Rosy rewriting of the Iraq debacle will fuel worse disaster in Afghanistan
An inquest into Blair's support for the invasion could fit on a postcard. Eager inquirers should turn their gaze to Kabul
Friday 19 December 2008
Now they want to bolt the stable door. With British troops at last due to leave Iraq next spring, everyone is for a public inquiry. That is fine. But what about an inquiry into where they are going, straight from the frying pan into the fire, from Iraq to Afghanistan? In Basra the British army had at least a tattered remnant of a war plan. In Helmand the only plan is to be target practice for the Taliban.
The Iraq inquest can be written on a postcard. A British force was sent on the false claim by Tony Blair that Iraq was a threat to Britain. How this made sense was never explained, despite the efforts of Alastair Campbell and his colleagues. It has since emerged that Blair simply could not bring himself to desert the American president, George Bush. That in a nutshell is why 178 British servicemen and women have died in Iraq.
The conduct of the war saw British troops at their professional best. They did not bomb villages, wear lavish armour, or smash their way into women's bedrooms as did the Americans. They were good at hearts and minds. But as months stretched into years, they proved unable to build local leadership and were handicapped by the incompetence and corruption of the Pentagon's provisional executive in Baghdad.
By 2005 they had all but lost control of Basra to local militias. When these started feuding, the British retreated to the airport, leaving Iraqi units (with American help) to achieve an exhausted peace. After five years, Britain has not reconstructed Basra or given it prosperity and stable government as promised. As for finding Blair's weapons of mass destruction, forget it.
The British army commander, General Sir Mike Jackson, said two years ago that the army's best hope in Basra was "withdrawal with honour". That realistic assessment has just about been realised, but it was refreshing yesterday to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury apply one simple word to the Iraq war: "wrong".
The greatest honour Britain could pay the dead of Iraq is to inquire into why any more should die in Afghanistan. Why wait for the same number of soldiers to be killed (already 134)? Why wait for the same multiple of civilian deaths, the same villages bombed, the same infrastructure destroyed? Why wait for the same bombast to die down and truth-telling and realism to gain the upper hand? Why tip another billion pounds into this craziness, billions that we can ill afford?
British diplomats and military experts returning from Kabul have three performance modes. In public they declare Afghanistan to be tough but winnable. In private they admit it is getting worse not better, but might turn round in a decade if only the Afghans were less corrupt. In totally secret mode, their eyes turn to the sky and they declare the whole business a "total effing disaster".
Which mode is ever communicated to Gordon Brown? He has recently returned from Helmand, where he won plaudits for bravely standing without body armour in a British fort. Nobody asked why it should be brave to stand where Britain has supposedly won hearts and minds for two years - if not seven - and why he could not go anywhere by road. Brown is to be commended for supporting the professionalism and courage of British soldiers, but he owes them more than words. He owes them brutal honesty in reviewing the political and strategic purpose that is now so costly of that courage.
Unless he is enveloped in sycophants, Brown must be hearing the same intelligence as the rest of us hear and read. Hapless spin doctors can point to schools built here, poppies eradicated there, soldiers "trained" somewhere else. But Kabul is ever more insecure and journeys out of the capital are confined to armoured cars or helicopters.
Monday's remarkable report from inside the Taliban by the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad showed his hosts clearly able to roam free through 70% of populated Afghanistan, collecting tribute and dispensing favours and rough justice. Taliban units appear to control the Khyber Pass, forcing all supplies into costly convoys. It can only be a matter of time before they acquire the ground-to-air missiles that enabled them to drive out the Russians in the 1980s. British soldiers dying by the week within miles of their Helmand base indicate the failure of a military campaign launched with such bravado two years ago.
Brown's repeated thesis that the occupation of Helmand is vital "to keep terror from the streets of Britain" is nonsense. It fuels an insurgency that sucks guns, money and recruits into this benighted region. Arrested terrorists in Britain may be lying when they invariably cite the war as their rallying cry, but cite it they do. Brown cannot plausibly cite the antithesis, that they are being deterred by the war in Helmand.
As for blaming Pakistan, its regime has been thoroughly corrupted by American aid for a decade and its border with Afghanistan is beyond policing. Earlier this week, Brown registered his "disgust and horror" at the Taliban insurgency using suicide bombers against British troops. This outrage is hardly novel. Child bombers have been used by insurgents since the Vietcong in Vietnam.
What Brown failed to acknowledge, and what is used by Britain's enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere, is Nato's use of cluster bombs and aerial missiles, knowing that they kill civilians, including children, "collaterally". The coalition has almost certainly killed more children in Afghanistan by its reckless use of tactical air strikes than have died at the hands of the Taliban. War is no place for such hypocrisy.
Nato forces in Kabul are now devoid of strategy. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is proving adept at the old Afghan game of shuffling warlords and druglords. It is common knowledge that lines of contact are opening on every front with commanders of the "new Taliban", whose role in governing a future Afghanistan is beyond dispute. This leaves Nato's leaders - other than America and Britain - justifiably refusing to throw good troops after dead ones. Afghanistan is proving a classic of sunk cost fallacy, with commanders unwilling to change policy for fear of admitting that the existing one has been a colossal failure.
Frankness continues to be the greatest casualty of these wars. Those who cheered on Iraq and Afghanistan - from left as well as right - dare not admit they might have been wrong. Now a rewriting of the Iraq epilogue as a mission well accomplished is acting as a lethal magnet, drawing British policy to similar disaster and British troops to their deaths in Helmand.
The essence of moral judgment is universality. Eager inquirers should now be turning their gaze to the dusty heights of Kabul. Brown may be relying on the army's spirit of "their's not to reason why; their's but to do or die". That is a soldier's duty, but it is not the duty of a democrat. His duty is precisely to reason why.