Whoever is in charge, it seems, the war on terror has truly become a war without end. Eight years after George Bush and Tony Blair launched it, with an attack on Afghanistan under the preposterous title of “operation enduring freedom” and without any explicit UN mandate, Gordon Brown has agreed to send yet more British troops to die for a cause neither they nor the public any longer believe in.
Granted we are only talking about an extra 500 troops on top of the 9,000 already there, and the decision is hedged with qualifications. Brown has nevertheless bowed to pressure from the US administration, the British military establishment and the warmongering wing of the media, anxious to exploit the government’s Afghan failures in the runup to the general election.
But if any more proof were needed that foreign wars are not regarded as any business of the voters, this is surely it. Yesterday’s batch of polls confirm public opposition to the Afghan imbroglio is becoming ever more entrenched. There has been a 7% increase since last month in support for immediate withdrawal, according to a Populus poll for the Times, with 68% wanting troops out within the year and strongest backing for a pullout among Labour voters.
That is feeding the growing disaffection among serving soldiers towards what many see as a futile sacrifice, supposedly on behalf of a hostile population in Helmand province. The public opposition of Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, scheduled to face a court martial next month after refusing to fight what he regards as an illegal war in Afghanistan, clearly reflects a wider sentiment in the army. Stop the War Coalition activists drumming up support for next week’s national demonstration have reported sympathetic approaches from off-duty squaddies and their families across the country. It’s the kind of climate that saw parents of soldiers killed in Iraq tell the official inquiry on Tuesday they want to see Blair indicted as a war criminal.
Reports are multiplying of a similar mood among American soldiers in Afghanistan, as US opposition to the war has also hardened. As in Britain, the rampant rigging in August’s presidential election was a tipping point: dying for Afghans’ right to take part in a fraudulent sham is scarcely the noble cause for which Nato forces were assured they were the standard-bearers.
But the signs are that Barack Obama is once again preparing to send more troops – even if not the 40,000 demanded by his senior commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal. Last week, the US president explicitly ruled out any significant reduction in troop numbers or switch from a “counter-insurgency” to “counter-terrorist” remit (targeting al-Qaida, rather than the Taliban), let alone military withdrawal.
Instead, the hints are of schemes to buy off Taliban footsoldiers in an attempt to repeat the trick that created US-sponsored Sunni militias out of elements of the Iraqi resistance during the 2007 US surge. The Iraq analogy is not a happy one, however. Those Iraqi “awakening councils” are already falling apart, notably in what was supposed to be their showcase of Anbar province, where a string of deadly attacks has taken place in recent days.
Add to that the fact that there is no equivalent Shia or Iranian-style threat to the Taliban in the Pashtun areas where they are strongest, and the new wheeze’s potential looks a good deal less impressive. As Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Institute puts it: “You cannot break an insurgency that strong with money. It’s not a mercenary force.” In fact, the Taliban now effectively controls up to 70% of the country, according to Pakistan government estimates, its support fuelled by nationalist anger and the thousands of Afghan civilian casualties inflicted by Nato forces.
Meanwhile, years of occupation and intervention in Afghanistan are yielding ever more bitter fruit in Pakistan. The war with the local Taliban is expected to escalate next week into a full-scale US-sponsored assault on South Waziristan, retaliatory attacks are spreading in the cities, US drone attacks have exacted a relentless civilian death toll and two million have already been made homeless by the spillover war.
Yet one after another, the official aims and justifications of the war in Afghanistan have failed or been discredited. It was a war fought to kill or capture Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but both are still at large. It was a war fought to destroy al-Qaida, whose leadership simply decamped and set up new bases from Pakistan to Iraq. It was a war for democracy, women’s rights, development and opium eradication – all successively demonstrated to be a hollow joke.
Now we are told it is a war to prevent al-Qaida-inspired terrorism on the streets of London, which shamelessly turns reality on its head. There were no such attacks before 2001, and both bombers and intelligence agencies have repeatedly identified the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as a central motivation for those who try to launch them. Last week, General Richards, new chief of the general staff, conjured up an even more lurid justification: if Nato pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida would seize Pakistan and its nuclear weapons.
The opposite is the case. It is the Afghan war that is destabilising Pakistan and driving the Pashtun rebellion there. The last remaining argument, that withdrawal from Afghanistan would risk “undermining the credibility of Nato” and the “international community”, used by Brown last month, is the closest to the truth. In the wake of its strategic defeat in Iraq, it would certainly signal that the US and its allies can no longer impose military solutions on recalcitrant states at will, as they have done since the end of the cold war.
Which is why US, British and other Nato soldiers are likely to go on dying in Afghanistan, along with thousands of mostly unreported Afghans. The alternative is not to “walk away” from the country, as often claimed by supporters of the occupation, but the negotiated withdrawal and political settlement, including the Taliban and regional powers, that will eventually end the war. That’s what most Afghans, Britons and Americans want. But political pressure will have to grow stronger – including, grimly, from a rising soldiers’ death toll – if it’s going to be achieved any time soon.
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