Public opinion polls show that a big majority want British troops to leave Afghanistan. According to a recent opinion poll by ComRes, 64% think that British troops should leave. Yet their opinions barely register amongst our elected representatives.
It is not hard to guess why the public think this. What are our troops doing there? What are they hoping to acheive? How much longer will all this go on?
It is nearly eight years since our troops entered Afghanistan. Many times we have been told how well they are doing. Yet instead of leaving, we are sending in more troops. Some say that our troops will have to stay there for 30 years! Well, you cannot plan a war that will last that long. Whenever someone sets out that kind of time-frame, what it shows is that they have no idea how to end the war.
There are of course many good reasons why our troops should stay. We want to bring stability to Afghanistan; we want to eliminate the opium crop; we want to defeat or at least marginalise the Taliban; we want to capture Osama Bin Ladan; we want to have good relations with the USA, especially now that Barack Obama is President; and we want to stop the influence of the Taliban spreading to Pakistan.
However for these objectives to be met, we need to win, ideally within a couple of years. What would that mean? It was interesting reading Tim Collins in the Independent recently saying that we were close to victory, but then we went to war in Iraq, and that was a turning point in the war in Afghanistan. I am sure it was.
However, it is significant that no matter how much we think that liberal democracy is better than dictatorship, that the Taliban proceeded to grow in influence dispite the wishes of the West, and no counter home-grown militia materialised that wanted to defend our liberal values and defeat them.
If the Taliban are going to be defeated, it can’t be done without us it seems. But since we are not Afghanis, it is obviously worth considering whether it can be done at all.
The problem is that the only alternative to the Taliban appears to be the current government, and we are told that that government is corrupt. We are not very good at installing our preferred regimes in this part of the world it appears. So the Afghani population are left with a choice of two evils.
And the same applies to us as well. There is a high price to pay whatever we do, whether we stay or leave. More fundamentally, we really need to consider how much power we have in the world to impose our will on other countries, like Afghanistan. We are in the middle of a nasty recession with high levels of government debt. As a nation we have to cut back on public spending, or risk a downgrade in our credit rating, which in itself will have serious knock on effects. Inevitably military spending will be under pressure, especially as much of it (like on nuclear weapons) was geared towards a cold war which has long gone. There are scenarios where we might have to intervene in conflicts abroad, but the scope for that will have to be reduced. We really have no choice.
Our troops have made great sacrifices in Afghanistan, with nothing to show for it, and no prospect that they will ever have anything to show for. And whilst the war has incurred huge financial costs, the clamour at the moment is to spend even more. We are being sucked into a financial black hole, because we can always spend more on the military. When things go wrong, instead of admitting defeat, the temptation is to spend more.
After eight years, if we are still there and spending more money, we have to accept this war is unwinnable and get out of there.
* Geoff Payne is secretary of Hackney Liberal Democrats.