As the draw down of British forces from Afghanistan nears, the scandals seem to intensify. The latest involves the prolonged detention of up to 90 suspected Afghan “insurgents” in Camp Bastion, Britain’s main military base in Afghanistan. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond defended the policy, claiming the alternatives—turning the detainees back onto the battlefield to attack British forces, or handing them over to Afghan judicial authorities to face possible torture—were worse.
I am wholeheartedly in favour of protecting our brave soldiers and I support them unconditionally. I further believe that releasing our enemies into an abusive situation could compromise our national security by feeding home grown terrorism. But the real issue here is not the merits of this single policy, but the slew of bad policies which landed us between a rock and a hard place.
Rewind back to 2006, when British forces were deployed to Helmund to quell the “insurgency” by “winning the hearts and minds” of the local Pashtun. As I’ve argued since the inception of this blog, the fight in Afghanistan is not an insurgency—it’s a civil war and we’ve sided with the former Northern Alliance who’ve been battling the Pashtun for decades. Against this backdrop, the futility of the 2006 deployment is obvious. Our troops never had a hope in hell of winning over the locals in Helmund when we were backing their enemies. Indeed the Camp Bastion detainees were rounded up in Helmund and Kandahar Provinces.
Had the British government’s Afghan aid policy been sound, perhaps we could have handed the detainees over within 96 hours. But that proved impossible given that the hundreds of millions we’ve spent trying to build Afghanistan into a functioning state largely ended up in the pockets of corrupt Afghan officials (most of whom never wanted a western-style democratic government in the first place).
A key project funded by the British tax payer sought to reform Afghanistan’s broken judiciary system in the hopes that the Afghan people—not to mention the Afghan government’s western backers—could have confidence in it. Britain’s “Guantanamo” problem underscores what a waste of money that turned out to be. And we may have to keep on paying. As Mr Hammond told the BBC, Britain would love nothing more than to turn the Bastion detainees over to the Afghan judicial authorities but he can’t do it because the MoD had its hands tied by a law firm representing an Afghan who was allegedly detained by the British, turned over to the Afghans and subsequently tortured.
Within hours of the scandal breaking, the MoD announced it had found a “safe route” to get the Afghan detainees out of Bastion and into the Afghan system. The Guantanamo criticisms may die down, but if those detainees are tortured or abused by their Afghan jailers, expect the British Government (and by default, the British tax payer) to get hit with a very expensive lawsuit. What’s worse, now that we’ve been tainted with a Guantanamo-esque scandal, terror minded Islamists at home and abroad have yet another recruiting tool at their disposal.
Beyond our security, lies the question of the legacy we’re leaving in Afghanistan. The threat of litigation may have made the MoD think twice about turning over the detainees to the Afghan authorities, but what about the decision to turn ground operations in Helmund over to the largely Northern Alliance dominated Afghan National Army? How many Pashtun civilians are at risk of abuse and torture now that their mortal enemies have been handed the keys to the kingdom?
What’s your answer to that, Mr Hammond?