Notes From the Margins…

Telling Lies about Afghanistan

  • March 08, 2012
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“All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed,” wrote the great radical journalist I.F. Stone  many years ago.   Stone could have added that some governments lie more than others, and that there are also times when governments  are more prone to manipulation, dishonesty and deceit than usual.

War has always had a special ability to bring these tendencies to the surface, and yesterday the lies were pouring forth at an alarming rate  in response to the deaths of six British soldiers in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.

In the early evening Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told  Sky News  that British troops were fighting terrorists in Afghanistan in order to “stop them fighting us here in our streets.”  Former British military commander and advisor to David Cameron, Sir Richard Dannatt also gave  the same programme  the usual patter about the  ‘progress’ that was being made in handing over responsibility for security to the Afghan armed forces.

The idea that British soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan ‘to keep us safe’ was a lie that Gordon Brown frequently used during his dismal period in office.  And today, in the Telegraph, Hammond  repeats it once again, declaring

the mission is necessary for national security. UK forces, and troops from 49 other nations, are preventing Afghanistan again being used by al-Qaeda and other terrorists as a base to plan attacks against the UK and our allies. We are fighting there to prevent them attacking us here.

Pick that last sentence up, turn it over in your hands and maybe throw it out the window and take another look at it, and it will always remain a lie.  Numerous  reports  from the government’s own security agencies have concluded that the decisive driving factor behind terrorist attacks in the UK is resentment and anger at British foreign policies and the deployment of British troops in Muslim lands.

These were the words of 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, in a video broadcast on al-Jezeera on 6 July 2006

What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger…until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iran and until you stop your military support of America and Israel.

This is not much of a justification for murdering commuters on the London underground, but such declarations  make it clear that ‘they’ are fighting us here because our troops are over there, and that ‘they’ were not dispatched from Afghanistan as part of an army of evil, but grew up in the UK itself.

The Coalition knows this, just as the Labour government did.  Yet still Hammond goes on to argue that

Of course, addressing the terrorist threat in Afghanistan is not the whole solution, any more than the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has extinguished al-Qaeda. But we have got to make sure that Afghanistan is secure and that the terrorists who thrive in chaos cannot re-establish their pre-9/11 training camps.

This is a variant on the lie that Hammond told on Sky News yesterday, when he argued that the Taliban could not be allowed to return to power and protect al-Qaeda as they did before 9/11.   The fact that the Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden to maintain his jihadist training camps in Afghanistan is indisputable – though it’s worth pointing out that Pakistan also did the same thing.

These arrangements were a legacy of the Afghan jihad and the role played by international volunteers in support of the Taliban’s victorious campaigns against the Northern Alliance.  But that does not mean that its leaders were aware of the operations that al-Qaeda was planning or engaged in.

Hammond’s image of ‘pre-9/11 training camps’  and ‘terrorists who thrive in chaos’ is also deceptive.   Such imagery is based on a James Bond/Old Man of the Mountains concept of al-Qaeda propagated by Western governments and security agencies, which depicts a vast all-powerful organization directing global mayhem from secret ‘command posts’ in the Tora Bora mountains, much like Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s SPECTRE in You Only Live Twice.

Such depictions exaggerate the power that al-Qaeda has and has had, and they were  often deliberately intended to do just that,   in order to create an enemy worthy of our new era of permanent war.   In doing so they have distorted understanding of the kinds of operations that al Qaeda has engaged in,  and reinforced an image of  a hierarchical top-down organization that bears little relation to its amorphous franchise-like structure.

From the point of view of Western governments, al Qaeda is a useful label that can be attached to any country of strategic interest.   But attacks such as those carried out in the United States, London or Madrid do not require a territorial base.

The core group of 9/11 hijackers received their crucial training not in Afghanistan but in the United States itself,  and even the ‘muscle’ hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.   Some of the terrorist episodes in the UK over the last decade have been linked to Pakistan, not Afghanistan, which according to Hammond’s logic should mean that NATO should also occupy Pakistan.

Such attacks are not ultimately dependent on  ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but they do need grievances in order to recruit and motivate people to carry them out, and the bloody ‘terror wars’ of the last twelve years have provided such grievances in abundance.

The only thing that be said in Hammond’s defence here is that he may actually believe in this fantasy image of al Qaeda, in which case he is deceiving himself as much as the public.

The same cannot be said of his insistence that  the Afghan mission has been a success:

Despite the terrible events of this week, the overall trend of successful attacks, and UK casualty numbers, is sharply down. By mid-2013, the Afghans are expected to be leading security provision across the whole of the country, with ISAF in support. By the end of 2014 British troops will be able to end their combat role completely.

This ‘overall trend’ is a meaningless formulation of the type that the U.S. whistleblower Colonel Daniel Davis remorselessly unravelled in his recent leaked report.  As Davis pointed out,  the number of attacks and casualty figures may be rising or falling, but such variations do not necessarily indicate a ‘trend’ but a temporary phenomenon with various potential causes.

Davis emphatically rejected the notion that the Afghan security forces are “leading security provision” against the Taliban, and pointed out that that many members of the security forces are deeply hostile to their NATO allies/occupiers.

These conclusions are radically at odds with the Vietnam-style ‘progress’ narratives emanating from the American and British governments, and which British politicians are now at pains to re-emphasise in response to yesterday’s deaths.  Thus David Cameron hailed the “sacrifice” of the six soldiers who died in the name of “national security” and mourned a “desperately sad day” for Britain.

Indeed it was, but not for the reasons that Lord Fauntleroy outlined.  For the brutal truth is that the four hundred soldiers who have died in Afghanistan did not die for national security: they died because the British state is so deeply enmeshed in an essentially subservient relationship with its American counterparts that its leaders will do whatever the U.S. government tells them to do, and send soldiers to whatever battleground they are asked to fight in, regardless of how meaningless the war.

None of the three main political parties has any interest in challenging that relationship.  And no politician has the courage to break from the consensus that has trapped the country in a futile and unwinnable conflict,  that will only end through negotiation with the enemy or the complete implosion of the brittle state apparatus on which NATO has pinned its delusions of progress.

In the meantime British soldiers will continue to die – and kill – in Afghanistan, not for national security, but for nothing at all.

And as long as they do,  the  governments that send them will continue to lie about the reasons for their deaths, and deliver patriotic bromides to enable the public to wash them down more easily.



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  1. @PaulMSeligman

    8th Mar 2012 - 2:55 pm

    Phillip Hammond (and others) refer to the attack that killed the 6 British soldiers as ‘cowardly’.

    Google (other search engines are available) ‘cowardly Taliban’ and you will get millions of hits.

    Why are people fighting for their beliefs (whether we share them or not) and to liberate their country from occupying forces ‘cowardly’?

    Because they use roadside bombs? Braver to bare their chests in front of UK/US superior armaments?

    And if that’s the logic, how brave is it to drop bombs from the air or to control a pilot-less drone from another continent?

    • Matt

      8th Mar 2012 - 3:26 pm

      Governments and the media often attempt to make these semantic distinctions. The Daily Express described the killing of the six soldiers as ‘mass murder’ today, as if there were no war going on in Afghanistan.

  2. Mike Speirs

    8th Mar 2012 - 8:25 pm

    Hello Matt,

    It’s good to note that you’re still dissecting the miserable stories and endless lies that come from those who never cease to try to persuade us that the war in Afghanistan is justified. I have recently read “Cables from Kabul” by the ex-British ambassador, which is basically a lament about the systemic failure to learn from the history of intervention and which includes a lot of curious anecdotes about British servility to the Americans, the extravagent lifestyle of power brokers, etc (and very little about the Afghans). Amongst the interesting bits of information in the book, I learnt that the Royal Airforce regularly bombed Afghanistan from 1919 to 1947, in order to “keep the peace.” Where is the latest intervention leading? Will NATO really just pack up and leave in the next couple of years?

    Saludos! Mike

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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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