No game plan. No end in sight. No real reason for being there. This is failure on an epic scale
The peak of Britain's post-colonial pretensions can be pinpointed to one particular day, just over a decade ago.
Tony Blair had visited the august cathedral city of Aachen, on Germany's western border, to receive a prestigious prize as the world's most respected international statesman of that year.
The annual award is named after Charlemagne, the first Western emperor, and it was particularly poignant that it had been given to a man who had come to see himself as a saviour of the world.
A reminder of this ceremony is important in helping to understand what is going on today (ten years later) as this country suffers its biggest loss of life in a military campaign since World War II.
The battle in Afghanistan, started by Blair, is a war in a faraway place on which we are told the British people's freedom and stability depend.
Gordon Brown inherited this campaign just as Barack Obama has similarly taken it on from George W. Bush.
Both men may have shed the self-important rhetoric of their predecessors, but they are continuing to send British and American men and women to their deaths.
There may, somewhere, be a rationale for this protracted war (one which Army chiefs now say will go on for decades), but if there is a convincing case, nobody has made it.
Just three weeks before receiving his Charlemagne prize, Tony 'saviour of the world' Blair had addressed another important audience in Chicago. The then Prime Minister used his speech to define what he pompously called a new 'doctrine of international community'.
At the time, the West's intervention in the Balkan War in Kosovo was producing mixed results, but Blair had become increasingly convinced of the virtues of 'humanitarian intervention' - the use of military means to force foreign governments to abide by the rules of democracy and human rights.
I subsequently wrote in my book, Blair's Wars (which sought to look at the reasons why he chose to fight five wars in his first six years of office) that the then Labour Prime Minister had 'demonstrated his instincts, but he had yet to fashion them into a coherent vision'.
In order to prove his case, Blair needed a plausible strategy, and he needed one quickly. As a result, his Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, phoned the respected historian Lawrence Freedman and asked him to craft, within two days, what he described as 'a philosophy that Blair could call his own', complete with benchmarks as to when countries should intervene in others' affairs.
Freedman obliged, in the belief that he was just one of several people being consulted. But he was amazed to discover that Blair's speech relied almost entirely on his own proposals.
Freedman had suggested five criteria for military intervention. Blair dressed them up and claimed them for himself: 'First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.
Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.
'Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers. And finally, do we have national interests involved?'
With more than 200 British service personnel having fallen in the dusty plains of Afghanistan's Helmand province and with countless more injured, it is worth testing their sacrifice against Blair's lofty goals for war as set out in that so-called Chicago doctrine.
Are we sure of the case? The answer is emphatically not - given that it has been changed several times. Initially, we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the weeks after 9/11 to root out Al Qaeda training camps.
Osama Bin Laden was forced to retreat into the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border, but we damaged Al Qaeda, rather than destroyed it as a terrorist force.
Labour ministers also claimed that we were going to war to get rid of the Taliban government. (Although, ironically, Britain had supported a similar group of people some years earlier when they were opposing the Soviet occupiers, on the basis that they were anti-Communist).
Blair identified the elegantly dressed Hamid Karzai as the man who would deliver democracy to Afghanistan.
This week's elections attest to progress of sorts. Conditions in Kabul and certain parts of the country have improved - girls, for example, are able to go to school in some areas.
But all of this is relative. Karzai has presided over growing corruption, while huge swathes of Afghanistan are in the hands of local warlords, as they have always been.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have regrouped, so much so that according to Foreign Secretary David Miliband, we should now engage their more reasonable elements in negotiation.
If that is the case, then what on earth are our troops fighting for? We are seeking to snuff out the bad Taliban while helping the good Taliban? Such a policy simply does not make sense.
As for diplomatic solutions (Blair's second test), these have never come into play - until now. Are our military actions, as Blair stipulated, 'sensible and prudent'? Well, that depends on the definition. The reality is that this war seems more of a return to a medieval, attritional war of one step forward, one step back.
Equally, are we really prepared for the long term? The military chiefs and the politicians insist that we are, but is the wider public? According to opinion polls, Americans are already turning against it, on the basis of an understandable cost benefit analysis. They look at Afghanistan and they remember Vietnam.
Gordon Brown now couches the war in terms of national interest. A few years ago we were told that the purpose of the war was to eradicate the poppy crop, stopping the supply of heroin that is destroying so many lives at home. But not only did we fail in the task, we antagonised local farmers, sending them into the embrace of the Taliban.
That policy was quietly dropped. Then we were told that we would stop more bombings in Britain of our buses and trains if we keep insurgents at bay in Helmand. Yet the source of much of the terrorism problem in the UK is disaffected youth, many of whom originally hail from Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Even so, the best way to ensure safety is strong but measured security at home, coupled with a responsible and measured foreign policy.
The truth is that there is no game plan, no end goal. There is limited national interest. There is no strategy, except a sense of 'seeing it through' - partly to cover over the mistakes of the past.
All this makes one wonder if the role of our present politicians is much different to the hubris and naivety that led to the Iraq calamity?
Indeed, it's now time to ask whether the Afghan adventure might be an even greater failure of British policy than the one in Iraq was.
Forget about policies, what seems to matter most to politicians of all parties nowadays is labels. This explains why Labour was rattled by a poll result which showed that more voters saw the Conservatives as 'progressive'.
However, all these terms have lost any real meaning. Who, after all, would portray themselves as 'reactionary' or 'regressive'? Would any party don the mantle of 'old-fashioned' rather than 'modernising'? Such labels mean all things to all people.
The truth is that this battle for language masks a more depressing reality: even as public disillusionment with politics reaches new depths, politicians cannot resist resorting to spin.
You can't play the fame game with civil liberties
Tory frontbencher Damian Green won an important victory this week in his fight to have his DNA taken off the national database. But it is the wrong kind of victory.
The police have agreed that, following the Director of Public Prosections' decision that there was insufficient evidence to charge him as part of an investigation into a series of leaks from the Home Office, Mr Green met the 'exceptional' circumstances under which a sample can be destroyed.
However, despite being a rare civil liberties victory, the case sets a bad precedent.
Green's DNA is being removed from the database only because he is famous and he has fought a high-profile campaign.
But British law is based on the simple assumption that everyone is innocent until they are proven guilty. Anyone not found guilty of an offence should have their DNA taken off the official police database.
About 850,000 other innocent people who have been arrested but never charged are currently being treated as would-be criminals, with their records kept in perpetuity.
The Met Police says that under the 'exceptional cases procedure', it has received requests from 231 people to have their DNA removed. But only 31 requests have been granted.
As the human rights group Liberty points out, these decisions should not be based purely on whether the complainant is famous, like Damian Green, and has the power to make a fuss.
[Source: By John Kampfner, Mail Online, London, 24Aug09]
State of Exception
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