The Sun asks the right questions on Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is the defining action of Mr Brown’s administration, just as the war in Iraq defined Mr Blair’s. Now the first round of the election is over, it is time to ask what is the purpose of our mission, how long will our troops need to be there, and when will the Afghan security forces be in a position to police their own streets successfully? We need some answers.

If the government is determined to fight such a big war as intensively as in the recent past, it needs to make more men and equipment available. It needs to tackle the high level of casualties as a priority. It also needs to be more forthcoming in its explanations to the British people of what it is doing, why it matters, and what support it is offering to our armed forces. I would rather the UK government talked seriously to the new Afghan government once formed to set out a timetable for Afghan troops to take over the front line roles from ours, moving us to a support and training role.

Meanwhile, it could be significant that the Sun has taken such a tough line. Maybe they are picking up a shift in mood in their readership. Most of the people I talk to are at best in two minds about what we are doing in Afghanistan, and are united in wanting our troops to be given more support and back up for their arduous and dangerous mission.


  1. Mike Stallard
    August 28, 2009

    I think you might be onto something here. Of the twelve comments in the soaraway Sun so far, (one was repeated), each was very much against the Brown contribution and some even against the war itself.
    In a marriage, it is no good just going on holiday to Scotland when your wife is depressed, and leaving her alone to cope with the kids. The army is much more sensitive than any wife! It needs constant nurturing, constant praise, constant attention andtioa constant support from its many detractors.
    Wounded soldiers need to be cosseted. Dead soldiers need to be honoured nationally. Fighting soldiers need to be given confidence.
    Yet, when Harriet Harman was asked on the Party Political Broadcast called Newsnight what she thought were the main challenges facing the Labour party, she gave a shopping list and Afghanistan was not even mentioned.
    And she is the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.
    Mr Brown? He no doubt thinks he is so very clever. We are looking at John Law: a man who eventually caused the French Revolution in his adopted country.
    Do you remember “On the Buses”? Do you remember the daft Inspector who always came to grief – the one with the Hitler moustache? Like Mr Ainsworth, MP?

  2. Dontmindme
    August 28, 2009

    As they say, we are where we are. By which I mean: We chose to engage militant Islam ontheir “home ground” as it was seen at the time. Whatever the reason, justified or not (for the record, of course it was justified – but the point I am making is that it no longer matters to the fight we are now engaged in), we did it, we are there, and have to deal with the consequences.

    Now you may argue as you have above about poorly defined mission objectives. And certainly you are right to demand that we fight the war wholeheartedly, with the right kit for the right number of men.

    But the problem is what happens if we ‘give up and go home’. By picking Afghanistan as the battleground we have made it the totemic struggle. The audience is not ourselves, but worldwide moderate Islam. If militant Islam is allowed to win, then moderate Islam will have reason to support it. The Militants will certainly not say, “OK you’ve left, there an end of it.”

    If it loses, then it will give moderate islam the excuse it needs to reject it. To me that is the battle we are now fighting, regardless of why and how it started, the war in Afghanistan is about whose view of the world order will influence the billion or so moderate muslims in the coming decades.

    We have no choice to stick to the misson. We have no choice but to make the government conduct it fully, patiently and properly. For that we need a new PM. The current one will not equip our troops to fight their way out of a paper bag without unnecessarily high levels of paper cuts being incurred

  3. Peter Holttum
    August 28, 2009

    John, maybe this is not good enough. Even as you feebly raise the issue of Afghanistan, you are hiding behind the Sun’s “John Bull” reputation. These issue should be raised by MP’s fearlessly. Really you are just endorsing the plague of today – government by media. Conservative fear of challenging the neocon policies of the charlatan Tony Blair – now inherited by Gordon Brown without change – has led me to abandoning the conservative party. Sad – I once worked for my local party thinking they believed in the rule of law and something worthwhile.
    Who to vote for? God only knows, but I will plump for LibDems next time. They at least have spoken out about our national interest in these matters, and they have had a bit more to say about the City rapaciousness. Sorry – I worked there 30 years – its much worse than you think.

    Reply: Not so. I have raised this issue before, and have consistently said we need to transfer from war fighting to training Afghan security personnel with a timetable to leave. I was just pelased otday to see the Sun wading in as well.

    1. Peter
      August 28, 2009

      OK John, but lurking in the background are Dr Fox and other eye swivelling types who want to support the alliance whatever the cost. Please remember Suez, all the colonial wars in Africa, Vietnam etc etc when we were told the same story about our essential security. Our armed forces, and our country deserve better. This is not Falklands or Gulf War 1 which we all supported.

      1. Mike Stallard
        August 28, 2009

        I am, at the moment I must admit, convinced that the Conservatives offer the only hope of preventing our little country going over the rapids. But I am not a party member or anything like that.
        Please do think before you join the Libdems. I used to be one and they are neither liberal nor are they democratic. I left when I was not elected for the Council. And do you know what? As I stood there on the stage, having ruined my Easster holidays trudging round and round Harrogate in the rain, not ONE Libdem came and said that they were sorry etc. Indeed, not one spoke to me at all except to beg further favours, like writing thank-you letters.
        Just because the Libdems are not Labour does not make them electable.
        Have you thought of UKIP?

      2. james harries
        August 28, 2009

        I agree with you Peter. (Apart from voting LibDem.) The idea of training the Afghan Army (what they? who do they answer to?) to do our dirty work while we retire to Sandhurst-on-the-Kyber is ludricrous moonshine.
        I haven’t read the Sun but I suspect they would put the actual choice we face pretty succinctly; win or get out.
        Winning needs resources (which we might just be able to afford if we scrapped Trident, the Eurofighter and those two aircraft carriers with no aircraft). Getting out, as another correspondent wisely points out, may be even more expensive in the long run.
        Maybe Dave could conduct one of his focus groups on the Arab Street so as to enable the tories to actually come up with – like, you know, the word’ll come to me in a minute – oh yes – a policy.

  4. Stuart Fairney
    August 28, 2009

    Can’t claim to be a reader of said paper but it may well be that they feel their principal demographic is the cannon fodder that needs a voice other than “he died doing what he loved”

    Or maybe they feel if the Cabinet was sending their own children (such as Mrs Palin did I believe) they would take equipment issues more seriously.

    Or maybe they feel that a bunch of trade unionists, failed social workers and second rate economics teachers don’t exactly make the best possible leaders of such a mission having had no military experience whatsoever which stands in stark contrast to the war cabinet Mrs Thatcher was able to call upon during the Falklands.

    I hope thier editorial will hasten the day of our withdrawl and no more of our truly great soldiers die for 1.5% turnouts

  5. None
    August 28, 2009

    How can anyone be in two minds about what is going on in Afghanistan ? Do we want to stop people blowing up schools and killing teachers, marrying children, murdering the voted for representatives of others etc, or are we ok with that and restrict our response to strongly worded letters and articles which make no impression whatsoever.

    It is amazing in my opinion that this issue is spun so heavily. We are fighting on behalf of the United Nations and under their mandate, actually doing the right thing for once, but because there is a (rather low) attrition rate it gets turned into some kind of party political issue.

    If we really want to make a difference to the lives of British soldiers there we should be investigating ways of hardening our vehicles to roadside bombs, and how technology could be used to give even more of an advantage on the battefield.

  6. Sir Graphus
    August 28, 2009

    It’s actually the defining INaction of GB’s administration.

    Everything in this govt is drifting aimlessly at present because GB, having plotted and stabbed his way so singlemindedly to the top job, had no idea of what he wanted to achieve once he got there. This war is no different.

  7. John B
    August 28, 2009

    We (“we” being an outraged, angry Western society) ploughed into Afghanistan to “kick the cat” after 9/11 and since that country had an odious regime and no army, air force or navy they were an ideal target. Al-Qaeda and OBL were the supposed motive but they had high-tailed it long before John Simpson liberated Kabul.

    It was the Bush/Blair era of regime change to bring democracy leading to peace, stability and prosperity despite the fact that nowhere in history has democracy been a precursor to these things rather the legacy of them. The hungry and insecure want food and security not ballots.

    So there we are with our principle motive – Al Q and OBL conspicuously absent the field, and democracy just a word in the dust of a backward, fragmented, tribal society ruled by religion, violence, corruption and warlords.

    As for our allies and partners, whilst the English speaking nations are there to fight, the others are not. The Germans cannot fight at night and the French cannot engage the enemy as it contravenes their mandate for a defensive posture not an offensive one; so their main strategy is to hand out candy bars to children – peace by chocolate.

    The curiosity is that the media Commentariat and Punditocracy was dead set against regime change in Iraq which posed a strategic threat to regional stability and thus World stability – the Middle East being an important source of oil – yet they were gung-ho for regime change in Afghanistan which posed/poses a threat to nobody except itself.

    Obama meanwhile needs to prove that a Democrat President is just as big a kick-ass Commander in Chief (remember the disaster that was Carter and the lackadaisical Clinton?) as any Republican President in “protecting America” and so Stop the War has become Stoke the War.

    To obfuscate further it is sort of about Pakistan and the worry it might become destabilised, as if it had ever been stable and anyway is part of the cause not the victim.

    So, we are there to fight Al Qaeda who are not there and to fight terrorism, which is like invading Italy to fight the Mafia.

    Meanwhile the architects of our involvement – Bush, Blair, Shröder, Chirac – have all decamped for more lucrative pursuits.

    Little wonder then that nobody knows why we are there.

    Time to go home.

    1. Waramess
      August 28, 2009

      As lucid a response as I have seen, and you are right.

      We should indeed call it a day and bring them all back

    2. Ed
      August 28, 2009

      Surely it’s nonsense to claim there is no strategic value to Afghanistan when it borders Pakistan (which we would like to stabilise) and Iran where instability would serve us well.

      Isolationists are like people who are born with limited nervous senses. You can cut them somewhere and they don’t feel it. You can chop a bit off and they laugh, and then they die from a loss of blood they knew no pain from and felt no fear of.

  8. alan jutson
    August 28, 2009

    You are certainly right about a discussion being required.

    At the moment we simply seem have political drift and mission creep.

    One is forced to ask what exactly are we trying to achieve, when it is reported that in towns with a population of 50,000 in Helmund Province, under so reported British and American control, only 150 citizens vote, due probably to fear of Taliban reprisals.

    I have blogged on this subject before, and I firmly believe that you simply cannot expect a Province, State or Country, to turn into a fully Democratic organisation over night, it takes many generations, and is a gradual process, with some failure on the way.

    Look at our own history.
    Look at the history of Afghanistan.
    Look at the history of Africa.

    Then make a reasoned decision after a proper debate.

    What irritates me a bit, is our young men and women going over there to fight for their freedom, when some of there young men (of fighting age) and women seek safe refuge here.

  9. Caledonian Comment
    August 28, 2009

    The Russians, with unlimited military resources and little or no regard for world opinion, couldn’t win in Afghanistan.

    So what chance do our brave soldiers have, with human rights lawyers poised to sue for compensation every time they draw weapons, the MoD itching to reduce their injury provision at every opportunity, not to mention the wise strategic guidance of Bob Ainsworth ?

    1. SJB
      August 30, 2009

      Human Rights lawyers have recently achieved a landmark victory FOR armed forces serving overseas.
      Now the MoD will face financial sanctions if they fail to provide soldiers with reasonable protection.

  10. A.Sedgwick
    August 28, 2009

    Just to repeat my view, this is a no brainer – pull out.

  11. Neil Craig
    August 28, 2009

    The Afghans should be able to provide the on the ground manpower, and such troops would be less of an incitement. If, to recruit them, we had to fund a doubling of their pay it would be cheap at the price. Western troops strength is not numbers but technology – helicopters, remotely piloted vehicles, air power, robotics, satellites, computer collation of inteligence, DNA testing etc. We can play to our strengths. After all we originally took Afghanistan with only a few liason officers on the ground.

  12. Mark
    August 28, 2009

    A perceptive analysis has appeared here:

    It should perhaps not come as a surprise that Iran may have involvement. Of itself, it is a consideration that should affect strategy throughout the whole region. Not just military strategy either – the whole diplomatic approach needs re-evaluation, with a prime objective of containment. More ambitious ideas for instigating change are quite unrealistic – we are no longer an imperial power with the capability to smother opposition and impose our vision of civilisation.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 28, 2009

      I find it difficult to believe that anyone in the Iranian regime would want a triumphant and resurgent Sunni Taleban (who regard Shias as Kafir) on their Northern border, particularly one energised by being able to defeat the West, when just before 9/11 Iran was poised to invade to destroy the Taleban.

      Now if you claim the Pakistanis or elements within that regime are supporting them, this is credible, but why would Iran back Sunnis when there are plenty of client Shia organisations they can support for wider geo-political influence like the Shias in southern Iraq along with Hesbolllah in Lebanon or indeed the border Shia tribes in Afghanistan itself.

      1. Mark
        August 28, 2009

        Well known ME proverb: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Iranian hawks view the US and UK as enemies. They don’t care who they use as mercenaries. Once the Western powers are gone, the Iranians could probably ensure warlordism keeps the Afghans occupied and as a buffer against increasing turmoil in Pakistan. The Iranians probably think they have already succeeded in booting the UK out of Basra, so now it’s time to get them to the East as well. If you want to be really frightened about Shias, consider the dominant population of Saudi Eastern Province – where most of the oil production and export is. So far, they have remained loyal to country (as indeed did the Basra Shias during the Iran/Iraq war – though perhaps seeing the extermination of Marsh Arabs provided an incentive).

        Shortly before 9/11, Iran was offering olive branches to the US, which were spurned. Afterward, they were content to let the US lead the fight against the Taliban – unpaid mercenaries doing a job the Iranians might have struggled with. The switch back to hard line politics of Ahmadi-nejad and the nuclear issue has change the balance of view in Tehran and Qom.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          August 28, 2009

          “…The Iranians probably think they have already succeeded in booting the UK out of Basra…”

          I hate to say it but, er, they have! That was a fight we lost though no-one will say so.

          I think they are a bit more complex than the “enemy of my enemy” stuff but that’s just my experience of being in Iran and meeting loads of ’em over many years. I may very well be wrong, they are the very byword for the “enigma wrapped in a mystery” with a hearty degree of paranoia and religous fundamantalism thrown in.

          I must confess I did not know there was a significant Shia population in Saudi

  13. Acorn
    August 28, 2009

    Afghanistan is not a country, it is not a nation, it never has been and never will be. Tribal and ethnic allegiance is the prime directive in the whole of that region. International borders mean nothing to the Tribes and Tribes are not States. It is pointless trying to make them such.

  14. Demetrius
    August 28, 2009

    Wellington was right, we should not go in. William Nott was right, if you have been ordered in then hit them hard then get out fast. Roberts was right, if you have been ordered in hit them hard then get out fast. So our government toddled in pussy footed around for a while, got involved in a nasty fight, and now dream of founding a fifty year colony in Helmland. This is going to be an increasingly difficult war, and the human, economic, and national costs will be higher and higher the longer we are there.

  15. Citizen Responsible
    August 28, 2009

    President George Bush wanted to bring western style democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Eight years ago, the Taliban were successfully ousted from the government of Afghanistan. However, political parties have not succeeded in replacing the ethnic, tribal based warlords of the country. There is corruption, insurgency and tribal politics working against democratic style government. The low turn out at the election reflects this.

    Meanwhile the Taliban fight on, destabilising both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Pakistan is a nuclear power with nukes scattered throughout the country, the risk is that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of the extremists. In March President Obama launched an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and has committed his administration to achieving victory against terrorism in the region.

    Britain does need to plan a way out. We do not want to be there another 40 years as has been recently suggested. However the stakes are high and we need to look at the effect our actions will have on the whole region and be supportive to the U.S. provided we think the U.S. strategy is the right one.

  16. Peter Stroud
    August 28, 2009

    After watching this I find I have little faith in the Afghan army.

    1. Citizen Responsible
      August 28, 2009

      Having viewed this, one could forgive the American trainers for thinking the Afghan army is a lost cause. They are no match for the Taliban who have already defeated their Afghan opponents in the previous civil war.

    2. alan jutson
      August 29, 2009

      Thank you for the link.
      Perhaps the contents explains why it is now suggested that it will take 40 years.

      Perhaps the BBC should show some of this footage.

  17. backofanenvelope
    August 28, 2009

    By all accounts the Afghan National Police are hopeless; corrupt and drug soaked. The Afghan National Army is rife with inter-tribal problems and not to be trusted.

    I don’t see how we can fight a generation-long war when 70% of the electorate want us to leave – now. As soon as the Tory party gets into power the Labour party will suddenly discover they were always against it. I would have thought the Tories will have more than enough on their plate without a war to wage.

  18. Robert George
    August 28, 2009

    The only rationale to support the British military being in this part of the world is to prevent militant Islam acquiring nuclear weapons. So long as the Taliban are a threat to Pakistan with a realistic chance of taking over they have to be stopped.

    The first thing that needs to be done is to get out of Iraq. Our presence and that of the USA is killing us in the propaganda war and even the USA cannot fight two battles. If Iraq goes to hell it doesn’t really matter all that much . Whoever is in charge there will need to sell oil to fight their own corner.

    The Taliban and the Iranian clerics are the real enemies. Everything else is a distraction.

    We should forget about trying to export democracy and support whatever leader will do what we want no matter how noxious he may be to his own people.

    1. Mark
      August 28, 2009

      Some realpolitik thinking! Take it further: Iraq is at risk of subdivision into Sunni, Shia and Kurd areas (a potential mess that discouraged Bush Senior from considering ousting Saddam directly over Kuwait). There are also significant Kurdish populations in W Iran and SE Turkey. The nuclear risk from the existing Pakistani capability falling into (more) dangerous hands, or Iranian capability coming to fruition, could demand surgical strikes as with Osirak. The Pakistani case could be much more difficult to deal with without rapid intelligence from Pakistan, because bits of existing stockpiles could be hidden rapidly. The Iran/Iraq war was cheerled from the sidelines by the Superpowers precisely because it preoccupied a couple of unpleasant regimes and prevented them from swaggering elsewhere (Soviet Asia or AG oil producers).

      1. Citizen Responsible
        August 29, 2009

        Mark -“Iraq is at risk of subdivision into Sunni, Shia and Kurd areas “

        I quote from the Associated Press item about Iraq 24/08/09.

        “ Major Shiite groups have formed a new alliance that will exclude the Iraqi prime minister, a move likely to stoke fears of increasing Iranian influence” “If the alliance does well in the Jan. 16 parliamentary elections, Tehran could gain deeper influence in Iraq just as U.S. forces begin to withdraw. The last American soldier is scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.”

        If Iraq were to break up into three federalist states, Iran might be able to take over the southern, Shiite, oil rich region.

  19. Julian
    August 28, 2009

    I’ll leave the question about whether we should be there and concentrate on the high casualties which I think could be reduced.
    I believe the armed forces have their tactics wrong which is resulting in the high casualties. The operation should be in proportion to the manpower and hardware resources available. They are clearly overreaching at the moment.

  20. Alan Wheatley
    August 28, 2009

    I agree with all the contributions critical of the government. Let me add another.

    I increasingly find myself asking the question: why is it that we get total news coverage of British deaths but no counterbalancing news of success? Is there none to report?

    The Taliban surely know they can not win in a head to head fight, but they can win by attrition. If they keep going their enemy will eventually loose the will to fight, give up and leave. This can be hastened by the action of a Fifth Column.

    I sometimes wonder whether the news media are in fact the Fifth Column. I was on the point of raising this with the BBC Radio 4 Points of View when the programme responded to a correspondent who was there before me. The BBC seemed to me to be saying they can only report the information they have, and what they broadcast largely reflects what they are getting from the MoD. A Fifth Column in the MoD?

  21. no one
    August 28, 2009

    actually its the 1st and only time the NATO treaty has been used in anger to defend NATO (its supposed to be defending the USA after the Twin towers attack) its little to do with the UN

    NATO is supposed to mean one nation is attacked all the others consider themselves attacked

    As it is not all the NATO allies are contributing and not in proportion to their resources either

    The tribal history and alliances on the ground in Afganistan is way more complex than is being reported in the press here, lots of the rivalry is little more than what we would describe as racism between one tribe and another (same in India but its not politically correct to point this out)

    I dont think Western democracy is a natural quick fit, and given the tough conditions they live in other natural organisational structures probably make more sense

    So what are we fighting for? (Para left out ed)

    Why have we got so few in the army? Why are the junior officers so bad? Why are the decent senior NCOs and warrent officers not listened to ?

    We dont appear to have anyone in the cabinet who has actually served in the forces? Admiral whathis name excluded who is just a Gordon placeman.

    These and other questions if answered would answer a lot!

  22. David Eyles
    August 28, 2009

    Afghanistan must be turned into a peaceful and stable state. No-one can afford to let it descend into anarchy and a Taliban state again, providing training for every miscreant with a death wish. The problem is how to acheive that within a couple of decades or so.

    The Taliban are highly organised and effective and would walk all over the Afghan National Army tomorrow, if it were not for the support of the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and others. If you have any doubt about what conditions our troops are facing, go to this blog by Michael Yon: and read, in particular the “Pharmacy Road” entry for details as to the tactics used by the Taliban and those that are required from coalition forces. As far as I am aware, Yon is the only correspondent telling it like it really is, which presumably is why his permission to be embedded with the 2nd Rifles has been withdrawn by the MoD. The UK’s loss is the US’s gain.

  23. True Belle
    August 28, 2009

    Palestine, Suez, and the rest , no winners there were there?

    I was a very young English child in the Canal Zone, I have vivid memories, my mother and sister and I were evacuated, but my father and all the other British expats( engineers) were taken prisoner for three months or more– savage stuff went on-

    Our troops had been involved in many skirmishes out there for years, late forties onwards– Snipers were hiding everywhere. They fired on everyone, indiscriminate murders, an army school bus was attacked, many young British children were murdered.

    Army veterans who served in Suez say everything and everyone were targets. But that is the nature of foreign interventions, isn’t it?

  24. Adrian Peirson
    August 28, 2009

    Actually I think one of the reasons they are over their is ro be culled and demoralised, I’m not the only person that thinks that.

  25. Bazman
    August 28, 2009

    Even me eating me drunken burger cannot see. The Bun asking the right questions.

  26. Man in a Shed
    August 28, 2009

    The Economist broke ranks a week ago, claiming the line of terrorism is no longer a supportable line – saying “Western governments use a lazy shorthand to justify this war.” .

    To some degree the government has hidden behind everyone’s natural patriotism and support for our forces under fire.

    I was pleased to see Liam Fox pressing for a plan – but I hope David Cameron is aware that a radical change is needed.

    There are a lot of people with vested interests in escalation for and ill defined victory (doubling their bets so to speak to win back the credibility lost). Pulling out, especially against US wishes, would be very messy. But I think its the view the general public will soon support, and then demand.

    I suspect the military have been signalling this problem with the statements about being in Afghanistan for 40 years. That’s clearly not politically acceptable – which means they are telling us the current approach isn’t going to be either.

    But as you say the Sun gave Labour and Brown both barrels, so even Labour must now understand they will have to do something.

  27. Martin
    August 28, 2009

    Is the focus on equipment difficulties (I could give a long list through two world wars and the Falklands etc) not a diversion from the core point that the British public want a war without casualties? The taliban know we live in a 24 hour media world and are acting accordingly.

    Of course if we censored the media and cut off the oxygen of publicity (as happened in say World War Two) – maybe this is what the SUN wants with its “bloody war on”?

    As for paying for extra equipment – how about VAT on newspaper sales ?

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