Saturday 11 July 2009

The home front

It is essential to stop Afghanistan becoming an "incubator for terrorism" and a launchpad for attacks on the UK and other countries says David Miliband.

The badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan – that border area – have been used to launch terrible attacks, not just on the United States, but on Britain as well. Thus, he says, "We know that until we can ensure there is a modicum of stability and security provided by Afghan forces for their own people, we are not going to be able to be secure in our own country."

The thought is echoed by The Times which affirms that, "The campaign in Afghanistan is crucial," adding that, "It has been advanced by British servicemen of extraordinary courage and real heroism."

"The failures in the campaign have been on the home front: the British Government has been dilatory and uncertain in making the case for the war," it goes on to say. "Nor has it provided sufficient armoured vehicles for the troops already there or adequate and consistent numbers of troops on the ground to establish the security that is the foundation for building a new nation in Afghanistan."

The paper then states the obvious: "The campaign for Afghanistan must be won," adding the rider: "And it is time the Government started doing a better job of fighting for it at home."

Here, there are many problems, to add to the extraordinarily difficult matter of defining "victory". Presumably, when the land is covered with Ferris wheels, packed with happy Afghani wimmin, spinning to the beat of the latest Michael Jackson release, that will be considered to be one measure. Short of that, though, it is difficult to know what our rulers have in mind.

Of the other problems, surely the most intractable is that the "home front" does not actually care enough – or at all - about the Afghani campaign.

As long as "Our Boys" are not getting killed in excessive numbers – as defined by the media when it can be bothered to report events - most people are more concerned with running their own affairs and warding off the depredations of this pitiful government which, in its own way, seems more destructive than the Taleban.

And, while one might expect the political classes and their associated claques to be more interested in such matters than the great unwashed – in that condition as hidden inflation makes the price of soap an unreachable luxury – there is no evidence that this is the case.

If the British political blogosphere is any guide – and it probably does reflect the prevailing obsessions – not only does its relative silence speak volumes but the rare foray by Tory Boy Blog is struggling to compete, in terms of comment volume, with the later entry covering that stunning revelation that: "CCHQ downgrades oak tree logo." One is amazed that they are not live blogging on it.

The Times does have a point though. It is very hard to engage in an issue where the objectives are poorly defined, vague or so obviously unrealistic that they lack credibility, where there is no narrative or measure of progress – other than the mounting death toll – and where there is no significant discourse which will fuel an ongoing debate.

Thus we are supposed to rely on the current CDS, Jock Stirrup, who lied his way through the Iraqi campaign and its aftermath and, for all we know, is lying to us now.

This may be especially so in terms of his less than credible statement that, " ... the Taliban have rightly identified Helmand as their vital ground. If they lose there then they lose everywhere and they are throwing everything they have into it."

Operation Panchai Palang - and the parallel operations being conducted by US forces may – or may not be vital in the short-term, but it is far from the "game-changing event" that Stirrup would have us believe. The Taleban will simply regroup, recover what losses they have sustained and continue to prosecute their insurgency.

Here, one takes note of the fact that the attack which killed five troops was mounted out of the immediate operational area of Panchai Palang which indicates that the Taleban, even when under pressure around Lashkar Gah, still had the resources to attack elsewhere, with devastating effect.

We could, on the other hand, take the advice of Lt-Col Tim Collins (ret) who enjoins us to "support the judgement and experience of Brigadier Radford and his men. They are on the ground and we are not." Of course, we heard the same thing – or similar – of Iraq, where the "judgement and experience" and the military commanders of the time had our troops patrolling in Snatch Land Rovers, with effects which were predictable – it seems – to everyone but them.

Collins believes that, if we lose, it will be because we have defeated ourselves by a lack of nerve – that "home front" again - and if that happens the sacrifice will be in vain. "Keep the faith," he tells us.

However, in what should we keep our "faith"? Assailed by IEDs, our forces are struggling to deal with this weapon which the Taleban are using to such great effect. However, the emergence of this problem was flagged up in January 2007 by The Financial Times yet it was not until October last year that the MoD focused on buying the essential equipment to deal with this threat, in the "Talisman" project – with deliveries not to take place until next year, leaving the Americans to do the work.

This is a military that also fielded the Viking and the Vector, both of which vehicles could not meet the threat present in the theatre by the time they were deployed, and certainly are not up to the current challenge. It is a military that, in effect, has been behind the curve from the very start, and is struggling to catch up, reacting rather than pre-empting the Taleban's constant evolution of tactics.

If the military have feet of clay then, perhaps we could turn to Rory Stewart, soldier, diplomat and academic who has travelled extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq. He tells us that Afghanistan is "a war we cannot win" and, in a long and rambling thesis argues that the best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current 90,000 to perhaps 20,000 – turning away from the idea of state-building.

Two distinct objectives would remain: development and counter-terrorism with the "good projects" allowed to continue in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development – but not a single mention of roads. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan, he says.

With such contradictory and unreliable advice, it is no wonder that we find it hard to engage in the issue – and retreat to the comfort zone of oft' repeated mantras. One can then only take comfort in the words of the MoD's own "spin doctor", Lt-Col Nick Richardson. He insists that operations in Helmand are achieving "a huge amount" and the soldiers had not died in vain. "It is fair to say that war is not risk free. We are taking the fight to the enemy," he says.

Even then one wonders, not least where the true enemy lies. More than the Taleban, the greatest threat to Afghanistan (and therefore our own security) could be the home front, here in the UK, bludgeoned into indifference by wholly unrealistic and ill-defined objectives.