“It is my primary concern that the courage and tenacity of my fellow soldiers has become a tool of American foreign policy. I believe this unethical short-changing of such proud men and women has caused immeasurable suffering not only to families of British service personnel who have been killed and injured, but also to the noble people of Afghanistan.
I have seen qualities in the Afghan people which have also been for so long apparent and admired in the British soldier. Qualities of robustness, humour, utter determination and unwillingness to take a step backwards.”
These are the words of Joe Glenton Lance/Corporal, Royal Logistics Corps who yesterday delivered a letter to Downing Street, telling the Prime Minister precisely why he won’t be returning to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been the graveyard of many an empire, The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, The British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th have all tasted defeat at the hands of the Afghans.
For America, Afghanistan was a twisted war obsessed with revenge, for Britain and many European allies it is less vital, a war of solidarity with America, a war of choice. Britain’s ambition to be a global “force for good” comes at a cost. As America’s best friend, with privileged access to intelligence, it feels compelled to take part in America’s wars.
Any military planner that knows their history should realise that a military campaign can only be successful if it is used to reach a political aim, and the political aims have ebbed and flowed like the tides of the sea.
Firstly, we were told that the threat of Osama Bin Laden and The Taliban had to be neutralised. Then we were there to help the Afghans rebuild their country (still hasn’t happened). Next came helping to instil the stooge government of Karzai in Kabul, by now the Taliban V.2.0 had resurfaced, so they had to be fought again. Then came the threat that Pakistan posed, and now the political aim of Gordon Brown is to promote “an emerging democracy” as its election time again in Afghanistan.
All these operations quickly turned unpopular when they go badly, and not one single one of them can be deemed an outright success, but from the way Britain pontificates about the war in Afghanistan, you’d never know that most British people want troops withdrawn by the end of the year and only a minority have supported the US-led campaign.
With the launch of “Operation Panthers Claw”, sections of the media seem to have almost entirely abandoned any attempt at neutral reporting of what is actually going on. Instead, its newsreaders and presenters sternly warn that “Britain’s resolve is being put to the test” and speculate, surreally, about what might happen if public “support” for the war “were to weaken” (last Friday’s 10 o’clock TV news and Newsnight programmes).
In the circumstances, it would hardly be surprising if public opinion had been turned after what has been a barrage of state war propaganda, as embedded Kiplingesque reporting from the Helmand frontline, military parades and a new Armed Services Day have been used to try and translate sympathy for British troops into support for foreign wars.
But it hasn’t happened. A recent ICM poll for the Guardian and the BBC’s Newsnight showed 56% want all British troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, and 60% by 2011, against 36% who want them to stay until “they are no longer needed”.
Given the media’s increasingly intense emotional focus on British soldiers deaths during the current offensive – the Daily Mirror leads on last Friday’s fallen “band of brothers” and the Sun on Gordon Brown’s “this war is our patriotic duty” – with this I would have expected a greater support for the war. In fact, the only time there was majority support in Britain for the Iraq war was during the initial months of attack and occupation, when British troops were seen to be in action and in greatest danger.
Even if support for withdrawal is slightly down from last November’s 68%, 62% still believe British forces are either making no difference in Afghanistan worse or making it worse – and 47%, against 46%, say they oppose the “British military operation” outright. And interestingly, given what New Labour used to claim about social attitudes to the Iraq war, some of the strongest opposition to the war comes from working class people.
British public hostility towards the Afghanistan occupation is mirrored in most countries in the world (in the US it is pretty evenly divided). Even in Afghanistan itself, where polling under conditions of foreign military occupation would be expected to be skewed towards the occupier, a recent BBC-sponsored poll in February found a majority saying they want foreign troops withdrawn within one to two years and negotiations with the Taliban.
While the debate rages on unabated over British troops having the necessary equipment, we need to remind our Government that the debate ought not to be over helicopters, but over the justification for Britain’s participation in America’s Afghan war, try listening to the words of your own soldiers instead of prosecuting them.
Never has Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Young British Soldier” rang louder and truer;
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
The Government has to set a final date for total withdrawal regardless of America’s feelings…..the sooner, the better.