It’s a grim milestone that with good leadership could have been avoided. This week a Royal Marine wounded in Helmund Province became the 300th British service member to die as a result of operations in Afghanistan. The tragic death has caused many Brits to pause and reflect, not only on the sacrifices made by our brave men and woman in uniform but on the broader issue of what our country can realistically achieve in Afghanistan.
Anticipating the flood of public doubt surrounding Britain’s continued involvement, the new coalition government responded to this terrible landmark by once again linking Afghanistan to national security. ‘We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe,’ said Prime Minister David Cameron. ‘We are there because the Afghans are not yet ready to keep their own country safe and to keep terrorists and terrorist training camps out of their country.’ This, as regular readers of my posts will know, is a bogus argument in my view. If anything, Britain’s military presence in Afghanistan has compromised national security by fanning the flames of home grown terrorism. As for making the world a safer place; I’ve said since 2001 that Britain and its allies would do better to tackle al-Qaeda at its source by hitting select targets in Pakistan (al-Qaeda’s primary breeding ground) and Saudi Arabia (al-Qaeda’s financial centre). Going after terrorists one by one in Afghanistan is tantamount to swatting mosquitoes to eradicate malaria.
Those who support ‘staying the course’ in Afghanistan believe the coalition can eventually succeed in its mission to bring security and stability to the country. This misperception is not surprising given that for years now, the public has been told that Britain and its allies are waging a counter-insurgency campaign. Indeed I have been sucked into calling the conflict an insurgency. I apologize for doing so and I’d like to be perfectly clear now: Britain is not fighting counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. We have taken sides in a festering 30-year civil war. This distinction is crucial for understanding the limits of what can be achieved there. A foreign force can win a counter-insurgency by getting the people in its area of operations on side. By contrast, British and US forces operating in Pashtoon dominated Southern and Eastern Afghanistan have no chance of winning over the local population because the coalition has allied itself with the former commanders of the Northern Alliance – the mortal enemies of the Pashtoon.
Having worked for six years as a security advisor in Afghanistan, I’ve had contact with locals ranging from humble villagers to cunning warlords. When pressed, they have all come to the same dire conclusion. It doesn’t’ matter when the coalition withdraws from Afghanistan, the end result will be the same; brutal, all-out civil war. Bear in mind too that it’s not just the coalition that have taken sides in the Afghan conflict. India, Pakistan and China all have a presence in the country whether through proxies or exploiting the country’s vast mineral wealth. Russia and Iran are also working behind-the-scenes to secure their interests. That’s five regional powers – all with nuclear weapons or close to it, vying to assert their will in Afghanistan. No matter how you look at it, Afghanistan is a quagmire that defies military solutions.
It’s entirely possible to support our troops in Afghanistan and be against the war. Britain’s armed forces deserve to be honoured for their service and sacrifice. The fact that they were able to hold out in Helmand for years despite being woefully undermanned and ill-equipped is testament to their skill and prowess. They could fight on in Afghanistan indefinitely if that’s what this country asks of them. But make no mistake: achieving Afghan stability is a mission no foreign army, no matter how professional, can accomplish.