Friday, August 07, 2009

Britain in Afghanistan

Last month, you'll recall, opinion polls appeared to show increased support for the war in Afghanistan. I suggested, bleakly, that if this was a trend it would boost the Obama administration's chances of maintaining the alliance necessary to succeed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since then, we have had polls that show that any increased support detected was certainly a blip. This is telling, given the density of sanctimonious editorials advising fickle readers not to favour 'abandoning' Afghanistan just because of some combat deaths, which are a 'cost worth bearing'. Some stories have confirmed a rise in army recruitment due to a combination of soaring unemployment and glitzy Andy McNab-style propaganda, but - though a problem - this rise is from 27 to 99 new recruits for the whole of Scotland in a period of three months. The effort to make out that this represents a generation of youths enthusiastic for the adventure of the frontline is rather poor.

The escalation and the propaganda flurry that has accompanied it (Brown has already declared 'Operation Panther's Claw' a successful operation) was designed to give the impression that the occupiers were uniting behind a new strategy with confidence. There may be some small element of truth in this. A scathing report [pdf] has just been released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, dominated by pro-war MPs, which is deeply critical of the way the occupation has been handled*. The report, trying to account for the failure to bring moxy n freem to Afghanistan, blames inapt tactics, poor strategising, and so on. The United States is scolded for, among other things, an excessively unilateral strategy, conflicts between the ISAF mission and that of 'Operation Enduring Freedom', cultural insensitivity toward the natives, and so on. Raimondo, with some justice, mocks this as British imperial resentment about American misappropriation of the white man's burden. Even so, this is largely criticism of Bush era policies, and the report's authors express much hope in the Obama strategy, and in the prospect of greater European cooperation on the war. It also broaches the topic of the war's unpopularity, blaming Iraq for having 'cast a shadow' over what is an altogether different kind of war. The problem, as ever, is not how governments might respond to popular will, but how the popular will might be sidelined and manipulated.

There is no doubting the British state's commitment to this venture. British officials expect the occupation to last for 'decades', long after military combat has (they hope) ceased. David Cameron is committed to further escalation, and is even proposing a 'minister' for Afghanistan, supposedly to overcome 'confusion' at the cabinet level. It is crucial to Britain's global strategy that the NATO alliance be maintained, continues to be viable for 'out of area' operations, and continues to unite the US with Europe, with Britain operating as the intercontinental bridge. There is no other explanation for ministers persisting with these clapped out chestnuts about 'terrorists', the laboured pretence that this is about 'Al Qaeda', this specious 'security' narrative of dark-skinned conspirators plotting to take over the world from whatever tiny plot of land they're permitted to inhabit in peace. Decades of commitment, troop increases, constant war, billions of dollars in expenditure (just as we're about to experience swingeing cuts in public spending), don't sell themselves for some reason. They have to keep hammering away at this 'Al Qaeda' conspiracy theory.

The next national demonstration against the war in Afghanistan takes place on 24 October.

*One arresting aspect of the report is how much it relies on journalists and writers for their advice on operational matters, on how well particular strategies have served the occupation, and so on. All of these are influential people, to the extent that they are senior reporters (Christina Lamb, James Fergusson, etc) or write regular opinion pieces. And all of them are not just tacitly backing the occupation, but actually using their experience and knowledge to assist the occupiers. Talk about embedded.