Opinion: Pull out our troops

It’s time that Liberal Democrats called for British troops to be pulled off the front line in Afghanistan. The justifications for their continuing presence vary with the day of the week and the desperation of the advocate.  I am not convinced by any of them.  I don’t know how we would recognise ‘success’ if it were to be claimed, and I don’t believe that our involvement is making the streets of Britain any safer.

Alone amongst the three party leaders Nick Clegg has voiced concerns not simply about shortages of helicopters (in the Great War the call was always for more shells) but about the very nature of a campaign that has no clear objective.  I suspect that, like many of us, he feels a sense of growing unease when he hears the generals calling for more troops and “five more years.”

Maybe Liberal Democrats are particularly well placed to understand how easy it is for our presence to be seen as an occupying force in a foreign land, fighting for one side in a civil war as crusading imperialists seeking to impose our cultural beliefs on others. Radical Muslim men rally to the cause of our opponents in consequence.

As we seek to avoid casualties we fall back on the use of technology that allows us to attack and bomb from afar; all too often killing innocent Afghans (and sometimes Pakistanis).  Support we may briefly have enjoyed from local people turns to hatred.  Far from supporting Pakistan in its efforts to defeat the Taliban our actions may be destabilising that country.

I detest the Taliban and the perversion of Islam they use to justify their suppression of women’s rights.  I would love to see Afghanistan transformed into a benevolent liberal democracy, free from corruption and a champion of liberty.  But the recent elections demonstrated how removed that vision is from reality.  If we are fighting for Karzai’s government are we sure it is a cause worth the effort?

We cannot use the treatment of Afghan women by Afghan men as an excuse for military intervention any more than we would use it to justify an attack on a country where genital mutilation is still performed on female children.  Anyone who claims that we must defeat the drug barons should be reminded that the Taliban curbed opium production as unIslamic.

In any case, genuine defeat of the Taliban may prove impossible whatever resources and lives are thrown against them.  Its various local commanders can withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds, only to return when troop numbers have been reduced.  Individual fighters can cut their beards, bury their weapons, and pose as hard working farmers – which indeed is what they may be.  The weapons can be dug up again at any time.

We can continue to train Afghan soldiers, but the Taliban have a role to play in the country’s future and we should talk with them.  Can that be so much worse than dealing with our current allies, the cruel and corrupt warlords who care not a jot for human rights?  Our money buys us some influence with the warlords; perhaps its provision for development purposes can also be used to persuade the Taliban to keep Al Qaida at a distance and curb the worst excesses of their treatment of women.

To make Britain a safer place we have to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.  We have to address the causes of grievance used by our opponents to bring people to their side.  Our attack on Iraq did great damage.  Our ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan risks doing the same.  The failure of Europe as a whole to address the injustice experienced by Palestinians is a source of anger that we consistently underestimate.  We should learn our lessons.

It is true that our involvement has the authority of a UN mandate and is part of a multinational effort, but circumstances change and we have got ourselves stuck up a blind alley.  Finding a way out won’t be easy but let us not have more soldiers killed and maimed because politicians are unwilling to lose face, embarrassed to admit that lives have been lost in vain, or determined to maintain our alliance with the USA at any cost.

Afghanistan has defeated Britain in the past.  It has defeated the Russians.  The present campaign is not going to result in a triumph for America or its British and European allies.  Our troops should not be there.

Chris Davies is Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament representing the North West of England.

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8 Comments

  • David Heigham 12th Nov '09 - 5:48pm

    After Britain’s two failed invasions of Afghanistan in the nineteeth century, we knew that the first thing to do before going into Afghanistan is to secure your way out again. In the late twentieth century, the Soviet failed invasion demonstrated that the old lesson was still true. The surprising success of the first US and allied ousting of the Taliban gave us an opportunity to get out with credit. We did not take it.

    Now, it is not clear against whom we are fighting. They are clearly not just the old Taliban. As with previous invasions, the numbers of those fighting the foreigners and the effectiveness of their organisation has grown with time.

    We appear to have no clear and consistent objective for which we are fighting. That makes it hard to coordinate the militray and civil effort; yet it is evidently a condition of any sort of success that they work effectively together.

    Our Afghan allies have lost much of the prestiege, and such moral stature, as they once had. There is no sign that the foreigners’ presence in the country is strengthening them.

    So what is the least damaging route from here? our Western military in Afghanistan is good. They can still salvage something worthwhile from the wreck. A first condition is for our governments, and that means the US government, to give them clear priorities on what is worth saving; and to make our Afghan allies accept those priorities.

    A unilateral British withdrawal would have real costs in weakening the Western co-operation which we rely on for everything from security, to dealing with recession and financial crisis, to halting global warming. It may be the least worst option if the US will not focus on a clear strategy and priorities (in effect, a way out); but we are not at that point quite yet .

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Nov '09 - 6:48pm

    Not much here that I’d disagree with. I’d accept a clear plan and set of objectives, but in the absence of one I don’t see why we aren’t starting to withdraw in an orderly fashion. They’ve had enough time to come up with a goal; if it can’t be presented immediately, there’s no reason to think one will appear later.

    One minor point: the “Taliban” is a bogeyman. As an organisation, we already shattered it. What’s left is a bunch of divided factions who don’t agree on very much, and are just fighting us because we’re there. We might see it return again once things calm down, but for now, it’s not really a player.

    Opium production is a problem for one reason: we destroyed everything else, civilian law-enforcement is non-existent outside the cities, farming is now a high-risk occupation, and it’s the only thing that really pays. There’s only two ways to stop it: a proper invasion, taking control of the country ourselves, or an end to the fighting and a stable government.

  • Recently Bereaved 12th Nov '09 - 10:06pm

    Anybody reading this missive from Chris Davies should take the time to also read this:

    http://www.iiss.org/recent-key-addresses/general-stanley-mcchrystal-address/

    Once you have read both, then make up your minds whose analysis you think is more rigourous.

    In my view, the only valid point Chris makes here is a point of judgement.

    Do you believe that the NATO operations in Afghanistan serve to boost violent extremism, or does it serve to diminish it?

    This is a finely balanced judgement and not easily subject to empirical analysis.

    I must say I think this article doesn’t really put the withdrawal case particularly strongly.

    I have great respect for Chris, but if the Lib Dems are to decide to become the ‘troops out’ party for the election, which is what Nick Clegg is preparing the ground for, the argument has got to be much better than this.

    Afganistan is not Iraq. The party hasn’t been against it from the start. There is electoral appeal and ‘distinction’ in arguing for withdrawal. But this strikes me as rather an opportunist reason for advocating withdrawal.

    The party took a long time to argue for withdrawal from Iraq, even though we had opposed the invasion from the start. The main problem came in answering critics who pointed to the consequences of withdrawal.

    For instance, is Chris just arguing for Uk withdrawal, or is he arguing for a full NATO withdrawal?

    There is a case for saying – we have done our bit, this is an American fight, leave it to them.

    But actually Chris is arguing against NATO operations in Afghansitan full stop.

    If you are calling for NATO withdrawal now, in haste, then the consequences are significant. I can think of no ‘gain’ for UK security at all, except reducing the casualties in our proffessional armed forces.

    If you are calling for a phased withdrawal based on Afghans themselves taking responsibility for security then its not much different from NATO strategy.

    Nick Clegg calls for a new strategy to maintain Lib Dem support, but I have not seen him articulate anything that isn’t already Government policy. Miliband says talk to the Taliban, Brown says train up Afghan forces to take over, Ainsworth says NATO forces should fight a classic counter-insurgency focussed on winning the people.

    I think Chris is a true believer, a muddled thinker, but a true believer.

    The trouble I have is nothing that Clegg or Davey has said convinces me they are. It smacks of calculation, not committment.

    This is a debate the Lib Dems need to have, because at the moment the party is teetering on the brink of making a decision for populist and electoral reasons alone – waiting for the tipping point in public opinion – then jumping.

    Clever politics you may say…..but is this basis on which to judge whether the party lends its support to British Foreign Policy when our forces are engaged in conflict?

  • Yes Jo, Chris could join the Greens and sit in the European Parliament next to the German Greens, who supported German troops going to Afghanistan…oh dear.

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