Crispin Black: The doubts about our mission that refuse to go away

Share
Related Topics

The prevailing attitude to the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan seems to reflect that of Prendergast, the clergyman who lost his faith in Evelyn Waugh's dark satire Decline and Fall. He had what he called "Doubts" about God. He was sad to have them and would rather have gone on believing. But the doubts would not go away. Most of us have Doubts about Afghanistan. Government spokesmen suggest that to have them is to give succour to the Taliban or somehow be disloyal to our troops in the field. But they won't go away.

Prendergast's doubts are in fact doubly relevant to Afghanistan. "Once granted the first step, I can see that everything else follows," he says. What he had difficulty with was not the religious structure in place but "why God had made the world at all". This accurately reflects the fault line over Afghanistan running through public opinion. The debate over the past few weeks, as mediated by most professional politicians, commentators and ex-military men, basically accepts the first step. Yes, we should be there. Yes, the grinding, gallant, sanguinary advance of our troops, ditch by ditch, along the Helmand valley is worth it – a style of warfare that would have been familiar to the last Great War soldier, Harry Patch, who died yesterday. And the whole structure appears to rest on the single judgement that attacking the Taliban in Helmand will somehow make the streets of London safer from terrorism. But in reality, outside the polite self-censorship of the chattering classes, few people buy this justification. Even Lord Malloch-Brown, who recently resigned from the Foreign Office, does not seem to believe it. He, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that the main terrorist threats to the UK emanate from Pakistan and radicalised British Pakistanis.

And if the campaign is so intimately connected to the security of the streets of London, then why are we committing only a brigade or so to the fight? Why not a division? Why not every available soldier? Why has Gordon Brown not asked the Queen to issue the Order in Council required to recall all reservists to the colours?

We are all Prendergasts now, from the Prime Minister downwards, though he certainly will not admit it. These doubts account for everything. If, as a country, we were convinced of the necessity of what British forces are trying to achieve, we would greet the news of the costs in lives and money with stoical acceptance. Is the Prime Minister such a monster that he would underfund our troops in the field in order to spend the money on "buying" votes in Labour pocket boroughs, as some seem to have suggested? Or is he just reluctant to commit further resources to a campaign enthusiastically but casually entered into by Tony Blair with little long-term thought or calculation.

Part of me wants to be there with my old regiment, the Welsh Guards, but I still have doubts. I suspect that, beneath it all, so do the higher levels of the military. Watch what the generals say on television or in the press: they "believe" or are "convinced" or "dedicated" to the mission. I can't remember anyone needing to say this about the British Army of the Rhine, or Operation Banner, the army's presence in Ulster.

The threat to our way of life from the Soviet Union was clear, and the link between bombs in Belfast and London obvious. Other interventions, such as taking back the Falkland Islands or ejecting Saddam Hussein, needed little justification and (at the time) were broadly accepted as necessary by the public.

The military historian Martin Windrow summed up the French campaign in Vietnam in his great book The Last Valley as follows: "a series of governments were believed to have let the army down; they had sent it to perform a task for which they were unable or unwilling to provide the means, and which they lacked the courage to prosecute seriously or to abandon decisively."

Let's hope that in a few years' time the same cannot be said of the UK's campaign in Afghanistan.



Crispin Black wrote 7-7: What Went Wrong? and is an associate fellow of Chatham House.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker