Eddie Ford examines why UK politics now questions troops being in Afghanistan
Every year on Remembrance Sunday the establishment and its media hypocritically pretend to be against war. As church leaders eulogise, wreaths are laid, solemn speeches given and heads are bowed towards the Cenotaph, the blood-stained past and crimes of British imperialism are written out of history. Dying and suffering hellishly, the millions butchered and sacrificed by the ruling class over the decades becomes obscenely transformed into a noble endeavour for peace and freedom.
This year, though, the ritual had particularly pertinent overtones, and for one simple reason – the ongoing disaster that is the war in Afghanistan, which has seen 230 British army fatalities since 2001. Indeed, you could even say that Remembrance Sunday was more like What Do We About The War in Afghanistan Day, as splits and divisions within the establishment become increasingly prominent and visible.
And, of course, there are good reasons for the ruling class and its servants to be worried – very worried. A recent poll of 1,009 randomly selected adults conducted on behalf of the BBC demonstrated that 63% of British people want the troops brought home “as quickly as possible”, while 64% believe that the Afghan war is “unwinnable” – up from the 58% who thought the same in July of this year. Furthermore, 42% said they “did not understand the purpose” of Britain’s mission, and 52% agreed that the war was “not worth fighting for” due to the endemic levels of corruption in Afghanistan. Given that the fact that there has been a marked escalation in British deaths and casualties over recent months – with no reason to think that the upward trend will not continue – the next batch of poll returns will almost certainly make for even more depressing reading for the government and all those committed to a British presence in Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly – but maybe a bit foolishly with an extremely unpromising general election for Labour looming darkly on the horizon – the defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, immediately responded to the BBC poll by saying that the stationing of British troops “could not be determined by public opinion”. Similarly, Gordon Brown last week gave a speech in which he insisted that Britain “cannot, must not and will not walk away” from its mission or crusade in Afghanistan. But Brown qualified this bold and resolute-sounding declaration by also saying of the imperialist coalition forces in Afghanistan that “in the end we will succeed or fail together” – which to many within the military and elsewhere has a dismaying whiff of defeatism about it.
Inevitably of course, The Sun has used Afghanistan to bash Brown – with mounting British deaths he is easy meat when it comes to Afghanistan, limping, as he seems to be, to an electoral defeat next year. So, mercilessly piling on the pressure, the once again true-blue Tory tabloid launched a highly personalised – if not positively spiteful – blitzkrieg against Brown over his supposedly “bloody shameful” handwritten letter to the mother of one recent British fatality, Jamie Janes. Spitting fake rage, The Sun screamed about how Brown had allegedly misspelt Janes’s name – as “James” – and that the letter was “littered with more than 20 mistakes” (such as, shockingly, “incorrectly” using the letter ‘i’ 18 times, “mostly by leaving the dots off them”; but once “by using two of them” in the spelling of “security”). This, we are led to believe, constituted a “hastily scrawled insult”.1
By an amazing coincidence – it’s not as if the Sun would ever cynically exploit a grieving mother for naked political point-scoring purposes, is it? – when a humiliated Brown felt compelled to phone Jacqui Janes in a further attempt to console her, the “outraged” mother just so happened to activate the phone’s loudspeaker button and also just so happened to have the necessary equipment nearby to record the “amazing late-night phone bust-up”, where she “seized the chance to nail” Brown over equipment shortages in Afghanistan: specifically, the lack of helicopters, which Jacqui Janes claims resulted in Jamie bleeding to death from his injuries. By an even more astonishing coincidence, Jacqui Janes was photographed taking the 13-minute phone call from Brown and the tape of the conversation somehow made it all the way to the Sun newspaper – which doubtless felt patriotically obliged to print the full transcript of this thoroughly unsolicited tape, concerned, of course, that “our boys” were being put in “peril” by the inadequate levels of military equipment (November 10).
No wonder that on the Army Rumour Service (Arrse) unofficial rank-and-file website forum/blog, one contributor rather cynically – but perhaps with a certain degree of accuracy – summarised Jacqui Janes as: “I feel so emotional about this, prime minister, that I’m going to give the whole transcript to The Sun, whilst posing with a phone looking angry”, with another even suggesting that she was an “attention-seeker of the highest order”.2
Yet, clearly, the Afghan operation – which Barack Obama informed us not so long ago was a “just war” – is unravelling at the seams, with public morale plummeting, the military becomingly dissatisfied and elements of the ruling class beginning to break rank. Significantly, Kim Howells, a former Labour foreign office minister with responsibility for Afghanistan and currently chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee – so not exactly a nobody then – has already stated that British involvement in Afghanistan has effectively “squandered” money and personnel that could be better deployed elsewhere. Hence “sooner rather than later” there needs to be a “properly planned, phased withdrawal of our forces” from Helmand province.3
Naturally, the Liberal Democrats are trying to carefully position themselves once again as the ‘anti-war’ party of choice for respectable mainstream opinion, whilst maintaining their patriotic credentials – not always an easy act to pull off, of course. So they were noisily ‘anti-war’ in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, but as soon as the imperialist onslaught begun the Liberal Democrats instantly became loyal supporters of the war effort – as, obviously, they had to stand by ‘our boys’ in wreaking bloody havoc and devastation upon Iraqi society.
Once again, with the polls seemingly behind them and imperialist policy in obvious tatters, the Lib Dems evidently calculate that they can afford to step up the ‘anti-war’ rhetoric. To this end, party leader Nick Clegg has gone on record to flatly state that “failure is inevitable” in Afghanistan unless the “international community” (ie, imperialism) does a sharp about-turn and “change both our current policies and our present attitudes”.4 Well, then, Nick, should we take this as an almost ‘troops out now’ position – depending, that is, on the vagaries and vicissitudes of internal Lib Dem wrangling and UK electoral politics?
So plainly, as we have seen above, politics in the UK is becoming more and more taken up with the fundamental question: what is the purpose of the British engagement in Afghanistan – why exactly are the troops there? The increasing inability of those conducting and supporting the Afghan war to give a clear and definite answer to this question is inevitably undermining the ‘war effort’ – as communists are delighted to report. In a typical reflection of this deep unease over the Afghan question, and mounting anti-war sentiment, an editorial in The Guardian observes that the “growing public opposition to the war is not just the result of the procession of coffins through Wootten Basset” – but is rather “the consequence” of Brown’s profound “failure to say clearly what this war is about and why it is being run the way it is”.5
Embarrassingly for imperialism, especially the United States, the recent Afghan elections have turned out to be not quite the advert for democracy – and hence the imperialist intervention – that was so desperately wanted. In fact, the whole affair descended into total farce. Despite the massive and systematic corruption – and blatant cheating – by forces currently (and no doubt very temporarily) ‘loyal’ to the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, he was still unable to secure the 50% of the vote theoretically needed for him to prevent a run-off and hence declare victory over his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. However, Abdullah pulled out of the presidential race in disgust at the grotesquely fraudulent nature of the process, so Karzai ‘won’ the election anyway, whatever the electoral rule book might have said.
The result being, of course, that in the shape of Karzai imperialism is now lumbered with a former protégé – or presidential client – who lacks all moral or political legitimacy, for all his Afghan apparel and swish suits. In some ways, the situation is particularly excruciating for the British forces stationed in Helmand, as the electoral turnout in southern Afghanistan was even more derisory than for the rest of the country – yet British troops are dying in increasing numbers to prop up a totally corrupt ‘governmental’ system, which is controlled, and ruled over, by an unsavoury collection of warlords, gangsters and a thuggish police force which in reality is not much more than a glorified extortion racket.
Faced with this developing political-strategic and military catastrophe – confronted by an ever bolder and more confident Taliban, eyes now set on the additional prize of Pakistan – Obama is now ‘reviewing’ the request by general Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, to send up to 40,000 extra troops to the area (on top of the 20,000 soldiers deployed earlier this year, making a total of 68,000 US troops).
Whether reassuringly or not, it has been widely reported that McChrystal is of the view that Britain’s continued involvement in Afghanistan would be politically more palatable at home if its 9,000 soldiers were moved out of “harm’s way” from the Helmand frontline – especially as defence strategists fear that the British death toll could reach 400 by the time of the general election in six months or so. In other words, things will go from bad to worse before they get … even worse.
It was self-evident from the start that imperialism could never bring democracy or genuine social progress to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Communists always treated with contempt the stupid and criminal fantasies of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty social-imperialists, who told us that the imperialist occupation would provide a “breathing space” for progressive, democratic and secularist forces. Rather it was inevitable that the US and UK intervention in Afghanistan would produce the opposite outcome – further disintegration and barbarism, with imperialism courting from day one the most conservative and backward elements in Afghan society, and locked into a low-intensity war with the Taliban.
Now, Kabul is steadily coming under the hegemony of various Islamist groups and factions which are programmatically virtually indistinguishable from the Taliban, and the government of Hamid Karzai – which according to the constitution is duty-bound to ensure that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” in the “Islamic republic” of Afghanistan – is set to continue its attacks on women’s rights, persecute those deemed guilty of apostasy, and so grimly on.
But we in the CPGB remain committed to the fight for the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Afghanistan. Democracy, secularism, women’s rights and social advance can only be won by the renewal and intensification of class struggle in Afghanistan and throughout the region, not through the outside machinations of the imperialist powers.