Theres has been renewed intensity in the reporting of British forces role in Afghanistan recently.
Only on Monday the Prime Minister announced that 500 more troops would be deployed, taking the total number of British personnel deployed in Afghanistan to over 10,000. This comes in line with the US committing an extra 35,000 troops to the country, in a move not dis-similar to the ‘surge’ in Iraq seveal years ago.
As well as the 500 British troops NATO countries have pledged 5,000 troops, among them Turkey, Slovakia, Georgia and Portugal. There are still, however, some notable large European countries who seem unwilling to let their troops do anything too dangerous.
In announcing the new deployments, Gordon Brown spoke of dealing with the Taliban threat at its source – on the Pakistan-Afghan border. This strikes at the heart of the issue of why we are there. To pull out and leave a vacuum would be naive in the extreme. A lawless Afghanistan would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear country that already has a multitude of internal problems. Meanwhile, to the west Iran is becoming incresingly belligerent. This is a region that cannot afford any more problems than it already has. And this is before we talk about the amount of heroin on Britain’s streets that floods in from Afghanistan.
Attitudes about the mission in Afghanistan are generally quite wrong. People labour under the misapprehension that we are somehow trying to conquer Afghanistan, which is clearly not true. Or, perhaps, they have fashionable but ludicrous and completely unfounded views that we are helping the US to exploit Afghanistan and that our troops are ‘babykillers’. It does not suit the UK, the US or any other country to be there one day longer than they have to be. Besides, there is nothing in Afghanistan to exploit. The goal is clearly to secure the country, fend off terrorist elements and enable the Afghans to take care of their own country. Reconstruction is the key. Help make Afghanistan peaceful, secure and prosperous, and we eliminate the Taliban’s raison d-etre and our own reason for being there. When countries collapse more often than not dangerous regimes fill the vacuum.
Ill-informed commentators draw comparisons between earlier wars in Afghanistan, but to even try to compare them is a grave mistake. Huw Davies makes an excellent case for this. The modern army is one that is used to working with civilians, fighting terrorists, and keeping the peace. Even in 1841, the British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, merely to secure it as a strong from against Russian threats to India. The same kind of issues have been discussed in a recent Osprey guide, which I reviewed earlier this week.
Comparisons are useful in history, but not when there is no common ground at all. The only similarities between the nineteenth century wars in Afghanistan and today are the terrain, the conditions, and the culture. History gives us some valuable lessons in this respect. Protesters vaguely talk about earlier failures, which were in fact nothing of the sort – merely difficult campaigns that eventually achieved their objectives. Afghanistan is not a war without an end – people frequently said the same things about Northern Ireland and Iraq. Maybe there needs to be better information about what exactly our aims are, and the Afghan Government needs to do its bit too, as well as notable NATO countries who could contribute a lot more.
Whereas the war in Iraq was badly handled (particularly the immediate post-war phase), distracted attention from Afghanistan and had dubious effect on us here in the UK, it would take a naive person indeed to argue that the Taliban coming to power would have no effect on stability in the region or on our safety here in the UK. It is a very unpleasant business and it would be much better if we didnt have to be there at all, but history shows us that sometimes to stand back and do nothing solves nothing.