BY SHIRAZ MAHER
Times are tough in Afghanistan right now. British forces have long been under attack in Helmand where scores of troops have been lost to the Taliban. The Army’s most recent campaign, Operation Panther’s Claw, has returned a worryingly high number of casualties. As if the number of soldiers being lost to the conflict was not bad enough, Jonathan Foreman has an important piece in the Spectator highlighting the numbers of wounded – those often maimed or crippled for life – from the conflict whose injuries go unreported.
In his latest column for the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens asks the obvious question: is it worth it? Not for him, ‘this stupid, doomed adventure’. After all, it emerged that in the notorious Taliban stronghold of Babaji ten soldiers were killed to keep open a polling station in which just 150 voted last month. It exemplified the ‘cretinous fantasies about democracy and elections in that place’ for Hitchens.
I fear he is being too narrow and short-sighted. Of course, it is almost unimaginable that we should see Afghanistan flourish into a western-styled liberal democracy in the foreseeable future, but all this misunderstands our reasons for being there.
Afghanistan is home to one of the most malignant and regressive political movements in the world today – the Taliban. Whether or not the West should concern itself with intervening against such groups abroad who usurp power and enslave entire populations is a matter for another day, but the fact is that the Taliban invited the current conflict upon themselves after aiding and abetting al-Qaida, and sheltering them after 9/11.
The intensity of the conflict in Afghanistan, particularly in the Helmand province where British forces are concentrated, demonstrates they are far from being a spent force. Just last year Gordon Brown revealed that 75% of British terror plots currently under surveillance by the Security Service originated from Pakistan. These plots do not emerge from the cosmopolitan centres of Lahore or Karachi, but from the lawless tribal region in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province where the Taliban have recently regrouped and reasserted themselves.
It underscores the ongoing urgency of our mission there. Yes, the conflict is difficult. Pulling out however would only make a bad situation worse. Just consider what happened in Iraq. After an almost effortless march on Baghdad by coalition forces, al-Qaeda’s grizzly and sustained guerrilla war was eventually overwhelmed by the 2007 surge which delivered an additional 20,000 soldiers and five brigades into Iraq.
Last week I blogged about the unsung successes of post-Saddam Iraq, such as the flowering of the Kurdistan region. There, Muslims are experiencing an early – and hugely important – exercise in building a liberal, secular social space. Such societies do not emerge overnight. They are the product of real experiences where different social groups with competing and conflicting interests learn how to reconcile their demands with each other in public life.
It is early days, but if this experience continues to take root it will be the greatest and most enduring legacy arising out of the allied invasion of Iraq. Its benefits are not just for the Iraqi people either. A stable and progressive Middle East has obvious global implications too.
Another ‘surge’ may not be the answer to Afghanistan, but we must stay the course and complete the job there. After all, the fortunes of that region are increasingly bound up with our own.
But Peter Hitchens did not get it all wrong. I could not help but agree with his characterisation of parliament as being ‘full of political hermaphrodites and neuters’. That it is. The Commons always falls deadly quiet during the otherwise boisterous weekly pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions whenever the names of fallen servicemen are read out at the start.
However, none of the subsequent gurning and guffawing is directed to just why our troops have to perform heroics – as they so often do – while being perennially under-resourced, ill-equipped and underpaid.
I am surprised that the last of those points has not yet incited the public consciousness to greater anger. While parliamentarians argue that Westminster will fail to attract the best people if it does not pay high wages, the Army regularly attracts the best this country has to offer – men and women who risk their lives for us while earning a fraction of what a politician can expect to make. The basic pay for a fully trained private who might see action in Afghan is just £16,681.
At the moment I’ve been researching the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers (particularly Muslims) to the British cause during the World Wars. What is immediately striking is the way that politicians concerned themselves with the welfare of those who were serving our country. Andrew Roberts’ recently published history of the Second World War reveals just how pervasive this was to Churchill’s thinking.
He was not alone. During both World Wars politicians in Britain and abroad dedicated huge amounts of attention to ensuring that soldiers were not just well equipped, but that they were also supplied with comforts – recreational and religious – to make the horrors of their experience more durable. On the home front there was a realisation that this was the least they could do for those protecting us from European totalitarianism.
Those of our MPs who now consider themselves so oppressed that they are forced to ‘live on rations’ should be reminded of their obligations to those who actually did – and would gladly do so again.