Bruce Anderson: Why the public are wrong over our mission in Afghanistan

The West will only be seen as a reliable friend if it is also seen as a reliable foe

Monday 16 November 2009 01:00 GMT

A majority of the public wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. A majority of the public is wrong. Two conclusions should be drawn from this. First, thank God that we are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary one; second, we urgently need a government which can command public respect. But even with such a government, headed by a prime minister who could offer leadership, this would not be an easy war to fight. Britain's role in Afghanistan is beset by paradoxes and cultural complexities.

We British are the least militaristic of the major European nations; we were slower to introduce peacetime conscription and quicker to abandon it than all the rest. Yet we are far from the least warlike. The Falklands, Desert Storm in 1991: if there is an obvious wrong to be righted, a government which sends troops to war can count on public support. We also respect our armed forces. On the continent, recent history can still cast a shadow over civilian-military relations. Here, the memories of Cromwell's Major-Generals have faded. Our armed forces have never enjoyed so much respect in peacetime. It is indeed an increasingly awed respect.

That can make it harder for a government to win public support for a controversial war. However much the forces are admired, not many people are saying "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". On the contrary; there is a growing feeling that the politicians are exploiting our soldiers' courage; that the sacrifice of noble young lives is unnecessary and heartless. All that is exacerbated, because this is a difficult war to explain. The Falklands and Desert Storm both embodied the dramatic unities. There were clear objectives which could be accomplished in a limited time. Everyone could see their way from the start line to the victory parade. But in Afghanistan, what is victory?

We invaded for an obvious reason: to displace the Taliban. At the time, in the aftermath of 9/11, that commanded a wide measure of assent. Even continental Europeans were prepared to support President Bush. Since then, Iraq has sapped enthusiasm and moral self-confidence. The feeling has grown that the West blundered into unwinnable and immoral wars at the behest of an incompetent president, and that as a result, we are much less safe. In Western Europe, there was always a tendency to believe that if there were a conflict between the US and Islam, Europe should just duck and let them get on with it. In recent years, that infectious defeatism has crossed the Channel.

This ought to be resisted, for it is the geo-political equivalent of swine flu. When we are faced by a globalised threat, strategic cowardice cannot be an option. There are three sound reasons for staying in Afghanistan. Even if some of them are culturally unfashionable, their combined weight is overwhelming. The first is a simple one. There are signs that we might be winning.

A couple of years ago, it seemed as if we could not move beyond mowing the lawn. However successfully an area was cleared of Taliban, they quickly grew back. Then, the strategy changed. After a battle in the Helmand town of Garmsir in April 2008, when the US Marines killed around 400 Taliban, there was a general feeling that this must not be wasted. In Helmand province, 80 to 85 per cent of the population lives in around 25 per cent of the surface area. So instead of cutting the grass, there was an attempt to build a network of fortifications around the populated areas and organise continuous patrolling, much of it by the Afghan security forces, to reassure the locals that Nato would no longer be a day-time-only presence. This came to be known as the "gated community" approach. Though the term may seem over-ambitious, there have been successes.

Helmand is not Vietnam. The Taliban cannot rely on the support of a nationalist mass-movement. A number of people who have been there recently all say more or less the same thing. The locals are wary and weary. They feel as if they have been at war for ever, and they only wish that it would stop. Although the Afghans are not natural pacifists, it is not true that every male is a reckless and remorseless warrior, as depicted in much English fiction about the North-West Frontier. A lot of the men who were like that are now feasting in Valhalla. Most locals are ready to rally to the support of any side which looked as if it could win and thus bring the bloodshed to an end. If it seemed that whatever the cost, Nato was on for the long game, the West would gain a cautious and growing respect. But every time there is a rumour that we might pull out, the locals rush to reinsure themselves with the Taliban.

Nato tactics are also evolving. There is still a need for more helicopters, better equipment and above all, more men. If Mr Obama had set out to confirm all the doubts about his fitness to be President, it is hard to see how he could have improved on his recent public agonisings. To be accused of dithering by Gordon Brown's government: what could be more shameful? But despite recent casualties, the special forces are getting better at using smart optics to detect IEDs, and at building up intelligence on the networks responsible for planting them. The battle for Helmand can be won.

It is part of a wider civilising mission. The Karzai government's difficulties are well-publicised. Corruption is bad; so is ballot-stuffing. But neither is unknown, even in supposedly more advanced countries: think Illinois in 1960. With all its faults, this is still the best government that the Afghans have ever had, and it is a basis for evolution and improvement. Everything will take time. Visiting politicians have to be gently dissuaded of the notion that there is an instant cure. But for every two paces back, we are moving three steps forward. That is a considerable achievement. The men who pass through Wootton Bassett on their final parade have not died in vain.

They have also made an essential contribution to all our safety. It is not necessary to believe in a relentless clash of civilisations to recognise that there is a problem with Islam. By no means all 1.3 billion Muslims hate the West and they do not all live in failed states. But there is a lot of anger and a lot of failure, especially in Pakistan. Although the West needs effective diplomacy in order to build up alliances with the Muslim world, diplomacy is not enough. The West cannot afford to display weakness. If we let Afghanistan slip through nerveless fingers, we would not only lose it to the terrorists. Pakistan would be in jeopardy and so would our standing throughout the region. The West will only be seen as a reliable friend if it is also a reliable foe.

A civilised country mourns those who die in its service. The dignified crowds who line the streets of a small town in Wiltshire to salute the coffins of the fallen speak for the Britishness of us all. But when it comes to a calculation of the national interest and the Western interest, death can have no dominion. The soldiers I talk to who have served in Afghanistan all know about the cost. They have seen it. But they are unanimous in their belief that it is a price worth paying. The rest of us can make our contribution by demanding that they are given the tools they need to finish the job.

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