Terry Glavin (at Faccebook) writes:
The polls have been open only for a few hours now but the verdict is in, barring some practically unimaginable eventuality: Afghanistan has won the election. The Afghan people are triumphant. Congratulations are owed to the resilient, courageous, long-suffering people of Afghanistan. Hambestagi!
This image seems to be picking up speed all over Afghanistan. A message to the Taliban and to all the enemies of a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic. The universal gesture of defiance:
In view of some appalling tripe that’s appeared recently on the subject of gender segregation, cultural sensitivity and (alleged) racism, this 2001 Graun article by Polly Toynbee is worth revisiting. Come to think of it, it’s probably the best thing she’s ever written, and quite surprising that the Graun agreed to publish it:
Above: the traditional custom of Suttee
Limp liberals fail to protect their most profound values
A 19th-century general in India confronted an angry delegation complaining that the suppression of suttee was an attack on their national culture and customs. He replied: “It is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre and beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your national custom – then we shall follow ours.” No moral or cultural relativism there: a burning widow feels the same pain whatever her culture.
Swirling about in the sea of debate on this war there is a fuzzy idea on the soft left of an Islamic cultural otherness that supersedes basic human rights. There is a plea that in respecting certain customs, beliefs and punishments in some Muslim countries, we should somehow overlook the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Some on these pages protest about “intolerant liberalism”, calling for greater understanding of other cultures and accusing secular liberals of neo-colonial, cultural supremacist attitudes towards some Muslim countries. But that risks something worse – a patronising anthropological view of interesting natives who are not people like us, quaint in their time-honoured habits that must remain undisturbed by outside influence. This soft tolerance permits faraway peoples to persecute women, gays, free-thinkers or unbelievers as part of a way of life to be respected and preserved. Apologetic about the brute force of the west, those who themselves enjoy freedoms of every kind excuse the inexcusable in other cultures, romanticising them as more spiritual, less materialist. It is a kind of limp liberalism that will not defend its own most profound values.
Hard-headed liberals have no problem in opposing the Taliban, Bin Laden and equivocators who start with a cursory side-of-the-cigarette-pack homily that says September 11 was atrocious before piling on the “buts” that imply the US had it coming. Hard liberals have always been very tough on the moral failings of the USA at home and abroad – without blurring distinctions between the Taliban and America. Hard liberals hold basic human rights to be non-negotiable and worth fighting for. They do not turn the other cheek, understand the other guy’s point of view or respect his culture when it comes to universal rights. Promoting liberal values everywhere from Burma to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Chechnya is not neo-colonialism, but respect for a universal right to freedom from oppression. That was what Tony Blair’s conference speech implied.
On Afghanistan, limp liberals only distinguish themselves from the old left by adding rather more hand-wringing. Limp liberals are always on the side of peace because it is more morally comfortable. They claim a monopoly of pity, castigating the other side as heartless armchair warriors. They hesitate because the outcome is uncertain: no one can guarantee things will end well. But they will never be to blame for anything, because they never stood up for anything, always seeking third way escapes from hard choices. “If only people would just sit down and talk…”, though conversation with Bin Laden is not on offer. All sane people worry that this war may not be proportionate, may not stop terror attacks or make life in Afghanistan better. But the pacifist position this time is exceptionally odd. What would they do? When G2 asked a string of people recently, the alternatives were hopeless to non-existent. On these pages, there has been much flailing about, lack of alternatives hiding in anti-US bluster. A Gandhian response is a possibility – until you listen to Bin Laden. Understanding racial and cultural diversity is essential, but this time understand what?
What is now alarming is the united opposition to the war from almost all British Muslims. The shocking fact is that barely a single leading Muslim is to be found who supports it. Thought for the Day speakers (always the moderate of every faith) are against it. One of them, Dr Zaki Badawi, president of the Muslim College, calls Bush a warmonger, says Bin Laden is a random target picked off a shelf and no good will come of it: he fears greatly for relations between Muslims and others when this is over. The head of the moderate Islamic Council brought into Downing Street with the archbishop and the Chief Rabbi came out declaring the war unjustified. The Muslim News, which features pictures of Tony Blair giving away their annual awards, is full of nothing but angry opposition to the war, (plus the suggestion that Israel attacked the World Trade Centre). So however often the prime minister declares this is not a war on Islam, to them it feels so. However much they detest the Taliban, they cannot support an attack even on these hated Muslims.
Despite sects and schisms, Islam is united in feeling threatened and it is not just extremists on the streets of Pakistan and Palestine, it is almost everyone. For Britain this has a lethal potential. It underlines how alienated most still feel from the mainstream, how threatened, how culturally uncertain. Unfortunately it unites the peaceful with the violent. On my screen emails full of casuistry attempt to explain away warlike parts of the Koran as allegory: “In classical Arabic idiom the ‘cutting of hands and feet’ is often synonymous with destroying one’s power.” That is not how the Taliban read it, hacking away at limbs. So while the peaceful fail to separate their faith utterly from this violence, Bin Laden gets perilously close to creating his Armageddon war of the cultures.
What went wrong? Why was the Downing Street/ White House tea and sympathy with Muslim leaders of no avail? The crucial missing ingredient was turning on Sharon and Israeli extremists at the same time as the onslaught on the Taliban. What is needed at once is this world coalition to press Israel back inside internationally agreed borders, to shut down the settlements and to establish a permanent UN force along the border with a free Palestine. Then it is for Palestinians to create a non-corrupt government that will not waste the generous aid they need. No doubt horrific suicide bombings of Israelis would try to destroy any peace, but reprisal by Israeli tanks would be forbidden and prevented. The world would again guarantee in blood and money the rights of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Like Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t work any magic: fighting would continue, but little by little, despite recurring outbreaks, it would gradually subside over the decades.
What matters is that the Islamic world should for the first time see the west act even-handedly. It matters that the west admits its past errors and draws a line under much shameful history. This shaky global coalition offers a chance to do better in many places, through international joint action. It means demonstrating that human rights values are indeed universal and not western.
Amnesty International makes some interesting comparisons:
‘While Manning could face more than a century behind bars, numerous high-level officials … have been let off scot-free’ – Widney Brown
The US authorities have failed to deliver justice for serious human rights violations committed during counter-terror operations dating back more than a decade, Amnesty International said as the sentencing phase opened today in the military trial of the US Army Private Bradley Manning.
Manning, who exposed potential breaches of international humanitarian law and other violations by US forces, could face up to 136 years in prison after being convicted yesterday of 20 separate charges – including theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act.
Amnesty pointed out that, for example, high-ranking officials have avoided investigation for the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq in 2003-2004. While 11 low-ranking soldiers were sentenced to prison terms after being convicted in courts martial, they have all since been released. The Brigadier General in charge of the detention facility was reprimanded for dereliction of duty and demoted to Colonel.
Meanwhile, no criminal charges have ever been made in relation to the US secret detention programme where enforced disappearance and torture were authorised at the highest level of government, and details of the programme remain classified.
Amnesty International’s Senior Director of International Law and Policy Widney Brown said:
“There’s a stunning contrast between the extraordinarily severe sentence Bradley Manning could receive and the leniency or complete impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the types of grave human rights violations he exposed.
“It’s outrageous that the USA has failed to hold perpetrators criminally accountable despite credible allegations of torture, enforced disappearances and other crimes under international law in the context of counter-terror operations since September 11, 2001.
“While Manning could face more than a century behind bars, numerous high-level officials have never faced even the threat of investigations – in effect they have been let off scot-free. Even in cases where low-ranking soldiers have been convicted, they’ve received very light sentences.
“The US Attorney General is duty-bound to investigate these serious crimes under international law and bring those responsible to justice.
“The ongoing failure to do so is a festering injustice and a blight on the United States’ human rights record.”
Before handing down her sentence, the judge will hear Manning’s explanation of the motives for his actions. He was not able to present a public interest defence during the earlier phase of the trial, but he may be able to offer his reasons for the disclosures he made as a mitigating factor now. She will also hear the testimony of more than 40 witnesses brought by the prosecution and defence.
Amnesty will continue to monitor the sentencing phase of Manning’s trial in the coming days and weeks.
As the US begins talks with the Taliban, Amnesty’s 2011 message on women’s rights must be remembered:
Above: this must never be forgotten
“We all want stability and peace, but not at the price of women’s rights. We’re told that women’s rights are a development issue, not a security issue. But women’s rights are part of what the fighting is all about.”
-Afifa Azim, coordinator of the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization of over 84 NGOs and 5,000 individual members.
“We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always…[it is] essential that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled in the reconciliation process.” -US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton speaking to female Afghan officials in 2010
Hard-won gains for women could be seriously compromised as the Afghan government and its international partners pursue reconciliation and peace negotiations with leaders of the Taleban and other insurgent groups, without ensuring mechanisms to guarantee human rights.
Many Afghan women fear that their rights may be sacrificed in the search for a settlement with Taleban leaders. In areas they currently control, the Taleban continue to curtail women’s human rights severely. They have carried out a concerted attack on girls’ education and have murdered women prominent in public life. Afghan women’s human rights defenders fear that their newly won rights will be severely eroded if the Taleban are brought back into government.
Read more in Afghanistan: Don’t trade away women’s human rights
Amnesty International urges the U.S. government to adopt an action plan for Afghan women to ensure that their rights are not traded away in the reconciliation process. The U.S. should make clear that human rights are non-negotiable and ensure local women are included in the transition process and that mechanisms are in place to uphold those rights after any agreement is reached.
Those fearless, insightful people who dare break with the establishment consensus and put forward the only real explanation for terrorism – ‘blowback’ – are rarely heard, such is the conspiracy of silence and denial they’re up against. Very occasionally, the wall of silence is breached and their profound thoughts on the subject get published . Here, here, here here and here for instance.
But even at the New Statesman, which published Mehdi Hasan’s courageous and groundbreaking article ‘Extremists point to western foreign policy to explain their acts, Why do we ignore them? the carping voices of denial are to be heard. On the letters page this week, one Simon Jarrett of Harrow, writes:
If Mehdi Hasan were to follow his own logic, he would now be poring through the 180,000-word rant against multiculturalism written by Anders Behring Breivik, trying to find points of compromise on immigration and cultural mixing that would reduce the future possibility of such acts as the killing of 77 Norwegians. Breivik, like the two murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, was a fascist “performing” terrorist murder as “political communication by other means.”
Meanwhile at the New Statesman blog, even someone who agrees with Mehdi about foreign policy, thinks there might just be a little bit more to it all…
Above: the explanation?
All too predicatably, the usual suspects have rushed to explain the Woolwich killing by means of the so-called ‘blowback‘ argument (utilised with varying degrees of obvious gloating). Comrade Clive dealt with this back in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 7/7 bombings. Obviously, the 7/7 attacks were somewhat different to what happened in Woolwich (though it seems likely that the Woolwich perpetrators intended to commit ‘suicide by police’), but I think Clive’s essential case remains incontrovertible – JD:
‘Blowback’: a banal non-explanation
Just a note on the ‘blowback’ argument, which is put a bit less crudely in today’s Guardian by Gary Younge. Whereas the SWP/Galloway version of this just ritually nods at condemnation of the bombings, Younge seems more sincere, ‘to explain is not to condone’, etc. And, of course, presented with a ‘war on terror’ which is supposed to reduce terrorist attacks against us, it is not unreasonable to point out that, so far, this has not succeeded (I think, logically, this argument only runs so far, since nobody has suggested that the ‘war on terror’ will prevent terrorism until it is actually won; but there is some rhetorical force to this point).
And of course, if you think of the Beslan massacre, for example: you simply cannot account for the background to these events without explaining about Russian action in Chechnya. Clearly, Chechen Islamists did not materialise from nowhere, and there is a context to their existence. The same is true of Islamists elsewhere. Or to put this another way: of course if there were no real grievances to which Islamists could point, they would not be able to recruit anybody. Hamas would not be able to recruit young people and tell them to tie explosives to their chests and climb aboard buses, if the Palestinians were not actually oppressed and suffering grave injustices at the hands of the Israeli state.
But if this is all that is being said, surely it is banal. I suppose there may be some right wing crazies who think Hamas has grown among Palestinians purely because Arabs are bloodthirsty masochists or somesuch nonsense. But obviously, Hamas refers to real things in the real world to build its base, or it wouldn’t have one.
And the observation that there are actual grievances to which Islamists point as a way to recruit (or even, conceivably, that it is these grievances which motivate particular individuals to carry out atrocities) tells you absolutely nothing about the political character of the movement to which they are being recruited.
Of course it’s true, up to a point, that that the London bombs are connected to the British presence in Iraq. But this in itself is not an explanation for them. So if the ambition is to ‘explain but not condone’, you need to explain why people are recruited to these organisations – ones that want to blow up ordinary people on their way to work – rather than other ones. That bombs have dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan (or Jenin, or wherever) simply is not an explanation.
It would not be an explanation even if the organisations in question were identifiably nationalist, as opposed to salafi-jihadist. There have been plenty of colonial situations in the past which have produced armed struggle but not bombings of this kind.
But in any case they are not nationalist in the old sense, but something different – something whose political programme is not concerned with this or that grievance (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) but with restoring the Caliphate, instituting sharia law, punishing apostates, and so on. Moreover – and this seems to me very important indeed – as far as the most extreme of these groups go, like the one presumably responsible for 7/7 – they are what can reasonably be called death cults. If the aim is explanation, then you need to tell us why this backward-looking death cult has prevailed over the old-style nationalists (not to mention more leftist movements – just to type the words tells you the fall of Stalinism has something to do with it), and so on.
And once you have identified the political character of these movements – what do you propose to do about it? We can withdraw from Iraq. But if you think withdrawal from Iraq will mean the jihadists will disappear from the Iraqi political landscape, I think you are deceiving yourself. There are much deeper social grievances which animate the militant Islamist movements, to do with the exclusion of the middle class from economic and political power, the decline of the old social classes, etc. Those social questions need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed by radical, democratic movements in those societies.
And, of course, Islamists – of all types – are the militant enemies of democratic movements and of democracy itself. Either you recognise the need to fight alongside democratic movements against the militant Islamists, in Iraq and elsewhere (including within Muslim communities here, of course) or…what? Even the more sophisticated blowback argument of the Gary Younge variety gives no sense of identifying the militant Islamists as our enemy – the enemy of socialists, of democrats, of feminists, of women in general, of lesbians and gay men, of trade unionists, and so on, both in the ‘Muslim world’ and on our doorstep. It criticises the method of fighting terror adopted by our governments, but as though there was simply no need to fight it at all. Read the rest of this entry »
From Abdul M via Avaaz.com
Dear friends across the UK,
The Taliban called me, saying I’m “an infidel spy”, they know where I live and will “punish” me. My crime? To work as a translator for British troops and journalists here in Afghanistan. But together we can get Britain to save me and a few hundred others who have risked everything!
Right now, Foreign Secretary William Hague is wondering whether to give me and other Afghan translators asylum, as the UK did for Iraqi translators — and we’re worried he’ll say no. We’ve worked with the British to help set our country free, and we’ve saved many British lives. But now my family and many others have had to go into hiding: every day we stay here it gets more dangerous.
Hague could decide whether to save or snub us any day now. If enough people call on him, he may grant us asylum. In days it’s the 10 year anniversary of the war in Iraq, and former British servicemen are ready to go to the media then to grab Hague’s attention on this. Let’s demand he does the right thing — sign and share our petition with everyone:
There are roughly 600 translators doing this dangerous work in Afghanistan – not just helping the army, but also helping journalists and aid workers. Many of us have already been killed or injured just for doing our jobs – a few years ago my brother was blown up on a patrol, and was left with horrific scars and 163 stitches. Many more of us have received death threats from the Taliban — and we all desperately fear what will happen when British troops leave soon.
When I went to the British authorities in Afghanistan about the death threats, they told me to go to my local police — the same police force that has a fearsome reputation for corruption, kidnapping and worse! Now, the UK government has said it is reviewing its policy and will assess asylum applications on a case by case basis, but this is a lengthy and difficult process with no guarantee of success – and in that time, I could be dead.
Our situation is desperate. I am the sole provider for my family — my parents are old and I have three young children. They have no way of supporting themselves if something were to happen to me. We’ve already had to go into hiding, and it’s harder and harder for us each day.
Our fate lies in the British government’s hands. Please join our call to William Hague now to free us from the terror that plagues us every day:
For years, my colleagues and I have stood shoulder to shoulder with British soldiers, journalists and aid workers. We’ve risked everything for them, and for our country’s freedom. Please don’t abandon us now, in our hour of need.
In peace and hope,
Is the UK abandoning its Afghan interpreters?
Afghans who served Britain ‘should be allowed to settle like Iraqi interpreters’
The piece below is from today’s Graun (print edition) and is essential reading. It should (but probably won’t) put to shame all those (including some Graun contributors) who try to make out that the Taliban is some sort of legitimate national liberation movement, or is simply a movement that responds (understandably) to “imperialism.” First, here’s a video edited from a New York Times documentary about this young hero and her incredibly brave stand against the gynophobic clerical fascists:
Why they hate Malala
The attempted assassination of a 14-year-old girl was driven by a pathological hatred of women – not by politics, as the Taliban claim
‘I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban.” So began the diary of Malala Yousafzai, an 11-year-old girl living in Pakistan’s Swat region in 2009 while the Taliban had de facto control and female education was banned. The BBC website published the diary, and a few months later a New York Times documentary revealed more about the girl behind the pen.
Today, as Malala Yousafzai remains critical but stable in hospital following an assassination attempt by the Taliban, I watched the laughing, wise, determined 11-year-old in that video and thought of the Urdu phrase, “kis mitti kay banee ho” – “from what clay were you fashioned?”
It’s an expression that changes meaning according to context. Sometimes, as when applied to Malala Yousafzai, it’s a compliment, alluding to a person’s exceptional qualities. At other times it indicates some element of humanity that’s missing. From what clay were you fashioned, I’d like to say to the TTP (the Pakistan Taliban), in a tone quite different to that in which I’d direct it to the 14-year-old girl they shot “because of her pioneering role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation” and who, according to their spokesman, they intend to target again.
The truth is both Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban were fashioned from the clay of Pakistan. When I say this about Malala it is not in a statement of patriotism about my homeland but instead an echo of a sentiment expressed by the novelist Nadeem Aslam: “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.”
Because the state of Pakistan allowed the Taliban to exist, and to grow in strength, Malala Yousafzai couldn’t simply be a schoolgirl who displayed courage in facing down school bullies but one who, instead, appeared on talk shows in Pakistan less than a year ago to discuss the possibility of her own death at the hands of the Taliban.
“Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me. I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say what you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us. There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, what you’re doing is wrong.”
It’s only right to acknowledge that if different decisions had been made about Pakistan’s history, primarily by those within the country but also by those outside it, the men issuing statements justifying assassination attempts on a young girl would also have been doing something else with their lives.
It isn’t the clay from which they were fashioned, but the patch of earth in which they grew up which made them what they now are. But what do we do with this piece of information? Yes, of course, the Taliban exists because of political decisions dating back to the 1980s; and of course the mess that is the “war on terror” has only added to the TTP’s ranks.
There’s no need for the Taliban to invent propaganda against the American and Pakistan state (although they do) – both governments supply an excess of recruitment material for those who hate them. So if you view the Taliban simply through the prism of the war on terror and Pakistan and the United States, it’s possible to think the process can be reversed; policies can be changed; everyone can stop being murderous and duplicitous.
But then there’s Malala Yousafzai, standing in for all the women attacked, oppressed, condemned by the Taliban. What role have women played in creating the Taliban? Which of their failures is tied to the Taliban’s strength? What grave responsibility, what terrible guilt do they carry around which explains the reprisals against them?
For political differences, seek political solutions. But what do you do in the face of an enemy with a pathological hatred of woman? What is it that you’re saying if you say (and I do, in this case) there can be no starting point for negotiations? I believe in due process of law; I know violence begets violence. But as I keep clicking my Twitter feed for updates on Malala Yousafzai’s condition, and find instead one statement after another from the government, political parties, and the army (writing in capital letters) condemning the attack, I find myself thinking, do any of you know the way forward? Today, I’m unable to see it. But Malala, I’m sure, would tell me I’m wrong. Let her wake up, and do that
Her personal best time in the 100m sprint is more than four seconds slower than the world record. She knows that she is unlikely to qualify for the final. But for Tahmina Kohistani even coming last in the heats would be a personal triumph, given what she’s been through to get to the Olympics.
Tahmina Kohistani © Galllo Images
Tahmina, just five foot three tall and wearing a headscarf even when running, is Afghanistan’s only female Olympian and she is well aware of what that represents: “This means a lot for me and my country. There were a lot of people who were trying to disturb me, to stop me from training, but I am here,” she said this week.
“A lot of people will be watching me,” she added. “Being a Muslim female athlete is most important for me…I represent a country where every day there are suicide blasts. It is important that a girl from such a country can be here.”
“Most people oppose girls doing any kind of sport in in Afghanistan, let alone competing publicly and internationally,” she told the [London] Times…”They think it is un-Islamic. But they are ignorant and want to keep living in darkness.”
Tahmina trained in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium where under the Taliban, women were executed for “immoral” behaviour.
She’s already a winner: the London Afghan community are solidly behind her: “They can’t believe I’m here and competing. So for me, the winning is not important. It’s about doing something for my country and for society.”
…and a piece on Maher Abu Rmeilah, a Palestinian sporting hero, here
Peter Tatchell Foundation: end gender bias at the Olympics, here
The New Statesman has long been telling us that the Afghan war is “unwinnable” and that a Taliban “victory” is inevitable, if not actually desirable
Take this, from the (print edition) of 17 August 2009, (front cover: “AFGHANISTAN: THE LOST WAR“), for instance:
Our military presence in Afghanistan is part of the problem, not the solution
Britain should follow Canada’s lead and set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is time we acc… (the NS electronic version ends there, but my guess is that its something like “accepted the inevitable and set a date to get out”).
By Staff blogger Published 13 August 2009
On 8 August, Private Jason Williams was killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The 23-year-old member of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment could have saved himself, but heroically he had returned to the battlefield to recover the body of a fallen Afghan comrade. Williams became the 196th fatality for British forces in Afghanistan since 2001.
Are we winning this war? Not even the generals who have been in charge seem to think so. In March, the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, told the BBC that “we are not winning” in the struggle against the resurgent Taliban. In October last year, the then commander of British forces in Helmand, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, went further: “We’re not going to win this war.”
Their pessimism has been borne out by events. The latest UN figures suggest that violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, with the number of civilians killed so far this year up by a quarter compared to the same period last year. In July, there were more than ten attacks every day in Helmand alone. A secret Afghan government map, leaked this month, shows that half the country is either at high risk of attack by the Taliban and other insurgents, or is under “enemy control”.
So, after eight years of fierce fighting, with billions of pounds squandered and tens of thousands of coalition and civilian casualties, have we reached a dead end?
And what of the Afghan people, so often ignored in the rows over body armour, Land-Rovers and helicopters for “our boys” on the battlefield? As Stephen Grey points out (page 18), “no one has suffered more from this war than the civilians in whose fields it has been fought”. In spite of mounting casualties on all sides, British troops, like their American counterparts, continue in their Sisyphean task of trying to pacify Afghanistan.
“Again and again,” writes Grey, “politicians and generals have repeated the big lie, talking of tipping points and endless progress.” Take Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther’s Claw. The largest military offensive launched by the British army since it took over responsibility for security in Helmand in 2006, it was declared a success by the Prime Minister last month. But it required 3,000 British troops to defeat 600 Taliban fighters. And, with 22 deaths, July became the bloodiest month of the eight-year conflict for British troops – provoking renewed calls for withdrawal at home, where polls suggest a majority of the public remains opposed to the conflict, and to sending additional troops to Helmand.
Over time, the UK and US governments have offered increasingly bewildering justifications for war: counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, nation-building, liberating women, spreading democracy. Now, to bolster support, British ministers are following US attempts to assert a single, overarching mission. Early this month, the armed forces minister, Bill Rammell, stated: “Our troops are in Afghanistan to keep our country safe from the threat of terrorism . . . To prevent al-Qaeda having a secure base from which to threaten us directly.” He was echoing a speech by President Obama in which he declared that the “clear and focused” goal is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent its return to either country in the future”.
Obama’s new mission statement may seem sound, but it is unconvincing. First, the idea that al-Qaeda needs a “secure base”, or safe havens, from which to plot or prepare terrorist attacks is as outdated as it is simplistic. Since the collapse of its Afghan headquarters in late 2001, al-Qaeda has metastasised from a centralised, hierarchical organisation into a decentralised, largely self-sustaining movement, dispersed across the world.
The London bombings of 7 July 2005 took place four years after British and US forces had toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and destroyed al-Qaeda training camps there. The 7/7 bombers were made in England, not Lashkar Gah.
Second, denying al-Qaeda safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan has not required US or UK forces to occupy the lawless frontier provinces of that country – or, for that matter, to occupy Somalia, Yemen or any of the other Muslim nations accused of harbouring terrorists or hosting terrorist training camps. So why should denying al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan require an indefinite military occupation by British or American troops?
Third, a large-scale and long-term ground presence of western troops only exacerbates Islamist terrorism. Occupation, as the misadventure in Iraq has so clearly demonstrated, has the disastrous effect of giving jihadists a powerful recruiting tool that they are quick to exploit. Fourth, though al-Qaeda does pose a security threat to Europe and the United States, the Taliban pose no comparable threat. Unless and until Taliban guerrillas establish a foothold in New York or London or Berlin, and continue to remain confined to the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, their threat to UK national security will remain several notches below that of al-Qaeda or even, say, the Real IRA.
Thus, there is no reason why disrupting or defeating al-Qaeda requires a perpetual war and occupation. Indeed, sending extra troops to fight in Afghanistan, as President Obama has already done and Mr Brown plans to do in the near future, will not win the war, end the conflict, or guarantee our security. Our leaders should reflect on the lessons of history: from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, Afghans have been fighting invaders for more than 2,000 years. Not for nothing is their country known as the “graveyard of empires”.
Afghanistan does not need a military surge, but a political surge, centred around persuading the more moderate members of the Taliban to lay down their weapons and enter government. The former commander of British forces in Helmand, Ed Butler, tells us (page 24) that we missed a crucial opportunity to talk to the Taliban in 2006. Why wait any longer? Moreover, we need to engage not simply with factions within the Taliban, but also with Afghanistan’s influential neighbours Iran, Russia and China, so that they, too, have a vested interest in securing peace and stability in the region and preventing Afghanistan’s descent into chaos. But, above all, Britain should follow Canada’s lead and set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Our military presence is part of the problem, not the solution. It is time we accepted that we are losing this war.
Now an unnamed “senior commander” of the Taliban (unnamed because he’s in fear of his life, naturally) and representative of the “moderate” wing of these rural fascists has granted their UK mouthpiece the NS, an exclusive interview in which he states that the war is, indeed, “unwinnable”…for the Taliban.
What a disappointment that must be for the New Statesman, the (so-called) Stop The War Coalition, Seumas, Tariq, and all other self-hating, relativist, western lovers of the Taliban and their poetry. And what a relief to at least 50% of the Afghan population.