Notes From the Margins…

The Afghan War: A Game of Two Halves

  • December 19, 2013
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War is a lot like football isn’t it?     Well General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the British Defence Staff seems to think so.     Yesterday he told the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) that the British Armed Forces were experiencing a manpower shortage that may end up excluding us from ‘ the Premier League of smart power.’

And as the British ruling elite prepares to transform the World War I centennial into a patriotic-militarist spectacle or remembrance, a new event looks set to take its place in the stirring pageantry, in the unlikely shape of an England-Afghanistan football match at Wembley.

This fixture, it does take place,   will coincide with the withdrawal of British troops from Helmand province next year, and is apparently the brainchild of former England striker Michael Owen, who accompanied Cameron during his Christmas visit to the troops for some striking photo opportunities.

Lord Snooty,  always eager to jump on whatever bandwagon comes trundling past him,  has described Owen’s proposal as a ‘very nice idea.’     The Daily Mail has compared this ‘peace match’  to the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’,   when British and German troops briefly fraternized in the trenches before dutifully returning to the slaughter.

This comparison is somewhat misleading, given that England will be playing against their nominal allies, rather than the enemies they have been fighting for the last eight years.

Nor does peace have anything to do with a political gimmick, whose main purpose will be to support Cameron’s claim this week that British troops have accomplished their mission in Afghanistan, and provided the country with a ‘basic level of security…so that Afghanistan doesn’t become a haven for terror.’

These claims do not bear much scrutiny.     In November last year, a report by a British Ministry of Defence thinktank concluded that the NATO war in Afghanistan was ‘unwinnable.’   Many observers have reached similar conclusions.     Whatever a ‘basic level’ of security is, it does not compute well with a country where Taliban attacks are rising not falling; where Afghan security forces are taking up to 100 casualties a week, and government soldiers and police are being killed even in parts of the country where the Taliban were previously thought to have no strong presence.

The Taliban resurgence owes a great deal to the fact that Afghanistan is ruled by a corrupt and unrepresentative government that is only in power because of elections that were universally recognized to be fraudulent, in which Karzai family members and assorted warlord and cronies have enriched themselves through foreign aid, CIA slush funds and drug money.

This, in a country where more than half the population doesn’t have enough to eat, where 8 out of every 12 Afghans work as unskilled day labourers, and where the average income is $1 a day.  Helmand does not stand out as a shining beacon in the midst of this mayhem.   When British troops were deployed there in 2006, Defence Secretary John Reid predicted that they would pacify the province ‘without firing a shot.’

Instead the British deployment acted as a catalyst for a spike in violence in the province.   In an essay comparing the British and Dutch performance in Afghanistan,   Professor Joseph Soeters describes how the Helmand deployment plunged the British armed forces into ‘the heaviest fighting they had experienced since the Korean War’ in which ‘ the emphasis came to be military defeat of the enemy, rather than stabilization and development.’

Soeters argues that the British model of counterinsurgency in Helmand was based on   ‘continuous dispersed offensive actions at the company level’,   and followed the American pattern of no-warning bombing and strafing attacks on villages so that ‘many houses were destroyed, local populations displaced, villages and cities turned into ghost towns, and there was considerable collateral damage from aerial bombing and use of firepower from a distance.’

As early as March 2008,   the Washington Post described a campaign  in which exhausted and under-equipped British forces were struggling to contain the spreading insurgency across a wide territorial area.   In one village near the town of Garmsir, the Post reported, Afghan elders opposed British deployment there, on the grounds that they would be attacked by the Taliban:

‘All you’ve done is bring fighting to the area,’ one village elder scolded, turning his back in a gesture of rudeness, recalled Capt. Andy Richards of Royal Regiment Scotland, who advises local police. ‘I told them we have to fight the Taliban somewhere, and unfortunately it is in their village,” Richards said.’

From 2008, Soeters noted, the British began to move away from this ‘warrior-type approach’ towards a more ‘population centric and less ‘kinetic’ [killing people]’ model of counterinsurgency.  Even then the violence continued.  This year has seen some of the fiercest fighting in Helmand since the initial British deployment.

The British campaign in Helmand has also coincided with a boom in opium production in the province.   In 2011, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Helmand accounted for nearly fifty percent of the estimated 131,000 hectares under cultivation for opium production in the whole of Afghanistan.

So this is what our troops have been doing: propping up a parasitical and sleazy government which is despised by much of the Afghan population, and which may well face its day of reckoning when NATO forces leave; empowering an insurgency and laying the basis for another round of civil war; presiding over a rise in opium production and global heroin distribution.

446 British soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians and combatants have died to make this outcome possible. Whatever else you can say about this, it is only a success in the sense that Iraq and Libya are successes.

And whatever Cameron and Michael Owen might say, it will take more than a footie match to put this one right.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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