevitably poses the question: "Why not more troops or resources?"

Defense is clearly at the sharp end of the Government's ongoing budget cuts. Yet British coffers alone may not be the only reason Brown is willing to stand firm. Instead of a heavy deployment in Afghanistan, one might argue that our resources could be better invested in domestic intelligence and surveillance. But locking all the doors and switching the lights on doesn't stop prowlers. Instead, Brown would appear to favour visiting potential prowlers in their own troubled neighbourhoods, gunning them into democracy and leaving the clearing up to a cash-strapped incoming conservative Government back in Britain.

But this fight against fundamentalism, whilst worthy in many respects, has the ring of familiarity. The region's history of savage internecine warfare is legion and it was not so long ago that the West was equally spooked by the spread of another radical political ideology: communism. In the late 1970's, the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan took power during the Afghan civil war and sought assistance from the Soviet Union to help suppress resistance from mujahideen insurgency. It was the convivial Texan, Charlie Wilson, who unconventionally secured hundred of millions of dollars from the House Appropriations Committee to arm the mujahideen with the anti-aircraft weapons that would eventually silence the roar of communism across Afghan skies. And how we laughed to see the bear chased off the reservation.

Characteristically, the mujahideen then duked it out amongst themselves for control in what would become yet another, yes you guessed it, Afghan Civil War. Backed by Pakistan's intelligence services and Al-Qaeda (as it then was), a new armed movement would rise from these ashes: the Taliban. Often described as Pashtun nationalists, this hardline religious and political movement would govern Afghanistan ruthlessly for the next five years. Until, that is, NATO-led forces and the Northern Alliance (consisting of some former mujahideen warlords) bombed Afghanistan back out of the stone age and established the US-backed Karzai government. The ousted Taliban regime survived and have re-emerged as a less-organised and under-equipped force, but an insurgency all the same. This is not to say they are not effective in deploying mines and improvised road-side IED's however. 184 British families can attest to that this week. Corrupt local governors with storied ties to both Karzai and the Taliban, a highly segmented Afghan population and the ability of small murderous Taliban cells to blend into the general population, make this war costly for the visitor. It is said that even-though the coalition forces have the watches, it is the Taliban who have the time.

Grafting democracy over the latticework of tribal allegiances and traditions in Afghanistan is also no guarantee that terrorism will be stifled. Britain, Spain, India, USA and Pakistan are all democracies, yet still they face the perpetual specter of domestic terrorism.

Brown's claim that the majority of the terror plots we face emanate from Afghanistan may be true, but it is an oversimplification. In his recent book, The Geopolitics of Fear, Dominic Moisi examines how cultures of fear, hope and humiliation are reshaping our world as significantly as social, economic or political forces. He describes Asia's culture as one of hope (ultimate confidence); That of the West as driven by fear (loss of confidence) and Muslim nations as beset by humiliation (loss of hope caused by wounded confidence). Could it be that it is here, in this 'humiliation', that the true seeds of terror are sown? That it is not in the mountains of Afghanistan that this all begins but, in the mindset of the internationally disenfranchised. It is here, above all, that we must be sure not to misread the contours of the geopolitics.

But where else in the world can a traditional front line for the war on terror actually be found? Perhaps, therefore, the PM is not guilty of ineptitude at all, for deploying more troops and resources into the Afghan quagmire may be just that. Is he opportunistically keeping a measure of boots on the ground in order to be seen to be actively fighting the Taliban in a coalition of some 40 other countries? Losing this war isn't the problem. Winning it in the name of democracy, only to see it descend into yet another civil war years later, just might be. This is a nation where 40% of the population are thought to be Pashtun and the remaining 60% are made-up of almost 10 other ethnic groups (including non-Pashtun Tajik, Hasara, Uzbek and Turkmen communities). So one might think that the concept of 'majority rule' here, just one of the principal tenets of democracy, would be a bad idea.

And God help us if the Taliban have found themselves their very own Charlie Wilson.

I'd pass on the soup if I were you.