The Saturday Debate: Time for British troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan

Here’s your starter for ten as we continue our Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies has recently written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg renewing his call for British troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan:

It is very difficult to justify our continued engagement when the reasons for it so often appear contradictory and open to challenge. I suspect one reason why 77% of people in this country tell pollsters that they want our troops out of Afghanistan is because they either do not know what are the objectives for their presence or do not believe that these can be achieved. I share these doubts.

The American-led assault against the Taliban government was launched in the wake of the 2001 aircraft hijackings and attack upon the World Trade Centre. It had United Nations support because the Taliban provided shelter for the al-Qa’ida leaders who planned that outrage. But the al-Qa’ida presence has long since been removed, at least so far as this will ever be possible in such a land, and the Americans have the technology and weaponry to prevent it regrouping in an organised fashion

It has been claimed that our presence in Afghanistan is intended to keep safe the streets of Britain. I do not believe this case can be sustained. Our soldiers are easily portrayed as foreign invaders who should be resisted by Afghan patriots, and our presence in the country may not only contribute to instability there but increase the risk of maverick attacks on people here.

Nearly a decade on the American-led forces are still very far from establishing an Afghan national army or police force that can claim to be representative of all people in the country. It is widely recognised, not least by President Karzai, that an accommodation must be found with the Taliban. Our money, or ‘soft diplomacy’, may help facilitate this, and an alternative political strategy should be developed with this in mind. In the meantime British soldiers continue to be killed by people who will one day be part of the Afghan government.

Undoubtedly the withdrawal of our troops would present risks. It could allow the Taliban to increase their influence and to take control of a greater part of the country. It might also allow the Taliban to strengthen their presence in Pakistan. But then again it might not, or not to any significant degree.

The majority of Taliban fighters are said to be local farmers who have no great national ambitions. I am not sure that our allies, the former warlords who are now politicians and regional governors, have any greater moral right to govern parts of the country than the Taliban but they have their own private militias and will not easily surrender territory.

I have heard it argued that the principal reason that British troops remain in Afghanistan is because we do not want to weaken our relationship with the Americans by following the example of other European states and announcing a date for withdrawal. I do not regard such a reason as sufficient justification for the death of our soldiers.

There will be no happy ending to our involvement in Afghanistan. At some point we will start to withdraw our forces, and in years to come we shall question why we did not take this step this at an earlier date. Let it commence now, before still more lives have been lost for no good purpose.

Agree? Disagree? Over to you and the comments thread …

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23 Comments

  • Keith Browning 3rd Jul '10 - 10:09am

    I watched an in-depth TV news item on the Taliban yesterday. The opening shots were of a single tribally dressed Afghan fighter, carrying his weapon, outlined on the crest of a mountain. Then I looked more closely and just below him on the hillside were at least ten other tribesmen similarly dressed and all with weapons. They had just disappeared into the scenery with the most perfect camouflage. Thousands of square miles of impossible terrain and a people that are totally at home in their surroundings. How would it be possible to defeat them?
    Yesterday the Taliban could afford to send FIVE suicide bombers on one mission. That is hardly the mark of an enemy that is struggling to find either men or motivation.

    In 1842 the British lost a whole army of 16,000 men. One of the few times in recorded history that a total army has been massacred. Only one man was left to tell the tale. The Soviets failed in the 1980s at an estimated cost of a million men in combatants and civilians.

    Time to pull out now I think.

  • Unlike our immoral, and probably illegal, invasion of Iraq we could justify the invasion of Afghanistan as our ally, the United States, had been attacked from that country.

    Having invaded Afghanistan we failed to fufil our responsibilities to install sound governance. The military resources which could have been used to do provide security for this were instead being used to attack Iraqis.

    After missing that opportunity we have just been reacting to events. NATO lacks the will to provide sufficient armed forces to hold sufficient ground for long enough to force a negotiated solution.

    Our armed forces are being killed, the people of Afghanistan are being killed as a result of the moral and strategic failings of the last Labour government.

    Continuing to fight (but not to secure good governance) in Afghanistan is not in our strategic interest and serves no moral purpose.

    I think this sort of view is shared by a great many people in Britain. One of the tragedies about the 2010 general election (for all those who think general elections are about giving “the people” a choice) is that not one of the three main parties provided an opportunity for people who feel as I do to express that choice through the democratic process.

    I should modify my last remark slightly. In my new constituency there was one candidate who was opposed to our continuing to fight in Afghanistan but he was a BNP candidate. It is a very poor state of affairs where the only way to express opposition to this war is to vote for the BNP.

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Jul '10 - 10:37am

    the Taliban provided shelter for the al-Qa’ida leaders who planned that outrage

    Or so the Americans would have us believe, but they’ve admitted they can’t prove anything really (bin Laden has both claimed and denied responsibility, so there’s no particular reason to believe anything he says) and the Taliban provided no more shelter than any other sovereign nation would. They offered to put all those people on trial, and the US responded by bombing them. It’s not very convincing.

    I think it’s fairly clear to everybody at this point that the al-Qaeda stuff was just conveniently timed political posturing, and the US had been intending to invade for months – they just wanted to get rid of the Taliban because they don’t like Islamic extremist governments. I suppose one could argue that’s a legitimate position.

    The majority of Taliban fighters are said to be local farmers who have no great national ambitions.

    No international ambitions, for sure. Very few Afghanis have ever been mixed up in something like that – mostly they’ve just been fighting other Afghanis. That’s kinda the problem; it’s not much of a nation. They’ve been in a more or less constant state of civil war since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it’s hard to care about the rest of the world when that happens.

    The invasion and occupation haven’t changed any of that much. It’s hard to see how further occupation is going to help. They need civilian support to build a viable government and a lasting peace, not military domination. The only way military force is going to get them to stop fighting is when everybody is dead.

  • John Fraser 3rd Jul '10 - 11:43am

    @Mathew

    We have been following those commitments for the best part of a decade . If we followed that logic of making commitments the Americains would still be in Vietnam.

    Did we not also make commitments to people in this country . many of which it is becoming clear we ae not going to fullfill. ?

  • Keith Browning 3rd Jul '10 - 7:05pm

    There is one way that would solve the whole problem but is an unlikely scenario as the weapons companies, oil companies and the militarists that like to rule us would lose so much.

    The tribal chiefs are allowed to take back their traditional lands. The poppy harvest continues but we buy the raw opium at a higher price than the Taliban would be prepared to pay. We would need secure market places but there would be no need for the general population to keep running to the Taliban for funds. The poppy harvest could either be turned into medical opiates, which the west consumes in huge quantities and the surplus would be destroyed. This would also take control of much of the world’s illegal drug trade. So simple I wonder why no-one has thought of it before?

    This would be a win win all round – except of course for the arms manufacturers, whose main aim is to keep all these wars smouldering away. George Orwell was correct. We are not allowed peace because as soon as we make peace with one enemy then a new one is created. Funny isn’t it.

    Quiz question to finish – who is the largest individual customer for oil in the world?

    Answer – US Armed Forces.

    No more need be said.

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Jul '10 - 8:57pm

    This would also take control of much of the world’s illegal drug trade.

    It’s really easy to grow poppies. Afghanistan is not a historical site of the drug trade – in fact, when the Taliban had control of the country, they were ruthless in stamping out production sites, so it had very little. The recent surge in opium production is precisely because some idiots bombed all the real crops, so the Afghanis needed to grow something that was easy, fast, and robust and could be sold for enough money to buy the food, supplies, and weapons they needed.

    The international drug trade can carry on just fine without Afghanistan. It’s only there because the Afghanis are desperate to sell.

  • Keith Browning 3rd Jul '10 - 9:40pm

    Points taken.

    I was thinking we could revive the East India Company which was the financial muscle of the British Empire and made most of its wealth from the opium trade…………. or perhaps not !!!

    Trade has to be the answer to any conflict and that has always been the case throughout history.

    My other point is that military solutions are rarely the best solution and usually the worst but they are sold to us as being one of the few options open to governments.

    Not dissimilar to using rockets to explore space.
    Many other ways of leaving our planet have been suggested by eminent scientists and such visionaries as Arthur C Clarke. Richard Branson’s latest project is one of them. However you dont kill many people or deliver too many bombs on Moscow or Beijing with vehicles moving at a slow but steady acceleration.
    ALL the Government money (East and West) for 60 years has gone into explosive Rocketry to explore space but that is really only a secondary use of the engineering capability.
    We are all in the hands of the warmongers and perhaps it will always be that way.

  • Keith Browning 4th Jul '10 - 4:18pm

    William Brydon was believed to be the only survivor.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Jul '10 - 4:29am

    OBL and/or al Qaeda have been linked to previous attacks, such as the mass-murder of hundreds of Kenyan workers and another attack on the WTC. If you have reason to believe that 11/9 was by someone else, provide an argument.

    Why does it have to be by anybody? I know the Americans have trouble believing that something so spectacular could be anything less than the act of a huge conspiracy, but there’s no particular reason to believe it extended beyond the people who were involved, and the US has only linked it to others by forced confessions via torture, which we all know aren’t reliable.

    We don’t need an “alternative conspiracy theory”. The burden of proof is clearly on those who wish to show that the al-Qaeda conspiracy existed – something which they haven’t been able to do in the past nine years. I’ve never found conspiracy theories without proof to be very convincing.

    Almost 200 sovereign nations didn’t

    Because they weren’t in the other nations. Let’s be clear about what the US demanded here: the illegal extraordinary rendition of Afghani citizens into US military custody without even extradition, let alone trial, and with no prospect of them ever receiving a fair trial once in US hands. Any nation would have refused that demand, and countered with an offer of trial (or extradition if a suitable treaty existed). That is not “sheltering”, it’s straightforward respect for the rule of law. It’s the same appalling thing we’ve been trying to get the UK to stop participating in.

    Links please.

    Drat it, lost the source I was thinking of. US admissions aside, the important point is that they haven’t proved anything – we’ve had nothing but government claims, as if they’d never lied about such things.

    It is quite remarkable how few people have actually been tried for actions relating to the WTC attacks.

  • The comparison with the loss of a column is a useful one, notwithstanding any quibbling around survivors. There were a small handful, but only one actually completed the trek, arriving in Jalalabad, without having to be recovered. The circumstances have some useful parallels. The behaviour of the British in Kabul had led to losing the confidence of the Emir, who evicted the force. The column was assured of free passage yet was attacked in the Khord pass, it wasn’t configured as a defensive column, but was essentially a rout and had a very high proportion of non-combatants. The key points are that we operate under the government in Kabul, however authoritative it may be, and that the control of Kabul, particularly in the Pashtun areas, is restricted.

    Stepping back a little to the legitimacy of the initial invasion, I do think it’s a pretty extreme stretch to suggest that the 9/11 attacks were a minor operation. Getting those numbers of operators into the US, trained and in place for multiple a/c hijackings is not an insignificant operation. There is evidence, published by the US review of the issues that support the view that it was planned and funded by the AQ leadership in Afghanistan and the FATA.

    If I may observe, both of you are conflating Taliban and Al-Queda, they’re not the same thing. AQ itself is predominantly a guiding philosophy adopted by a wide range of terrorist groups globally. The common theme is a very literal and old fashioned approach to Islam, that ignores much of the learning and progress in Persia. The schools that support it were developed as a reaction to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Taliban is contained within Afghanistan and the FATA, and is a bit of a motley collection. Some who are labelled are merely defending their lands, others are more idealogical.

    I would observe that the number of prosecutions being low is a mildly specious argument. Those who actualy flew the planes are no longer available, others probably haven’t been captured. There is an issue, and I’m very glad that as a party we challenge the US on their handling of prisoners. Until such time as the US regime are prepaed to put those they hold into a court of law it’s unlikely to happen. I don’t see their current approach as being particularly indicative of a lack of substance in the assertions that AQ were key funders and planners of 9/11.

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