Thursday, 12 November 2009

Afghanistan, Britain's Vietnam?

Before I blather about this topic let me be clear about one thing. I have enormous respect for the men and women of Britain's armed forces and believe that they do an exceptional job of which we should be very proud. What I wish to explore is the motives and thinking of the government that has sent our troops out there in apparent defiance of the powerful historical precedents.

I realise even as I sit down to write that this is a very complex topic. I don't really expect to open your eyes to its true depths because, frankly, I don't understand them myself. I just want to ask one question that has been growing in my mind for some time. Is Afghanistan in serious danger of becoming Britain's very own Vietnam? A long war of attrition against an entrenched enemy with a powerful ideology that has seen them defeat one seemingly almighty invader already.

Vietnam had a lengthy history of foreign dominion before the Americans put their oar in and sure enough, as in every previous occasion, the American invaders were eventually seen off but only after a brutal ten year conflict that scarred both countries forever more. We seem to be heading down the same path.

The Russians entered Afghanistan at the request of the home grown communist government and began what turned out to be a vicious nine year war. Foreign invaders seeking to trample their ideology is not news to the Taliban and I suspect that they and many Afghans see their current leaders as a corrupt puppet government who will soon be out on their ear.

With the historical context and current realities I cannot see a way out. I cannot see how it is possible to defeat a highly experienced and religiously/ideologically inspired guerrilla army with conventional forces. Exactly like Vietnam! Taliban or Viet Cong the parallels are plentiful and very worrying.

Several times a week now we hear of the tragic deaths of our soldiers and the equipment shortages that they, and notably some of their senior officers, feel are making a dangerous job into a near suicidal one. They continue road patrols because it is felt (and perhaps correctly so) that a presence on the ground is essential for victory, but no one has made at all clear what that victory would look like! The total destruction of the Taliban would seem to me to be the only way forward and yet history has taught us again and again, you cannot kill an idea. These men believe that they are fighting for the survival of their faith and traditions. A version of Islam shared by thousands if not millions over the world.

Are we sending our troops over there to die in a war with no hope of victory? Will we eventually be forced to withdraw in disgrace and in so doing make a mockery of the sacrifice of so many soldiers? If history is any indication the answer seems to be yes.

And yet, I am also aware that the government and more importantly the commanders in the field and at home are very aware of the historical precedents and still seem to feel that things are, largely, going according to plan. However, the reasons for our being there seem to have changed from when we first got involved. This leads me to one of two conclusions, either they have a clear plan that they believe will lead to a victory within parameters that aren't clear to us or they believe that a long war of attrition with no hope of any victory is still better than an alternative they fear but we know nothing of.

The latter explanation seems distressingly plausible and leaves me with grave misgivings about this war. In my mind's eye I can already see a panicked withdrawal ten years from now with nothing to show for our efforts. The psychological scars this will leave on our nation are significant if America's experience is anything to go by. In fact the scars are already starting to show.

Is there an honourable way out? Or having committed ourselves must we soldier on in the face of a seemingly hopeless task?

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