War in Afghanistan – another worrying consensus?

People sometimes say they wish the politicians would get together and agree, instead of bickering and arguing. I wish the politicians and political parties would disagree more about the issues, so that actions and policies can be properly tested and choices evaluated. Consensus often breeds the worst errors.

As someone who bore the scars from opposing the consensus that the Uk should enter the ERM – and probably go on to join the Euro – it surprised me just how much damage the consensus mongers were prepared to do before they accepted their idea was wrong.

As someone who has been a farily lonely voice explaining that the Bank of England was not made independent in 1997, and who thought the MPC alongside this government was likely to make a mess of running our economy, I have been less suprised at how long this nonsense has continued and how much damage it has done.

Today I read a senior military voice telling us we cannot win the war in Afghanistan. As someone who is not an expert in these military matters and who has not visited Afghanistan I wonder if this is a warning we should heed? This is a war supported by Barack Obama, John MacCain, George Bush and Gordon Brown. It is a war where Barack Obama and the Democrats, who have moved from supporting the war in Iraq to questioning it, want to see Western forces increased. They favour a troop surge in Afghanistan whilst being sceptical about a troop surge in Iraq.

I have always wondered how you can fight a war on terror. The US has the world’s greatest ever military machine, with amazing technology. Not even the US yet has the technology to identify and destroy an enemy living within residential areas full of people you are trying to help, without killing too many of them as well. Better bombs and smarter delivery mechanisms can help the US win any conventional war easily, but it does not mean the US can win enough hearts and minds in fledgeling democracies to make them safe for a particular way of life.

I am not suggesting there are any easy answers. I understand it is not helpful to say I would not have started from here. I would appreciate some thoughts on whether on this occasion the amazing consensus is right, and we need to intensify our military efforts in Afghanistan and over the border into Pakistan, or whether we should heed the General and try something else.


  1. Tony Makara
    October 5, 2008

    The situation in Afghanistan is yet another foreign policy dead end and it doesn't help that senior Conservatives, to quote Mr Clegg, become Pavlovian whenever America embroils itself in such adventurism. People naturally support the British troops but often allow that to cloud their judgement over long term policy aims.

    If the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq was going to improve it would have done so by now. We cannot impose western style democracies on these countries because their people are beholden to a socio/religious culture that runs completely counter to the ideals that we espouse. The political system must reflect the culture of these nations, and the west would find it easier to co-operate with but hold to account a regime like that of the Taliban rather than trying to impose a system and set of values that are resented.

    Diplomacy has suffered greatly under the Bush/Blair/Brown years and we now need to return to the hard diplomacy that was so successful in dealing with the Soviets in the Reagan/Thatcher years. I hope William Hague will look to that era as an inspiration and appoint the people who understand that diplomacy can achieve so much more than quick-fix force.

  2. Stewart Knight
    October 5, 2008

    Afghanistan is a sham and not a war. The only reason we are there is to 'get' Bin Laden and because the Taleban refused to hand him over; we have not got Bin Laden and he is still free. The 'war' is and was a defeat in every sense. 80% of drugs flooding the UK and which are killing our citizens and fuelling the crime spree, come from Afghanistan; if for no other reason than that we have lost.

    There is no way to win in Afghanistan, speaking as ex military, without men on the ground and keeping them there. We can't, we lack the resources and will, and also the moral capacity with the scum-bags of Labour running the show.

    Besides that, why should we be sacrificing our men in this way? We missed Bin Laden, so now we should shift the resources to a more productive use. I don't believe the people of Afghanistan are any better off, certainly not long term, and never will be until Pakistan makes a real effort to rid their country of the Taleban.

    It seems to me the problem may be a muslim problem, and only they, seeing as they support any muslim regardless of their crime against non muslims, can sort the problem out, and that won't happen.

  3. Pete Chown
    October 5, 2008

    I think the Tories' support for the Iraq war was their biggest mistake of recent times. With millions of people demonstrating in the streets, Blair was on the edge of a precipice. If the Tories had pushed, he would have gone. In all probability, we would now have a Tory government, planning its re-election campaign for early 2009.

    Iraq is now quite straightforward, in my opinion. As soon as we handed Basra Palace back to the Iraqis, we had no role. We might as well leave. This is true whether or not history will judge the "surge" a success.

    Afghanistan is more difficult because the Taliban ran a more brutal regime than Saddam Hussein. (Hussein had done some seriously nasty things in the past, like the Halabja gas attack, but he seemed to have stopped by 2003.) However, like your military contact, I suspect that the war is unwinnable and we should therefore look for an exit. The fact that the war might be justified is not a reason to fight if we are only facing defeat.

  4. Cassius
    October 5, 2008

    Plainly Britain has not had sufficient resources to conduct the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and may not have had enough even for just one of those. This seems to have been evidenced by the complaints from military leaders about the lack of general material support, men and equipment.

    We entered the Iraq campaign with little justification other than a display of support to our closest ally, and the extension of our activity in Afghanistan was described by the then Home Secretary as minor and amounting to just “peace-keeping” or some such. In both instances, the length and severity of the campaigns are far beyond that which the UK public must surely have expected. It has been expensive in the lives of our soldiers. Of course it is always hard to weigh up the value of combat in such terms—but has it been worth it?

    In terms of financial cost, how much has been expended? And how much will be needed to continue? Even were it the case that we could clearly see value for money, do we have any money left? Not according to Mr Osborne, who says the cupboard is bare.

    A large consideration for the government may well be the loss of face and the embarrassment, were the UK to pull out of both countries—a defeat, and a sense of having let down one’s allies. More importantly, the consequence might in the long run stoke the activities of terrorists and the drug trade, but perhaps as an alternative we should devote our energies to securing our immediate borders and rooting out the enemies within our borders.

    I cannot understand how we have sufficient funds to continue with these military operations, when the nation’s debt continues to mount inexorably and we are told the UK’s finances are in such a sorry state to withstand the present economic pressures.

    Is it not time to draw a line in the sand? Is it not time to withdraw from the role of one of the world’s policemen, even if only for a few years? Let’s also consider the continuing outflow of money on other international undertakings (eg aid) and desist from spreading our munificence amongst all and sundry. Perhaps we should get Alvin Hall on the job to provide us with a budget to keep within our means.

  5. backofanenvelope
    October 5, 2008

    As I understand it, we are six years into a war scheduled to last at least 30 years. Who voted for this? Does anyone really think that we are going to fight a war lasting six times longer than the second World War?

    It is a silly war in a silly place. It is also the only sort of war our opponents can fight. We should fight to our strengths, not theirs.

    Get out and quarantine Afghanistan and Pakistan

  6. richard lilley
    October 5, 2008

    John your blog is a must read for anyone committed to rational dissent and I congratulate you on finding such a platfrom for your trenchant and challenging views – proper politics in my view.

    With the current shower you feel they find in Afghanistan a more justifiable scenario for the inescapable military adventurism to which Mr Blair signed us up in his emotional response to 9/11; but there is no achievable military objective (nevermind victory) for which the lives of the bravest of our people are being sacrificed, and our diplomatic influence extinguished.

    By the way if you havent already read it Ahmed Rashid's terrifying "Descent into Chaos" describes the situation from the perspective of a rational muslim intellectual, and god knows we need those. I hope William Hague has a copy.

  7. Alfred T Mahan
    October 5, 2008

    As we found out with Nazism and Japanese militarism, the only way to eradicate a dangerous ideology is to smother it completely. We cannot do that with the Taliban/Al Qaeda. Not only do we lack the will and the resources to dominate Afghanistan itself, the threat to us is not confined to that country and so will survive even if Afghanistan is overrun by our troops.

    Half measures such as we are taking at the moment only sow dragons' teeth.

  8. Derek
    October 5, 2008

    I'm not sure the motivation behind this conflicting has ever been strictly what it says on the tin.

    As a way of preventing open-ended diffuse military action against intangible opponents government should be required to submit a mission statement to parliament. It should be updated every year to avoid subsequent goalpost moving and mission creep. It should clearly state, in layman's terms, what the aim of the operation is, what criteria need to be met for the aim to be fulfilled and troops returned home. If the campaign incurs heavy casualties it must be justified that the operation is of such importance that it should be sustained in the face of such a high human cost. Most importantly it should clearly set out why the operation is in Britain's national interest. It's all very well talking talking about global or EU wide solutions to economic problems. You can't expect people to risk their lives for their European parliament or to install democracy in some far flung land.

  9. StevenL
    October 5, 2008

    Most people I know think that the 'war on terror' is all about money in one way or another. There are also a surprising number of intelligent Americans that you would not class as your usual conspiracy theorists that think Bush, or Dick Cheney, or their friends orchastrated 9/11, or at least allowed it to happen.

    I'm no expert on these matters, but it looks to me like there is an endless supply of non-Afghans that are willing to join in and fight NATO in Afghanistan. There's even been reports of Brits going over there to fight with the Taleban.

    We could probably stay there for decades shooting angry young Muslim 'terrorists'. If the object of the war in Afghanistan is to provide a tangible front-line for NATO to fight Muslims then it is working, whether this is the same as winning I am not sure.

  10. Acorn
    October 5, 2008

    The Brigadier may well be correct. I had an interesting conversation at a hotel bar in the UAE earlier this year. The locals said the same as the Brigadier. "The Russians gave up on Afghanistan just like the Yanks gave up on Vietnam", said a young Syrian guy.

    I never realised just how many diverse tribal groups are involved and came to the conclusion that there is no "country" called Afghanistan. It is just a name for an area on maps printed in the west. The real map has a lot more boundaries on it, which are not going to change anytime soon.

    After an hour or so in conversation – they all spoke English, one thing became frighteningly clear to me. Suffice it to say, if you ever find yourself in a similar bar, try not to mention the word Zionism.

  11. Neil Craig
    October 5, 2008

    Looking at such wars which have ended without the insurgents winning gives:

    Britain in NI – negotiation
    Britain in Malaya – victory by isolating them from the people, however the geurillas were almost entirely ethnic Chinese among a majority of Malays
    El Salvador – US support of the election of a moderate followed by negotiation
    USSR in the Baltic States & Ukraine – terror
    Krajina – ethnic cleansing/genocide of virtually the whole population
    Greece – popular election plus Yugoslavia leaving the Soviet bloc & ceasing to supply a base

    None of these give any easy answers but I would suggest 2 options:

    1 we need to be able to close off the border either by an ultimatum to Pakistan or more likely & probably cheaper but still horrendously expensive – an Israel style barrier but MUCH longer.

    2 ensuring the election of a new leader (perhaps the old king) & negotiations probably on the basis of a very decentralised state in which the Pathans (who are the people fighting) get almost total autonomy as do the tribes making up our allies in what used to be the northern alliance. Decentralised states tend to be less aggressive anyway because no one leader can inspire them to war.

    Our media almost entirely fail to report what the fighters say they are fighting for. Presumably they consider it patriotic not to do so but it does tend to make informed policymaking difficult. My suspicion is that it is largely for tribal home rule & perhaps for the drug money, though the Taliban were opposed to drugs, & hardly at all to establish a world Caliphate.

  12. Blank Xavier
    October 5, 2008

    There are very few matters in which I consider myself sufficiently educated to hold an opinon. I have been reading military history for about twenty-five years now, so although I am certainly not a professional historian, I am quite well informed about wars and conflicts and, in general, the more you know about a subject, the closer to reality your opinion will be.

    There are in a sense two types of insurgency. Alien and native. If we step back in time to Greece, immediately at the end of WW2, there was a Communist insurgency. It was essentially a Russian creation. Stalin agreed with Churchill that Greece was in the Allied sphere of influence, so he refrained from backing that insurgency. The Allies put a lot of troops on the ground and, to shape one of Churchills quotes to my purpose, made 90% of the country 100% safe. The insurgency could not fight effectively in the cities and so could not and did not succeed.

    The key issue here is that there was no broad native base of support for the insurgency. Once defeated militarily, they were done for, gone.

    This is of course in constrast to insurgencies where there are real native grievences which drive the insurgency – the Palestine and Chechnya being good recent examples. The people themselves as a mass hate and fear the oppressor and their atrocities and gross injusticies and military success is as such only temporary, because another round of insurgents will rise up over time.

    In these cases, alas, I have almost never seen a negotiated solution. What actually happens is that time passes – years, decades of horrific suffering – and other events occur and eventually the conflict becomes irrelevent and passes away.

    The Taliban exist because there are a considerable number of men in Afghanistan are in a situation such that the beliefs they hold lead them to support, contribute and indeed join and fight for the Taliban.

    This is a native insurgency. Military victory will only ever be temporary. We are in effect attempting to impose our view, our vision of how the country should be – upon a population, a people, who hold a different view. It cannot work.

    It is a tragedy it cannot work, because by my views – Thoreau, Mill, Smith, Hayek and Friedman – their beliefs are truly horrific. The State they would form – did form – is a cultural abortion. And yet it seems to me it is beyond our immediate power for things to be otherwise.

    The real solution (in the sense of moving a Talibanesque society towards something which involves freedom) is economic. The country must prosper and form a middle class and the people as a whole must come to hold different views; and this takes generations.

    It seems to me currently we are hoist by our own petard; having gone in, if we now go out, the Taliban will take over again, and then what will have been the point of having gone in in the first place?

    And it is this which keeps us there; that leaving will mean our original effort was in error and all we have done, wasted.

    1. Neil Craig
      October 17, 2008

      The really good news, at least for us, is that there is no way the Taliban will be able to entirely "take over" again because they couldn't take over the whole country originally. At their peak, with active Pakistani help, they couldn't destroy the Northen Alliance. This is one of the things that makes me think it is basically about tribal independence on all sides & that we actually have a decent chance of negotiating a mocus vivendii that everybody, including ourselves, can live with. If we had a cantonal state in which western aid was distributed at the canton level but the western powers were allowed to spray from the air any land growing heroin, then any local governments that were formed would quickly compete to be our friends.

  13. Man in a Shed
    October 5, 2008

    There are persuasive arguments made that the local Pashtun culture reacts to repel invaders. We have certainly been mislead by the likes of John Reid about what this means.

    We are now warned that this may take over 10 years, so there will be boys and girls aged 10 in primary school who's future is to be killed at 18 in Afghanistan because of decisions made now.

    I think you should take a very sceptical approach, demand miles stones in the near future and hold those making the projections and decisions to account.

  14. Freeborn John
    October 5, 2008

    The key question to me is what is the long term role for the Taliban in Afghan politics? Do the Taliban aspire to (a) an active but peaceful role in Afghan politics that respects the current Constitutional order or (b) to overthrow the new order entirely and return to the pre-2001 system complete with training camps for terrorists, blowing up of Buddhist statutes and denial of basic rights for woman and religious minorities? General Carleton-Smith’s view seems to be predicated on the belief that the Taliban aspire to (a) where as those who support a ‘surge’ fear that the Taliban are intent on re-instating their former rule and need to be broken once and for all.

    Another question is whether the Harzai government could withstand the insurgency without Western support. General Carleton-Smith’s comments seem to suggest he believes that the insurgency must be reduced if the Afghan government are to be able to manage the security situation without NATO help. This implies that an unsuccessful surge would be disaster, likely to feed the insurgency all the more, and perhaps leading to the need for an open-ended Western commitment to prop up the government in Kabul. It seems therefore we have only two choices (i) a negotiated settlement with the Taliban or (ii) to ensure that such force is brought to bear against them that their resistance will be broken. The former seems the approach that is most likely to succeed but is only viable if the Taliban really aspire to make the Sinn Féin transition from political violence to mainstream political party. I don’t think it would hurt to have discussions with them to clarify what they would settle for.

  15. DiscoveredJoys
    October 6, 2008

    We appear to be fighting three unwinnable wars at the moment, the military wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 'War Against Drugs'.

    I believe we could extract ourselves from Iraq with our 'honour' intact (even if the war itself is dishonourable) in fairly short order.

    We will not win in Afghanistan so we might as well stop military operations as soon as we can. It may however be worthwhile to set up a favourable trading system with the ordinary people(s) of Afghanistan and, for instance, buy up the products of their opium poppies for conversion to medical grade heroin for NHS use. Trade may in time make them less willing to support terrorism.

    The War on Drugs at home is no closer to resolution and no more successful than Prohibition was. Arguably it may be better for society to supply addicts with their drugs (e.g. heroin from Afghanistan) rather than criminalise people for something they cannot easily stop doing. Not an appealing solution, but dreadfully pragmatic.

  16. Ian
    October 6, 2008

    I begin to wonder whether the best answer to Pakistan / Afghanistan is not just to build an enormous Israeli style security fence around / along the NWFP / Afghanistan borders, or the most troubled parts of them, and just leave them to it. It might not then be that difficult to put the rest of the country straight. A pretty extreme idea I know but the current war looks unwinnable using conventional methods, particularly given that Pakistan appears unable or unwilling to do what is necessary on its side of the border, and NATO can hardly just give up and leave Al Quaeda and the Taliban to carry on as they were either.

  17. Iain
    October 6, 2008

    A worrying trend is for the British Military Commanders propensity to throw in the towel. They threw in the towel over Iraq and Basra only for the US surge to show them how wrong they were, and then watch as the American forces retook Basra, the city British forces left with their tail between their legs on permission from the matilia forces.

    Now having been told by British military Commanders that Afghanistan was winnable, we now see them wanting to throw in the towel here as well.

    Much more of this and we will be known as the ' cheese eating surrender monkey’s'

    One can't fault our forces on the ground who are doing an heroic job, so one must wonder where this lack of nerve comes from. The Government certainly, but you must also wonder if the old men at the top of the military have become too fearful in their old age, and wanting to avail themselves of the luxuries of the £2.3 billion refurbished MOD Whitehall offices, or looking to get a piece of the luxury £230 million hotel and travel expenses the top brass have rung up.

    1. Pete Chown
      October 6, 2008


      In some ways the surge was a military success, but don't forget that it first involved negotiating a deal with the Ba'athist insurgents. Once they had agreed to support the West against al-Qaida, the military side of the surge could take place.

      If you want reasons to negotiate with the Taliban then actually you should look at Iraq. There was no progress until the Americans were willing to sit down and work out a deal, even if military operations were used later, to stop extremists sabotaging it.

      (You have to wonder what was promised to the Ba'athists. They've been given money and new weapons, but were they also offered some kind of deal about Iraq's future? The UN mandate for the occupying forces runs out at the end of 2008, and negotiations with the Iraqi government about replacing it with a treaty have been bogged down for months. I can't help wondering if agreement will be reached just after the American election, on terms that are not to America's liking.)

  18. Stewart Knight
    October 7, 2008

    There's a world of difference, from a military point of view, between throwing in the towel as you put it, and continuing to expend men and materiel on pointless and un-winnable wars and conflicts that are essentially ego trips for politicians.

    From the top down the forces can't be faulted, regardless of the cowardly attacks on the brass, when politicians like Bliar and Brown are the ones who make the rules and apportion funds.

    You've obviously never served, though no doubt you will come back that you spent 150 years in the services etc. etc. yada yada.

  19. Jonathan Bryce
    October 7, 2008

    We actually know exactly how to win a war on terror. Look at Northern Ireland. That is one thing Labour can boast about. The problem is that we haven't learned the lessons from there and applied them to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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