In this election campaign, there is a big blood-splattered hole we are all supposed to ignore. We are at war. It is a war that 64 per cent of Brits believe is "unwinnable" and should end now. It is a war that has killed 281 British people and an untold, uncounted number of Afghan civilians. It is a war that costs £4.5bn a year. It is a war to keep Hamid Karzai in power – even though he announced last week: "I swear I am going to join the Taliban." Yet the three biggest political parties are shouting their slogans over the hole as if it does not exist.
So what are they refusing to see? Karzai was picked by the US and British governments as the Afghan leader most likely to serve their interests, and his regime exists solely because of massive military support from them. Yet – in a sign of how Afghan opinion has tipped after eight years of war – even he now speaks with rage against them. He says the US and Britain's planned military assault on Kandahar this summer must not go ahead because the local population strongly oppose it. He warns that there is "a fine line between resistance and revolt" and soon "this revolt will turn into a resistance and I will join it."
Now that Karzai is following his own script, the authors of this war have dropped all pretence that they wanted an independent democratic government in Afghanistan. For example, Rudy Giuliani, who was one of the leading neoconservatives making the case for invasion, just said: "Karzai's there because of us, he's our creation, we put him there... I'm not sure we want to engage in the fiction that we're dealing with a democratically elected [leader]... that'd be a major fiction." He said that now Karzai fleetingly follows his people's demands rather than ours, there "might be grounds for shooting" him, and "we need to think about what comes after." He then added, with no irony: "This guy's a thug."
So – we are currently sending young people to kill and die in order to prop up a sort-of-kinda-elected President who (like his people) opposes almost all our actions and is threatening to defect to The Enemy. You might think that is worth discussing. Yet when Afghanistan comes up in this election, the sole subject of complaint is that our helicopters don't work as well as they should.
Why would Karzai, and so many Afghans, and Brits like me, turn like this, after welcoming the toppling of the vile Taliban in 2001? Here's a moment that distils why. Last month, General Stanley McCrystal, the Nato commander, was talking about how he guards the massive military convoys that move through the country. He said: "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."
That wasn't considered a story. It didn't dominate the headlines. It was considered a normal thing to say. But imagine somebody bragging that he had shot "an amazing number" of British people, but "none has ever proven to be a threat." How would we react? Ah, the main political parties say, but all these complications and casualties are worth it, because there is a wider driving purpose to the war. They say we must stay for one reason: to fight jihadism. If we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here. If we don't deprive them of bases, they'll be hitting our places.
At first glance, this may sound persuasive. But look closer. Al-Qa'ida's attacks don't originate in these "bases", and don't require them: 9/11 was plotted in Hamburg and Florida; 7/7 was planned in Yorkshire. Anything that could be done in a cave in Torah Borah could be done on a mountaintop in Yemen or a moor outside Manchester: it's highly mobile. If we charge in with Bazookas to conquer one of these places, they simply move to another – and goad us to follow. General Jim Jones, Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, says there are just 100 foreign jihadis in the whole of Afghanistan. They've simply packed up and gone elsewhere. So who are we fighting there? The CIA says they are "a tribal, localised insurgency" who "see themselves as opposing the US because it is an occupying power" and have "no goals" outside the country.
But while the war is catching or killing very few jihadis, it is creating a huge number of them. After every bombing and every massacre, there is a swelling pool of relatives who scream at the camera that they now want to become suicide bombers. Those tapes are beamed back to Britain – where they are used to radicalise young Muslims. I have interviewed dozens of ex-jihadis – and they almost all named those videos as a key point in pushing them over from repellent religious bigotry into overtly planning violence. The 7/7 bombers themselves named it; the Detroit pants bomber was howling about Afghanistan as he tried to detonate his scrotum.
If you really loathe and oppose jihadism, you have to soberly assess the best way to erode its power over time. Charging around with a blowtorch isn't putting out the fire. Indeed, the jihadists say quite clearly that they want the war to continue for as long as possible. Osama bin Laden brags that it gives him extra recruits and will "bankrupt" the West.
The other arguments that used to be used to justify the war have become a polite after-cough. Women's rights? My friend Malalai Joya is the most popularly elected woman in Afghanistan. She has been expelled from the parliament and silenced in the media for pointing out that "things have not improved for women," because the occupiers have "transferred power to fundamentalist warlords who are just like the Taliban."
The defenders of the war are reduced to chanting "Back Our Boys!" To use the troops as rhetorical human shields to shut down democratic debate about whether they should carry on killing and dying is the worst insult to the soldiers I know. If the only way to Back Our Boys was to demand they stay on an unwinnable battlefield, no disastrous war would ever have been stopped, and we would still be fighting east of Suez. If you really want to back our boys, get them out of the crosshairs and into their homes.
You may think I'm wrong about all this. I respect that – but don't you at least think this should be part of the election debate? Don't you think you should be presented with a choice? Why has it been left to the small, unfairly marginalised Green Party to speak for 64 per cent of the public on this?
In Israel earlier this year, the former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons reassured the massed ranks of the Israeli establishment that growing British disgust at the military occupation of Palestinian lands was nothing to worry about because "public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue." She was saying – don't worry; Britain isn't a real democracy – its foreign policy serves the interests of geopolitics and corporations and elites, not those messy, fickle, inconvenient majorities. It's a view that spreads far beyond our policies towards Israel/Palestine. In a fascinating leaked CIA report on European public opinion, they say they are "counting on public apathy about Afghanistan" and boast that so far leaders have been "enabled... to ignore voters". They are worried the charge into Kandahar could cause disgust, but the British election will be over by then.
This muffled cry from the caves of Kandahar is a useful counter-point to this election. It reminds us that, while the small differences between the main parties at election time do matter, they often aren't the primary force that transforms the country. Almost every civilising change in Britain – from feminism to worker's rights to opposing bad wars – came from ordinary citizens banding together and demanding it all year, every year, whether there was an election or not, no matter how unlikely it seemed, until they prevailed. The British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, says we will be there "for a generation" more. If you want to prove him wrong, then you have to demand it publicly – long after the terribly limited ballot papers are gathered into a fake middle and tossed away.
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