Last week's big questions: Harry, Afghanistan and Blair

What is to be done about Afghanistan, and is Prince Harry an asset or liability?


Patrick Hennessey discusses our role in Afghanistan, if there institutional racism in the army and whether Tony Blair should be indicted for war crimes.

Should we have got out of Afghanistan a lot sooner?

It’s a difficult question. Should we have maintained our focus on Afghanistan in the first half of the last decade thereby (hopefully) setting the conditions for an earlier withdrawal than we are facing? Yes. But there’s no point in indulging in counter-factual history.

Was there enough clarity about what military intervention was supposed to achieve?

It was perfectly clear back in 2001: the overthrow of the Taliban and the denial of Afghanistan as a safe operating base for al-Qa’ida. Both objectives were comprehensively achieved. I think it’s equally clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that attention and resources were then diverted to the conflict in Iraq with pretty unfortunate consequences.

Will Prince Harry be a liability or an asset during his tour of duty?

The straightforward answer is that anyone flying an Apache helicopter is a massive asset and he’s clearly a very competent pilot. The scope for shenanigans is pretty limited in Camp Bastion even for as big a lad as Prince Harry and he’s probably safer inside the wire down there than in Vegas. In reality, who he is makes practically no difference; he will simply be a highly skilled but nonetheless small cog in a much bigger machine – relying on others and being relied upon in equal measure – which is probably something he is really looking forward to.

Is there institutional racism in the British Army?

No. In five brief years, I served alongside men and women from every continent and pretty much every race in the world. The Army was, I think, an impressively colour-blind organisation. To the extent that it is a big organisation, I’m sure that ignorance and prejudice lurked in dark corners, but no more so than anywhere else.

Does the prospect of Obama losing the US election worry you?

I’m less worried about the prospect of Obama losing than I am about the prospect of Romney winning it. Obama has been a disappointing President in many respects, but if you love the ideals that America stands for at its best, then I think you have to hope to keep those worrying elements of the Republican Party as far away from the White House as possible.

It looks increasingly as though the invasion of Iraq was misconceived and certainly mis-sold and mismanaged

Should Tony Blair be indicted for war crimes?

No. It looks increasingly as though the invasion of Iraq was misconceived and certainly mis-sold and mismanaged, but for all that I don’t think it was illegal (certainly not in any definitive sense) and I don’t think it was necessarily “wrong”. Does Tony Blair deserve to attract opprobrium if he misled the country? Certainly. Were those responsible for the lack of any coherent post-invasion planning grossly negligent? Definitely. But I don’t think that makes them war criminals, and we should be careful not to politicise and potentially devalue what that actually means.

Is Michael Gove right to take school exams back to a more traditional approach?

Generations of school-leavers have been let down by successive education secretaries gurning inanely in front of meaningless exam result statistics while ignoring evidence which points to a general fall in educational standards. I don’t think you should have to be able to recite Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy to get a decent English grade, but you’ve got to be able to write and read fluently and you've got to have some cultural capital. It’s not about reading irrelevant plays in a strange language because your mum and dad did; it’s about understanding our linguistic heritage and even how we think about where personality itself comes from. It’s about understanding and communicating ideas and that seems to be something that we have lost recently.

As an ex-soldier now a barrister, do you think the law is out of touch?

It’s not “out of touch” but I accept there is probably an understanding gap. Long judgments are often difficult to distil into media-friendly nuggets and complex legal issues are over-simplified or misrepresented, particularly, it must be said, in the press. Lawyers are partly to blame; we love over-intellectualising and can make our profession seem academically remote, but I genuinely believe the English legal system is one of the great things about this country and our society. It frequently bends over backwards to try to do the right thing and it safeguards us all in ways we don’t even realise.

Patrick Hennessey is the author of ‘Kandak: Fighting with Afghans’, published by Allen Lane

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