Our fourth Afghan war

Bill Ramsay argues that the Coalition’s very presence in Afghanistan is the incubus for terrorism and this is enhanced by the tactics used.

At the 2009 Scottish Trade Union Congress, I moved a motion calling for the withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan; the motion was remitted to the General Council. The response of the General Council was in a sense typical of other mainstream centre-left political institutions. Although considerable discussion and debate around the Palestine question and Iraq war has taken place over many years, discussions around this, our fourth Afghan war, has been much more muted.

To discuss Afghanistan is of course, also to discuss Islamic fundamentalism; NATO in its post cold war manifestation; and now, with the new administration in the White House, Pakistan; all uncomfortable topics for many in the political mainstream of whatever party. We therefore find ourselves in a situation where, with the exception of Plaid Cymru, no mainstream political institution is prepared to reflect the desire of the public, confirmed in numerous opinion polls, to disengage from Afghanistan. We need a debate within the mainstream centre-left on the issue of the UK’s continued presence in Afghanistan. In particular we have to examine: our involvement in ISAF, (the NATO led International Security and Assistance Force); UK’s continued support for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (the Afghan component of the global US Operation Enduring Freedom anti terrorist campaign); and the decision of the Obama administration to shift the focus into Pakistan. Above all we should assess what all of this means for UK and Scottish national security.

The concept of an ethical foreign policy died even before Robin Cook did. It was replaced with the active foreign policy of Blair, a doctrine that has not only survived his political demise but has gone from strength to strength. Constant military interventions are now seen as normal. As the head of the Army, General Dannatt said “Iraq and Afghanistan are not aberrations – they are signposts for the future”. If this policy is not the trumpeted position of almost every mainstream party in the UK then it is the de facto position. Given the UK public’s consistent lack of support for the deployment, our fourth Afghan war has therefore become the UK’s geopolitical elephant in the room. So how did this elephant squeeze through what is often portrayed as the UK’s modest pillars of geopolitical ambition?

The world’s only superpower went into Afghanistan to get Bin Laden, though only after Al Qaeda’s Taliban hosts proffered two fingers in the direction of the USA when the world’s only superpower demanded he and his associates be handed over. The result was entirely predictable. Before Kandahar (the Taliban’s real powerbase at the time) fell, the Pentagon was issuing instructions for elements of its special forces to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in preparation of the Iraqi land grab.Not only did the Bush administration take the eye off the ball, it walked away from it in an entirely different direction, pursuing an altogether contrary agenda which itself was underpinned by, in the literal sense of the word, an incredible plan of campaign.

Barak Obama made much of this during the election campaign in a way that Clinton, due to her voting record, could not. This was a factor, though maybe not a decisive one, in his election. However it means that getting Bin Laden is the centrepiece of US policy in the region. As it is generally accepted that Bin Laden and his associates are holed up somewhere along the Pakistan/Afghan border, there is a logic that shifts the US focus to and across that border into Pakistan. That in itself had potentially profound implications for UK national security and was one of the factors that led to the drafting of the motion early this year. The subsequent battles between Pakistani forces, the inevitable refugee crisis and the fact that a million UK citizens have family connections in Pakistan adds a domestic dimension to our fourth Afghan war that was not present in the first three.

I believe that the left have some difficulty in engaging fully on this issue because of an understandable desire to buy into the aspiration, enticingly first dangled by Laura Bush and Cheri Blair, that an intended consequence of the intervention was to bring a modicum of equality into Afghan society generally and Afghan women in particular. NATO’s impressive public affairs machine, which is even now limbering up for the NATO parliamentary assembly in Edinburgh in November, has done everything it can to develop this progressive vision. The media are encouraged to hype the development and reconstruction efforts which are marginal and faltering. However the new sharper strategy for Afghanistan of the new American President makes this narrative more difficult if not impossible to sustain. Obama could not have been more plain-spoken when, flanked by Secretary of State Clinton and Defence Secretary Gates he said “We have a clear goal, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their (Al Qaeda’s) return to either country in the future”. The US military now refer to the theatre of conflict as AFPAK.

This demanded, and produced, a somersault in stated British priorities. Putting aside for a moment, former defence Secretary John Reid’s career-defining “without a shot” comment at the time of our deployment to Helmand Province, he made it clear, as did Prime Minister Blair that we were there to create the space and conditions to allow “reconstruction“. However, Britain’s most senior serviceman, the Chief of the Defence Staff flatly contradicted this on TV in April and on the same programme the then Defence Secretary John Hutton was at pains to recalibrate British strategy for Afghanistan with that of the new US administration. Hutton said “They (UK personnel) have been shedding their blood for the UK and the UK’s security interests” Hutton went on “It’s to protect the UK from violent terrorism and extremism”.

“I would not ask British soldiers to fight and die to allow Afghan boys and Girls to go to the same school together”

His remarks about the terrorist threat is not new think by the Ministry of Defence though his suggestion that military action can be used to combat political extremism is almost as bizarre as his earlier comment claiming that our nuclear deterrent had an anti-terrorist utility. However the most significant feature of the new Obama strategy and the dutiful UK recalibration is the expansion of the field of operations into Pakistan, a place that even Cheney and Rumsfeld kept well clear of.

It’s true that UK forces are, as far as we are aware, not involved in operations across the Pakistani border but be in no doubt, the UK accepts that Pakistan is now part of the theatre of operations. Hutton again “We know where the principle focus of the campaign against the UK is directed from, Afghanistan and increasingly, Pakistan”. So the crucible of the so called “war on terror” has moved into Pakistan and our forces are involved, though for the time being, not directly.

The election of Barak Obama was undoubtedly good news for the world generally though for how long the people of Pakistan and their relatives in the UK agree with that assessment, is a moot point. Closer examination of the new AFPAK policy throws up some dilemma’s for the US. Obama has made it clear that getting Bin laden and his associates is the goal and that all other considerations are at best secondary. It’s no longer about regime change, whatever regime delivers Al Qaeda is the regime that Obama will live with.

A rapprochement with the Taliban is well under way. Terms like good Taliban, bad Taliban, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are being increasingly bandied around. Elements of the former Taliban regime, up to ministerial level, have been rehabilitated. We can be sure of is that this dialogue between the US and elements of the regime they toppled will continue. The success or failure of these negotiations will rest upon the same question that led the US to topple the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2002. Whether or not they are prepared to eliminate or hand over, or facilitate the elimination or the handing over Bin laden and his associates.

In one sense this strategy of fighting the Taliban and talking to the Taliban is not new. British operations in 2006 were in microcosm, a forerunner of such a strategy. High intensity engagements by British troops who suffered significant casualties, sometimes ended in negotiated “withdrawal” by the troops. Face was saved in part by BBC reportage of the process who helpfully suggested that the negotiators were not Taliban but local tribal “elders”, hence the UK had not been defeated. The central issue, which is rarely discussed, is the link between UK national security and the UK deployment in Afghanistan. The allegation that an expensive military occupation of Afghanistan contributes to UK national security by reducing the potential for terrorist attack in the UK is always asserted but never fully examined.

Indeed even if the assertion was accepted, the footprint of “coalition forces” even after the US’s new increased deployments take place, will still be relatively light in terms of the size of the territory. Obama went to NATO’s 60th birthday summit seeking more troops but left almost empty handed. The idea that this new deployment, which is still short of the troops the Soviet’s deployed, could close down the country as an incubator for terrorism is simply incredible.

The reality of course is quite the opposite; the coalition’s very presence is the incubus for terrorism and this is enhanced by the very tactics that the coalition uses. Airpower in “conventional” war, can greatly enhance the force at troops disposal; however airpower in a guerrilla style war amongst the people, is self defeating as a high civilian casualty rate recruits for the Taliban. Indeed I would also argue that the use of airpower is in itself an indicator of a lack of support for war amongst the public of the country prosecuting the war.

Airpower makes up for the lack of firepower amongst the troops deployed and also leads to a reduction in the casualties among coalition forces. Ask yourself a very simple question, would the UK, or even the American public countenance a casualty rate, even among full time professional forces, remotely approaching the casualty rate of a world war to prosecute the so called war on terror? Of course not.

There is also the crucial distinction to be made between the Taliban, who, as even many American military analysts are prepared to state publicly, never have had ambitions to intervene out with their own territory and Al Qaeda whose aspirations are much wider. Indeed, it is becoming more widely accepted that Al Qaeda’s military potential is a shadow of what it was some years ago, though thanks to a counter-productive military response to it , its political message still has potency. The paradox is that if there is to be a long lasting solution, then these Pashtun tribes whom we bomb day in and day out will be the key stakeholders in any agreement, the Kabul government’s position will be less important.

So what does all of this have to do with the UK’s and Scotland’s national security interest? I would argue that in one sense it has little to do with our national security as the Taliban present no threat to the UK. On the other hand if we stay, particularly as the military centre of gravity shifts southwards into Pakistan it will be a key factor for the reasons stated earlier. For national security reasons, we should withdraw our troops now.

At the 2009 STUC Congress, the arguments for remission had to do with the dire consequences for the Afghans generally, and for women and children in particular if UK forces were to withdraw. However, human rights have nothing to do with why we remain in that country.

“Let’s be clear” said the Dispatches interviewer “words like supporting reconstruction, supporting democracy, human rights for Afghan women, they are really a smokescreen aren’t they?” “They are not a smokescreen” Hutton responded “but you are quite right, they are not the reason we are there. I would not ask British soldiers to fight and die to allow Afghan boys and Girls to go to the same school together”.

Our government is not willing to sacrifice troops for reasons of humanity, and the UK public in general sees through the incredible national security argument. Why then does the Scottish Trade Union Congress think the blood price in UK troops is for the moment worth paying? This is crucial as the statement from the General Council made it clear that the STUC no more accepted Hutton’s national security argument than I, or the UK public, do.