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Afghanistan: why?

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Robin Lustig | 11:47 UK time, Friday, 10 July 2009

Here's a question for you: why, exactly, are British forces fighting - and dying - in Afghanistan?

No army likes to go into battle without knowing why - and the government seems to be having some difficulty in coming up with an answer that works.

This was Harriet Harman, standing in for Gordon Brown at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday: "It is important to make sure in the mountainous regions surrounding Afghanistan and Pakistan (that) we do not have a crucible for the development of terrorism that threatens not only the people in that country but the region and indeed the whole world."

Sub-text: remember 9/11?

The new defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said pretty much the same thing in more detail the same day. The priorities are, he said, (i) "to prevent a return to Taliban control that allowed terrorists to flourish and threaten our national security; (ii) to prepare the way for elections ... by confronting the insurgents, denying them the freedom to operate, isolating them, and degrading their capability; and (iii) to provide the time and space for the Afghan forces to take responsibility for the security of their people, and for the Afghan Government to build their civil society."

The key message from the government, then, is simply this: if you want a secure Britain, you have to help create a secure Afghanistan. In the words of Bob Ainsworth: "Our troops are in Afghanistan to keep our country safe from the threat of terrorism."

Simple. Except, of course, it isn't.

Critics like Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, say our military involvement in Afghanistan is unhappily reminiscent of how the US became embroiled in Vietnam. "Vietnam began with Kennedy's noble 1963 intervention, to keep the Communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of terrorism and Afghanistan."

No one is arguing that military force alone will create a safe and stable Afghanistan. (After all, the British army tried and failed more than once in the 19th century - and the Soviet army failed just as dismally in the 1980s.) The argument is whether the political progress that needs to be made can be achieved only with military assistance, or rather whether it will come, if at all, only when the foreign forces have departed.

As for the "winning hearts and minds" argument (yes, it was heard in Vietnam too), Jenkins is scathing: "The strategy of 'hearts and minds plus' cannot be realistic, turning Afghanistan into a vast and indefinite barracks with hundreds of thousands of Western soldiers sitting atop a colonial Babel of administrators and professionals. It will never be secure. It offers Afghanistan a promise only of relentless war, one that Afghans outside Kabul know that warlords, drug cartels and Taliban sympathisers are winning."

But might Iraq be a useful example? Most commentators seem doubtful. For one thing, Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, topographically, ethnically, culturally and historically. Yet critics say that much of the military thinking in Afghanistan does seem to be based on what has already been tried in Iraq. (Not really surprising; after all, the US General David Petraeus is the strategic mastermind in both countries.)

Those who doubt the wisdom of British military involvement in Afghanistan say the government is sending our soldiers to fight a war they cannot win.

Those who support the current strategy say that to pull out now would hand the country back to the Taliban - which most Afghans don't want, and which would put the UK at risk of terrorist attack - and send a dangerous message of weakness to any other potential insurgent groups who may be tempted to follow the Taliban example.

What do you think?


  • 1. At 3:30pm on 10 Jul 2009, ladymaryellenwood wrote:

    If we allowed the farmers to grow and harvest opium, we could purchase it and use it in medecine. No need for the Taliban then, the Taliban lose their funding.
    This will not happen, big pharma companies do not want cheap ingredients, it would reduce their profits.

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  • 2. At 4:19pm on 10 Jul 2009, SheffTim wrote:

    It will be a long hard fought campaign, but I still believe it worth attempting.
    If after 9/11 the West had done nothing then Al Qaeda would have shown that they could plan, train and strike with impunity (let`s dismiss fantastical conspiracy myths), and would have gone on doing so.
    It should have been expected that it would turn into a protracted campaign against an enemy using guerrilla tactics. Establishing political and economic stability was always going to be difficult given Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world and one that had endured decades of fighting.

    In fact as the coalition`s aims go I think any political party would say that the goals are as Bob Ainsworth states above. Pull the troops out and it is likely that the Taliban would regain power, the Al Qaeda camps would return with Al Qaeda`s reputation and reach greatly enhanced. At worst this campaign may not so much be about `winning` as continuing to reduce the ability of an enemy to strike us.

    PS Comment one`s suggestion (turning opium into pain relieving drugs for medical use) has been put forward in all seriousness by a number of politicians and organisations. The developing world`s hospitals and doctors are desperately short of cheap pain relieving drugs. Perhaps some lateral thinking such as that could also help move Afghanistan towards political and economic stability.

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  • 3. At 8:29pm on 10 Jul 2009, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    It is about Pakistan. Terrorist groups are managable when dispersed so the idea is to not give them a secure base of operations. Has little to do with Afgans and that country, they simply happen to be the unfortunates that occupy a place that is of no commerical interest or historical organized national government and therefore more easily convinced to not interfere with those professing religious zeal from the barrel of a gun.

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  • 4. At 11:19pm on 10 Jul 2009, John_from_Hendon wrote:


    Anyone remember January 6, 1842. Let's face facts: the terrain is not a good place for any army or air force. It was not then and it is the same today.

    There are places that you can fight wars and there are places you can't. Afghanistan is one you can't. Quite apart from the people the county is very difficult and offers a huge advantage to the native inhabitants.

    Everyone who has invaded Afghanistan has failed to achieve their objectives.

    So, my solution is not to invade it, but to blockade it. Encase the country in barbedwire and control the fence. OK the fence will need to be 3000 miles long and will be a major undertaking, but unless the ingress and egress of goods (and materiel) and people is controlled there is no hope of pacifying the country.

    If you think this idea is insane just consider what we are being told will work, that is to do the job (what ever that is!) with a small fraction of the men and equipment the Russians failed to do the job with.

    The Americans lost 58,000 men in Vietnam - do we have to pointlessly waste life on a similar scale? The Russians lost 14,000 dead and had 450,000 casualties out of the the 620,000 men who went there over the years.

    The Afghanistan people accept social practices that we find unacceptable. They make an income from the drug industry and are, to our taste, appalling to women.

    They do not have any materiel (explosive for IEDs) manufacturing capacity inside the country and by stopping up their borders we could starve the fighters of their 'toys'. This will do nothing for their women. But first things first. I say blockade the country. If Pakistan and India can stop up the 'line of control' nearby then the techniques for a similar terrain are known and it is possible.

    It is just pointless to provide easy targets for local thugs!

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  • 5. At 03:07am on 11 Jul 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    "Anyone remember January 6, 1842."

    Yeah, like it was yesterday.

    "This is what the British population
    calls an elementary education."

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  • 6. At 7:30pm on 12 Jul 2009, copperDolomite wrote:

    The Health and Safety Executive have a page on their website stating that industrial deaths for the period 2008 to 2009 are 180.

    None of the categories cover those employees, ie soldiers who volunteered to take a job that may require them to give their lives and demands expertise in using arms.

    Why are the media focussing so much on the loss of soldiers, given these statistics?

    No one wants to see the bodies of our soldiers coing home, but aren't we yet again failing to understand risk? Those who choose to serve in our armed forces understand perfectly well the risks to each task they take. To suggest otherwise is to insult those who undertake the most difficult of tasks; people like my brother, his daughter both having served in our armed services at a time of war. They are the professionals, highly trained in warfare. It seems the media do not understand the risks or respect the professionalism employed.

    Have some respect for those who have taken the time to learn, the time to consider strategic options. If I find myself stuck in the middle of a battle it is the professional soldier I'd look to for rescue, safety and a better future, not the multitude of armchair and studio generals.

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  • 7. At 8:48pm on 12 Jul 2009, Ian Rogers wrote:

    As a civilised country, we should not just be sitting back and doing nothing.

    We should be helping the Afghans to regain control of their lands and restricting the actions and movements of the Taliban. Now, and for the near future that means using military action as the Taliban are not likely to negotiate, are they?

    They may me more inclined to talk if they can be starved of resources. We must try and cut off their supply lines, block their communications as best we can and look to stop them receiving funds.

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  • 8. At 8:51pm on 12 Jul 2009, jr4412 wrote:

    RL asks "why, exactly, are British forces fighting - and dying - in Afghanistan?"

    to some extent, this:

    Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline


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  • 9. At 02:09am on 13 Jul 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    You can fight al Qaeda and those who give them sanctuary like the Taleban or the Islamic Curts Union in places like Kabul and Mogadishu now or in places like Kensington and Manchester at some future date. They are utterly ruthless without regard or value for any human life, determined to take over the world, and impose their vision of Sharia law as they interpret it. If you come under their control, you either comply with their laws or they kill you. There are not exceptions. Hiding under the bed or sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich won't make them go away. Don't take my word for it, just ask those who lived under their rule in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any pact they make, they will violate because for them a treaty is only a tactic towards their ultimate goal. Pakistan just learned that in the Swat Valley the hard way. Those who don't take them seriously ultimately pay the price. From New York City to Indonesia, from Kenya to Saudi Arabia, everyone seems to require a domonstration to be convinced. If you forget and let your guard down the way America and the UK seem disposed to, they will give you more and likely more painful lessons until you learn or surrender.

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  • 10. At 12:34pm on 13 Jul 2009, lordBeddGelert wrote:

    Forget all the hype and hoopla for a minute. Consider the case of a cafe bar selling sandwiches in my city. Location - on the corner between a main road, near a hotel, and on the main pedestrian route from the train station to a newly built footbridge to take people into offices.

    It did very well, and they expanded to buy a property in a quaint hidden-away set of steps with small boutique shops - a sort of 'best kept secret' for the cognoscenti if you will. The cafe soon closed down.

    One could have drummed up all sorts of arguments.

    "We must keep the second cafe open because people deserve to have lovely sandwiches.."

    "We cannot give up so soon in the campaign to give people there the sort of lovely sandwiches people in 'main street' have come to expect.."

    "We just need a 'surge' of marketing leaflets to tell people where this new sandwich shop is, and soon we will have turned back the evil forces of fast food restaurants and will be making money"

    "We just need more investment in fancy, glitzy shiny cappuccino machines, not asking our people to 'snatch' a coffee from instant powder.."

    "If we give up now, we will be dishonouring all the hard work, and the sweat and tears shed in getting our new cafe open.."

    "If we pull out, we will leave a vacuum for a subway to take hold, and if we do that soon it will be a mcdonalds.."

    "We just need to throw a bit more money at the problem, and not let the treasury bean counters tell us we can't buy the more expensive provisions.."

    "Well, maybe we did open with too few 'boots in the kitchen', but we have learned our lesson and will be borrowing some american students helicoptered in to help meet the rush in demand - when it comes..."

    Enough already. We can recognise when arguments are a bit silly in business, and when people through wishful thinking for the best of intentions want to throw 'good money after bad' because they will not wake up to reality. Sometimes you can have a very good product [democracy] which has worked well elsewhere.

    But sometimes in business you are in the wrong location, at the wrong time, with too few people and inadequate equipment and no amount of fancy advertising and marketing will overcome those fundamental basic problems, and instead of throwing money away, we are throwing lives away in Afghanistan.

    And hearing people say they don't want armoured vehicles because they would make them less useful in difficult terrain, when the whole point is that they are only patrolling roads, and thus sitting ducks for IEDs, when we KNOW that it is a lack of organisation and money which is the real reason is just fatuous nonsense and makes one incredibly angry.

    We are trying to control an area the size of England with 8000 troops and then we wonder why we aren't 'winning' ? Just as the EU and Tesco are dinosaurs which cannot quite manage to wipe out small farmers, no matter how hard they try, because they are smaller, smarter and more nimble, our monolithic military are going to be struggling for a long time.

    We don't want to pull out because if we do the waters of the Taliban will close back over where our hands once were. But that will happen whether we leave in 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months or 5 years. But the only difference is if we stay another 5 years then over a 100 + more lives will be lost.

    I'm not a hypocrite who says he's in favour of the war and then affects to be surprised when suddenly a burst of our men get killed - we always knew that would happen when we went in - but sometimes one does have to pause and ask seriously whether that initial decision was the right one.

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  • 11. At 11:32pm on 13 Jul 2009, eyeball222 wrote:

    I am ex-RAF Fire rescue service - served in Iraq on 2 tours. I have spoken with old colleges in afgan and it is the same as in iraq! we dont get the kit we need! for example,
    a helicopter goes down off base in hostile territory and army units are sent in if available! they are very busy as there are so few of them on the ground!. also an RAF FIRE SERVICE (TACTICAL CRASH RESCUE TEAM ) is also sent. if it is within a certain distance from the base it is down to the guys and gals to go to it in a fibreglass and alloy crash truck!!!!! with NO armour!!!!they do have body armour though. AND 100 ROUNDS EACH (a team of 4-6 firefighters) and if there lucky 2 warriors to escort them! other wise its on a helicopter with less kit less protection and more danger at the crash site!
    we asked for armour on the crash trucks in iraq and were told "it's too expensive" (the same answer has been given in AFGHAN)total TOSH but proof that the government have in effect a price on our heads! it would be nice to know that the gov would stop at nothing to provide top protection and kit for the servicemen and women on operations but they are too concerned with saving money!
    in the raf to be promoted you must attend courses that teach you to make the best of your sections budget, or in laymens terms save as much as possible and make do with the kit you have. its wrong and must be changed. spend as much as is needed to do the job and as safe as possible, is what is needed.
    do it right or dont do it at all! men and women of the uk's armed forces are proud to serve thier country as i was, but hate the fact that they are treated like crap and given kit made by the lowest bidder, and it isnt always the right bit of kit that is required!
    my warmest and best goes to the lads and lasses on operations throughout the world especialy afghan, we support the forces ALL the way but we dont have to agree with the govs choices!

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  • 12. At 01:09am on 14 Jul 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    Armor for UK troops? Are you kidding? That money is needed for MP's swimming pools and dog nail manicures. It's a matter of priorities.

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  • 13. At 11:53am on 14 Jul 2009, lordBeddGelert wrote:

    MAII - By your point at 8, your logic would be that you have to fight the makers of computer viruses in Russia and China by flying over there and sorting out the scamps before they unleash havoc on the world wide web.

    Er, rather than buying a firewall and virus protection for your computer.

    The point is we didn't bother with the latter, we got rid of 'border protection' and now we HAVE to go and fight these wars abroad because we have no firewall at home. This to me seems like misplaced priorities and a 'back-to-front' [and I cleaned that one up..] way of doing things.

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  • 14. At 12:27pm on 14 Jul 2009, Richard_SM wrote:

    Those debating whether the Army is sufficiently equipped with helicopters, body armour or whatever else, in the context of Afghanistan is nonsense. Its a simple attempt to divert their frustrations onto something else because they cannot accept the uncomfortable truth. Those they call the 'enemy' have very few resources, yet they've continued to outwit two of the most 'advanced' nations in the world.

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  • 15. At 2:25pm on 14 Jul 2009, Isenhorn wrote:

    I have never understood the logic behind some of the 'we do not have enough resources' cries. Rescue trucks not having enough armor? Trucks? With armor??? Those vehicles are called trucks precisely because they do not have armor. If they have armor, they are called tanks.

    No matter what you try, you can never make a truck have the same protection as a heavily armored vehicle such as a tank. Even if you travel around in tanks al the time, there would still be casulties, as tanks are also vulnerable to mines and roadside bombs. Military vehicles have different purposes and thus diferent characteristics and protection. No protection is 100% effective, thus in times of war there are casualties. Reasonable measures need to be taken to ensure protection but invulnerable vehicles (and people) do not exist and will not exist anytime soon.

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  • 16. At 03:21am on 15 Jul 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    lBG #13

    Your firewall against Hitler was Czechoslovakia. It didn't work very well. The only way to cure a disease effectively is at its source. You can try to treat the symptoms but they will keep coming back as the source strengthens and becomes more potent. Those fighting computer viruses keep constant vigil. They disassemble every new virus as soon as it appears to see what makes it tick so they can figure out how to beat it. Turn your virus protection off accidentally or if they miss one and you can easily wind up having to re-image your hard drive and lose anything you haven't backed up. Yes, going after them in Russia, China, or around the corner where they live would be a lot more effective.

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  • 17. At 3:06pm on 16 Jul 2009, U14070340 wrote:

    16 still can't look forward eh?

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