Opinion: Britain should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan – and soon

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.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • This article touches on why we haven’t achieved our objectives after eight years – because we moved a significant number of our troops to Iraq, reducing our presence in Afghanistan and allowing the Taliban to reclaim a foothold. However, it fails to recognise that we haven’t been able to remedy that mistake yet, largely because resources that should’ve been spent on winning the war have instead gone to big capital projects, like the new aircraft carriers.

    Money is necessary to win wars. We have the money; it’s just been spent really badly. Brown appears to be trying to fight a war as though it were a PR exercise; sending 700 troops when 2000 were requested demonstrates that yes, he is doing something, but fighting a war isn’t like running the NHS. Tokenism on NHS reform means longer waiting times, whereas tokenism in war means losing.

    Politically, he can’t afford to be seen to lose a war, but at the same time he can’t afford to win it without redirecting spending. My guess is that he’s done the calculation that he’ll get more votes if he keeps the war going while providing ship-building jobs along the Clyde or wherever the carriers and Type 45s are being built. That means we’ll continue to chuck underequipped and insufficient troops into the black hole at least until the next election.

    I would argue that the war itself isn’t the problem, rather the government trying to implement it. I’d like to see Labour withdrawn from parliament.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Jul '09 - 7:09pm

    Let’s not kid around here, the war in Afghanistan is mostly about the US wanting revenge for their giant Freudian monument, and us not wanting to stand up to them.

    Right now it’s less of a war and more an armed occupation of a country and suppression of freedom fighters. It bears a fairly sharp resemblance to the British rule of India.

    Is this really something we want to win? What would winning even look like? When everybody who wants to be free from foreign occupation is dead?

    (Flaws in usual arguments:

    Opium crop: used to be relatively minor, only grew because some twit started a war, creating poor law enforcement and a need for quick, black market cash. We caused that one – and hey, we’re also the primary market.

    Preventing Taliban spread to Pakistan: heavy-handed efforts at suppressing the Taliban in Pakistan have already changed the situation to open warfare there. Too late, sorry.

    Osama bin Laden: one man isn’t worth a war, and the chaos of all the fighting is not making it easier to find him)

  • “no counter home-grown militia materialised that wanted to defend our liberal values and defeat them”

    When has that ever happened throughout history? It’s kinda hard to turn readers of Mill into militias.

  • Andrew Suffield’s comment is worrying. The Taliban want to chuck women out of schools and make them cover themselves, or risk acid be thrown in their faces.

    Gladstone: “Remember the rights of the savage as we call him. Remember that … the sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own. Remember that … mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes over the whole surface of the earth and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope.”

    Geoffrey might be worries about the cost, but what would be pay to give education to 6 million British girls?

    We have no real strategy, we don’t know what ‘victory’ looks like, but we should also acknowledge the horrendousness of what we could lose by leaving Afghanistan.

  • Herbert Brown 20th Jul '09 - 9:52pm

    “… we should also acknowledge the horrendousness of what we could lose by leaving Afghanistan.”

    If we are going to adopt a policy of global military interventionism in favour of women’s rights, we had better factor in an increase in the defence budget of a few thousand percent …

  • Well we seem to be doing just that in Afghanistan with the current one.

  • Why not buy all the opium crop, thus stabilising the Afghan economy, and country. Refine it to medical Morphine (in shortage ). We could even then prescribe it to heroin addicts FOC, destroy the drugs trade, and eliminate most petty crime in the UK and USA . Probably cost less than 1bn$ per month as well.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Jul '09 - 12:21am

    “If we are going to adopt a policy of global military interventionism in favour of women’s rights, we had better factor in an increase in the defence budget of a few thousand percent …”

    Exactly right. It’s a sort of liberal blackmail, the argument that if we pull out of Afghanistan now we’re responsible for every oppressive act that Afghan women are subject to hereafter. There are ‘soft-power’ things we can do across the world to nudge every society we come have contact with towards treating people better; but the idea that we can go around the world enforcing liberalism at gunpoint is as futile as it is immoral. This is a red herring. Foreign soldiers and helicopters are not the way to bring about social change. The fact that our young men are dying out there just means that it will also be in our interest to withdraw, it doesn’t mean that we’re running away from a worthwhile fight.

    (Blackmailing red herrings, that’s something you don’t see every day where I come from.)

  • Brian Powell 21st Jul '09 - 2:24pm

    It was once said, by a very clever man, that war was the refuge of those who had lost the argument.
    Something to think about.

    After several hundreds of years of waging wars, it should be obvious to the most dim witted, that although they are the ones who instigate our involvement in said wars, politicians should be kept out of the running of war, for they invariably cost us many thousands of extra lives, by prolonging the war and always but always quadruple the cost.
    To win in Afghanistan will take all the country’s of NATO to combine and squash the Taliban.

    Once the Taliban is squashed we will then have to look for the next terrorist group to attack.

    Of course there is a train of thought that says, by attacking these groups, we are in fact making them a lot more important than they would otherwise be.

  • Malcolm Todd- this is nonsense. Liberal aims can. of course, come from war, we are not pacifists: our championing of ending the war in the Balkans by using military force, and our stopping genocide in Kosovo are very worthwhile examples. Our failure to intervene- or at least threaten to use military measures like a no-fly zone etc- allows the genocide in Darfur to continue.

    All liberals who truly believe in the faith should be really excited by the fact that thousands upon thousands of young girls are getting the education that we take for granted here. Their human rights are not worth less than our own.

  • You’re quite right, Simon R. How deluded would someone have to be to regard the Taliban as freedom fighters?

    Ordinary Afghans do not want to be suborned to a vicious theocracy, but at current lack the civil society, rule of law, infrastructure etc. of their own. We should drive towards helping them come into their own.

    The sheer presumption of those who say “well, you know, it’s their country, etc” is shown when you consider that the Taliban couldn’t care less what the Afghan public think, & care solely for their own position. They are to my mind the equivalent of those who wish to turn British Muslims over to sharia regardless of the fact that most of them want no such thing.

  • Roger Shade 22nd Jul '09 - 8:49am

    I seem to recall that it was the War Lords of the Northern Alliance who largely put pay to the Taleban. We will always face problems if we try to impose a western style solution on to countries like Afghanistan where the local War Lords or the mudjahadin hold sway. If we went away there is no guarantee the Taleban would be able to impose their rule on the whole of Afghanistan, the War Lords armed and equiped by the West would continue to resist them. There is no possibilty that the area would become stable and prosperous as we might wish and my chief concern is the possibility that the radical Islamists may get control of Pakistan’s Nuclear technology.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Jul '09 - 5:16pm

    “Well I do not know of a single Liberal anywhere in the world who thinks the Taliban are freedom fighters.”

    You do know that “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” are the same thing, right? Only difference is whose side they’re on.

    The “Taliban” of today has very little in common with the previous government. That was a dictatorial regime in control of a country, whose actions were generally unpopular and frequently objected to. What we now call “Taliban” is just our government’s label for the various tribal groups who have always fought foreign occupation in the past, and are continuing to do so now – anybody who is holding a weapon and shooting at the occupying forces is called “Taliban”, regardless of why they are doing that. While the leaders of the old government are still unaccounted for, there’s been no actual evidence that they have anything to do with the resistance effort.

    Given how terribly unpopular the old government was, and the fact that they got there with funding and supplies provided by the US (which won’t happen again), I can’t really see them getting back into power. We’ve just been trying to use their name to demonise people – who are fighting primarily to be free from us, and our policy of burning their crops. So far, our government’s propaganda campaign on this issue seems to be working, given how often the bogeyman of women’s rights pops up unchallenged.

    (Personal opinion, unsupported by hard evidence: I’d expect a lot of the women to be less interested in their “rights” than they are in their husbands and children not getting shot for being Muslim near soldiers. Nobody has any rights when there are still bullets flying)

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