By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 04/09/06):
It takes something truly terrible to get Afghanistan on the front pages these days. Fourteen British servicemen lost as a Nimrod crashes makes the dismal, dramatic leap required: a single squaddie killed in some distant shootout can’t command such salience. That is only the drip-drip-drip of tragedy as usual. Yet even before the Nimrod came down there had been seven British military deaths in and around Helmand province since the beginning of August. The toll for one month and four days is now 21.
That, by fair (accidental) means and foul, is a far more dire rate than in Iraq, where 17 British military men have died this year so far. Southern Afghanistan is currently the most dangerous place open for UK soldiering business. Yet only this year, when still supposedly fit for purpose as defence secretary, John Reid said he hoped the 3,000 Brits he was sending to hold the ring for civil reconstruction work would “leave Afghanistan without firing a single shot”.
Forget old WMD debacles, if you can, for here’s something arguably worse: simple idiocy without duplicity. We were supporting the Karzai government in Kabul. We had aid workers, reconnaissance officers and spooks on the ground. Yet we wandered into this killing field, eyes open and mouth blathering emptily. And the blather continues.
It continues when Des Browne, the Scots lawyer now deemed fit for MoD purpose, denounces the “typical dishonesty” of the Taliban in claiming a hit. (What, pray, has honesty got to do with a war like this?) It continues when Tony Blair yet again talks about “vital missions”. It continues when David Cameron pops up to declare that “Afghanistan cannot be allowed to slide back into being a failed narco-state and global exporter of terrorism at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban”. Just forget the recycled rhetoric, chaps. Concentrate on a few stark facts, wincingly revealed.
This new, democratic Afghanistan has seen drug production soar, not dip. Thanks to the southern provinces, it’s back at No 1 on world export maps, a narco-state supreme. And related terrorism grows by the week too. Most estimates pit 12,000 or so Taliban fighters against Nato’s far smaller forces, but the underlying problem is much bigger than that. Do you count “criminal elements” that join in the mayhem because they work for drug warlords who want to carry on trading? Can you keep track of itinerant Chechens and Saudis dropping in for a scrap? Where do you draw a border line when just over a nonexistent border lie the badlands of Pakistan, a refuge that has sheltered Osama bin Laden and co since 9/11?
Lieutenant General David Richards, British commander of the Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, seems notably short on blather. This is “persistent, low-level, dirty fighting”, more “intense and prolonged” than any other conflict in half a century. You have to go back to Korea to find UK forces so continually and indefinitely under attack. “We need to realise that we could actually fail here,” he says.
Gen Richards, of course, wants more battalions, kit and choppers. He’s got his orders and that “vital mission” to accomplish. So the natural (political) tendency will be to go on scraping together more men and munitions as and when available. That’s the dynamic drift beloved of leaders who can’t bear the thought of thinking again. “No turning back” is their rallying cry – until, later on, it becomes “stop digging”.
What, if it met in frank secrecy, would any sentient Nato conclave conclude about this mission improbable? That Afghanistan, over centuries, has been the graveyard of occupying forces, however benevolent their intention: a great-game venue for losers only. That the aid poured in thus far, with blithe promises attached, has been far too puny to make a difference (and far too channelled through America’s favourite American contractors). That people who hoped for something better have slowly lost heart and belief. That Karzai’s Kabul regime is mired in cynicism and stuck with a writ that doesn’t run much beyond the city’s boundaries. That, in bitter sum, there are no firm foundations here to build on.
Welcome to the quicksands, then. Welcome to a border that can only become more lethally porous as Pakistan’s military regime grows feebler. Welcome to a growing bind back home as army recruitment falls ever further behind target as young men reckon the risks of death too high. (The only recruits this conflict seems to be recruiting are young British Muslims.) Welcome to dirty, persistent, low-level pain. Are there other routes that might work better, or at least work a bit? There are, because reality always supplies them; but that’s not the immediate point. How many more graves do we have to dig before we decide to stop digging?