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Home > Politics

Afghanistan Now

15 July 2006

All of us have lied from time to time to avoid getting into trouble, usually for the simple reason that it's a lot easier to cover your back with a fib than face disproportionate reprisals. For example, it really does make sense to occasionally say 'I'm 45 minutes late for work because the train was late' than to say 'I'm 45 minutes late for work because I got absolutely shit-faced last night'. However, when most of us lie in such situations, we usually stick within basic parameters of plausibility. It's fairly likely that a train should be 45 minutes late on some networks, whereas it's not plausible to blame your tardiness on the train if you turn up six hours late, obviously having slept on a park bench, stinking of booze with a can of Special Brew in your pocket.

This is a point that seems to be lost on the government. This week defence secretary Des Browne told MPs that more British troops were needed in Afghanistan because commanders on the ground had 'grasped an early opportunity' to establish law and order in the Helmand area.

All becomes clear. The Brits are so good at giving Johnny Taliban a damn good thrashing that we need to send *more* troops to continue the job. In fact, we've been subduing the Taliban so quickly we're actually ahead of schedule, so we need more troops to step up the rate of subduing them to get the job done sooner! Does Des Browne think the British public is completely fucking stupid? To claim that we need more troops because we've 'grasped an early opportunity' is a barefaced fucking lie. Everyone knew there weren't enough British troops to control an essentially lawless area in the first place, a problem that was compounded by them not having adequate air support or better vehicles like Humvees. It also appears that the Taliban are better at fighting a guerrilla war than anticipated. In The Guardian this week a senior British commander was quoted as saying that the Taliban fighters had been 'more virulent than expected'.

All of this has resulted in pressure on the government to get more troops and better equipment out to Afghanistan. To try and couch the deployment of more troops as somehow a measure of success is fibbing of the most pathetic, unbelievable kind.

And as with Iraq, it's not clear what the mission of our troops is. 'Bringing law and order' isn't a real answer - it's just too vague. When will 'law and order' happen? How many lives are we prepared to lose to achieve it? *Can* it be achieved? Saying we're there until there's law and order is as non-specific as a board of company directors saying their plan for the next financial year is to 'make money somehow or other', without giving any further details, including what the actual profits are likely to be. The difference is that company directors who were this vague would immediately get a vote of no confidence. Browne also commented: 'Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have overmatched the opposing forces every single time we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment and failed.' Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that the more soldiers get killed in Afghanistan the better, because every firefight involves heavier losses on the Taliban side. More worryingly, it's exactly what happened in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam war, success was judged in terms of 'body count' - the number of enemies killed. Whereas army types would normally view military success in terms of strategic objectives attained (territory conquered, battles won, etc.) US defence secretary Robert McNamara decided that there was a limited number of Viet Cong and totting up the body count would determine how close to victory the US was. The figures were unreliable, often exaggerated, and above all had little bearing on what was happening on the ground, i.e. who was winning. In just the same way, being able to see off the Taliban in individual skirmishes has no bearing on whether victory (whatever that may be) in Afghanistan can be achieved. (The Americans lost in Vietnam, by the way.)

If Des Browne wilfully distorts the reality of what is happening in Afghanistan, then he shouldn't be Defence Minister. Because he is lying. And if he sincerely believes that needing more troops because they're encountering increased hostility is a sign of success, then he shouldn't be Defence Minister. Because he's incompetent.

However, it's become a way of life for the government to tell transparent lies to obscure obvious and real problems. The lack of a coherent plan in Afghanistan also means that our troops are likely to be there for rather a long time, not taking unbearable losses (from the politicians' point of view), but not achieving much either.

Apart from 'grasping early opportunities', obviously.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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