Jim Sillars: The dogs of war don’t take sides

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Do you still remember the names of the six soldiers killed when their Warrior vehicle was blown up by a Taliban IED, or have those names, like the other 398 before them, slipped the collective memory already? Of those killed –Coupe, Hartley, Kershaw, Frampton, Wade, Wilford – only Sergeant Coupe was an adult, aged 22, when the war in Afghanistan was launched in 2001. Of the other five, one was aged eight, three were aged nine, and one aged ten.

Should we not be asking the policymakers in Whitehall, Tory, Labour and Lib Dem, to justify a war lasting 11 years in a foreign country that requires us to recruit that school playground generation and put their lives at stake?

Our Defence Secretary claims British forces are in Afghanistan to protect us from al-Qaida who, as guests of the Taliban, would be plotting against us. It speaks volumes for the sad state of the quality in the House of Commons today, compared with the robust debates in the middle of the Second World War, when the Chamberlain government and then Churchill’s coalition would be challenged, especially by Nye Bevan, on their policies?

The reference to Churchill and Bevan is not a piece of nostalgia. It is a benchmark of how a democracy should operate in war. Churchill was a great war leader in this country’s gravest hours, but his government didn’t get an easy time. Its war strategies were subjected to critical debate and challenge in the chamber of the Commons. Indeed, Churchill and his coalition came to power because the Tory government was challenged and routed on a vote because its war policy was proving disastrous.

Isn’t it obvious that the reason advanced for our engagement in Afghanistan is nonsense, and that the policy pursued over these 11 years is the height of stupidity? That we have wasted the lives of those killed, and damaged the lives of those maimed? Where are the backbenchers on all sides today who will call this and the previous government to account for the folly that is the war in Afghanistan?

Yes, the Defence Secretary is correct: al-Qaida is no longer based in Afghanistan, but it is far from disappearing. It is just across the border in Pakistan, and has also relocated to Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and has new branches in North Africa.

The Taliban is not defeated. It controls areas of the country; watches patiently, while continuing to fight, for the Americans, Brits and the other Nato allies to quit in 2014; and no doubt smiles with derision when our politicians and army generals tell us that when we go, the so-called Afghan government, police and army will do what we have not managed – defeat it and control the whole state.

For the Afghan people the Taliban has one outstanding virtue that the Afghan police, the Afghan army and the Afghan government lack in spades – it is not corrupt. The Taliban is operating sharia courts even inside areas supposedly closed to them, and people go there because they will get a swift decision from a judge who cannot be bought. Moreover, Afghans know that when the Yanks and the rest leave, the Taliban will still be there.

Consider if you were a member of the Afghan police or army. You look at the enormous firepower of the Americans, the large number of Nato troops in the country, and yet you know they have failed to beat the Taliban and are going in two years’ time, trying to pretend that their exit is not ignominious, leaving you to fill the gaps. Would you not hedge your bets, knowing that the Taliban would have to be reckoned with after your “friends” leave you?

It is a centuries-old truth that Afghanistan is a place no external power can control. It is a territory of tribes whose principle loyalty is to the tribe. The Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Aimaks, and Turkmen are tribes with interests quite distinct from one another. The only thing that ever unites them is fighting outsiders, which they did successfully for centuries, and have done again.

Given the support the Taliban receives from the Pakistan military intelligence, and the safe havens open to it in Pakistan itself, it was never possible to defeat it. The departing UK ambassador, Sir William Patey, an Edinburgh lad, spoke the truth last week: “Our preference is for the Taliban to re-integrate and reconcile . . . nobody has objected to the Taliban taking part in politics or holding government positions or district-level positions if that’s how it turns out.”

So that is how it will turn out, is it? All those lives, all that money, and our departing ambassador, truthfully, says the Taliban will come back when we are gone. As for al-Qaida returning there, they don’t need to, as they now operate much nearer to Europe.

When Bush and Blair let loose the dogs of war they ignored history, which shows that they devour your own as well as the enemy.