It’s time to stop striking poses over Afghanistan. Too many on both sides of this argument are getting hooked on sweeping statements — and I don’t exclude myself from that.
Among the No Turning Back (NTB) brigade the lazy remark is that our boys are risking their lives and must have everything their commanders request. “We cannot will the end,” cry the brigade, “without willing the means!” Cue a chorus of stout hear-hears. If more helicopters are needed, find them. If more armoured vehicles would save soldiers’ lives, produce them. If troop reinforcements would make the task easier, send them.
To this way of thinking, war requires politicians to step back and defer to the military. “How can some puny civilian politician second-guess the judgment of the Chief of the General Staff?” the argument protests. The CGS clearly wants more men and helicopters. Who are we civvies to gainsay him?
To this the reply is that the argument is too strong. It is the argument that whipped on the cruel and stupid Boer War, that great fin-de-siècle haemorrhage of lives, funds and (in the end) imperial self-belief. It is the argument that prolonged the Vietnam War and could have prolonged it indefinitely. And it forgets that military chiefs are humans, not gods, and will always ask for more.
It forgets, too, that when a war hits trouble, the instinct will always be to blame a lack of equipment, or the wrong sort of equipment, or a want of political leadership or of public explanation, or of boots on the ground. But maybe the pickle we’re in in Helmand is signalling something more worrying. Maybe we’re bogged down not because of a shortage of this kind of helicopter or that kind of patrol vehicle, but because we’ve picked up the Taleban’s gauntlet for the kind of assymetric war where Goliath always does get bogged down whatever the armour. The belief that every setback makes the case for a bigger push has led too many down the primrose path.
But if the NTB brigade need to think harder about the constraints on their argument, so do we of the GON (Get Out Now) brigade. It is all very well to swing about in the columns of intelligent newspapers with wholesale condemnations of the entire Afghan adventure. It is all very well to demand that Britain quit the endeavour at once if not sooner. The phrasing of apocalyptic invective against the very idea of trying to create democracy by force in Afghanistan flows easily — believe me — from the pen.
But if they, and I, want to be useful rather than simply be proved right, we must put ourselves in the shoes of a British Cabinet. We must ask what it would be reasonable to propose to a Government horribly mired in an ill-starred military effort in Afghanistan — as our Goverment does (you know) realise is the case.
And here I part company with the ultras of the GON brigade. It is not reasonable to suggest that Britain simply declare national defeat, turn tail and abandon our US ally at months’ notice. Canada, Spain and the Netherlands can do this because their contribution is relatively small. Ours (there is about one British soldier there for every eight Americans) is not.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, is not himself in the position to pull the rug yet. Whatever he privately thinks, he has made his necessary accommodation with powerful hawks among the American public and in the Pentagon, and must honour it. Read him as you choose: my reading is that America’s formidable warrior tendency has said to President Obama: “Give us the tools and we’ll do the job”; and Mr Obama has (in his heart) said: “Ho hum”; but (on the record) said: “Fine: you have 18 months, after which never say I didn’t let you try.”
We British don’t stick the knife into a new and admired US President. We just don’t. There’s no point in recommending it. Besides, when the NTB brigade ask what kind of a signal a big white flag would send to Islamic fundamentalists worldwide, they’re not wrong, are they?
So my starting point is this: the Western effort in Afghanistan is misconceived. It cannot create the stable democracy it seeks. We should never have got ourselves into this.
But we have. Now we British must protect our own position, mitigate our losses and drop like a ton of bricks on mission creep. When our military tell us we’re overextended without more resources, we must follow this either/or logic whither they don’t expect: “There being no more resources,” we must reply, “tell us where to pull back a bit.”
Eminently available to us is a careful drawing-in of horns; a readiness to consider that the lawless southern region (where it’s already clear that the national election our extra troops were sent to protect is not going to happen) may remain lawless. That’s only about 2 per cent of the population, and mostly desert. We and the Americans may have to consider a de facto Pale settlement. Do not imagine that the Taleban would then swarm and take over the entire country: their appeal is limited — read Rory Stewart’s “The Irresistible Illusion” in in the July 9 edition of London Review of Books for a sanguine view of what’s do-able and what’s cloud cuckoo land.
And forget the idea of a liberal-democratic, centralised unitary state. If you want one in Afghanistan, you’re looking for a new Saddam. Otherwise, government will remain what it is today, a corrupt, power-broking, patronage- trading mish-mash of tribes, barons, fixers and shifting alliances. With a prod here, and less aid money more carefully targeted there, a readiness to hold our noses, and a core Allied commitment to military air cover (which the Afghan National Army is nowhere near providing), nothing’s likely to fall apart.
No extra troops. No extra money. Less for Whitehall-directed aid projects and more for smaller, independent charities. A clipping of Nato/Isaf’s ever-multiplying wings. No wild talk about gender equality and human rights. A scaling-down of ambitions for state-building and democracy. This is the sober new direction. There is no possibility of our hopes for a new Afghan dispensation taking shape, but no reason why the existing dispensation, intelligently propped, should collapse.
It’s philosophically frustrating to stumble on in support of a rickety power structure, winning no trophy to be waved aloft. But do this — fiercely resisting pressure to get sucked deeper into the vortex or commit more taxpayers’ money and soldiers’ lives — and we British can make the best of a bad job. And — sorry NTBs and GONs — there’s a nobility of sorts in that.