Why are we there?
July 14, 2009 5:53 AM   Subscribe

As Wootton Bassett gathers for a solemn ritual that is all too familiar in a very British way of mourning; the question being asked is: Exactly what are we fighting for?. Afgahnistan is not a popular war in Britain, (as also noted in an editorial in The Nation ).
It is graveyard of good intent; (extract then pdf downloadable)................ The Irresistible Illusion where the infamous General Dostum has now been invited to join the government of Hamid Karzai.
posted by adamvasco (24 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"A BBC survey suggests British public support for the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan has risen."
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:15 AM on July 14, 2009

A few things to note:

- The Afghanistan war actually was, if not popular, then supported. The simple reason it now isn't is because people are dying. Dead soldiers - especially when so many are being killed by bombs is the poorest possible advert for the war.
- In amongst this, the military, and what we can call loosely the "military lobby", comprising of people in the armed forces, their families and ex-military have long argued that the British Army is poorly equipped, and poorly supported, to actually fight the war. This isn't realistically contested, such is the evidence from those serving. There is also a general feeling that what budget is being spent, is being spent badly.
- [As a fun fact - if you double count those servicemen posted to the Ministry of Defence, there are more people in the MoD than in the armed forces, which also sticks in many people's craws]
- In addition, the life of a British soldier ain't all that fun. Between postings to Iraq and Afghanistan, many professional soldiers have spent the last 6 years with a lot of time spent in war zones.
- Against this backdrop, there is simmering resentment not only against the political classes, but against Labour, and Gordon Brown, with many believing that the country is wracked by problems with little clarity on how to solve them. In that respect, Afghanistan increasingly feels like a metaphor for what is wrong.

As it happens, my family are military, and two soldiers from my brother's regiment have died in the last week. My closest schoolfriend was killed two months ago, also in Afghanistan. In all three incidents, there were also fairly seriously injured soldiers, who rarely make the news. I don't say this for sympathy, but merely to illustrate how many people in the UK have been indirectly touched by deaths in Afghanistan.

FWIW, I am not one of those who think that the presence of the British Army in Afghanistan is a bad thing, although I firmly believe that the soldiers deserve better than the threadbare resources they have given. Only now - almost 8 years on from 9/11 and the start of the Afghan campaign - has the government signed off on the full range of next-generation, more protective military vehicles. And even then it's not enough, the helicopter support in Afghanistan is appallingly weak for the job in hand leaving soldiers very exposed when fighting the Taleban in their backyard in southern Afghanistan.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:20 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

British troops are there, just like the Aussies and the Dutch, to keep the Yanks happy. Is it really that tricky?
posted by pompomtom at 6:40 AM on July 14, 2009

...and the Canadians are there to keep Harper happy.
posted by gman at 6:43 AM on July 14, 2009

(sorry, I never quite got why the Canadians are there... Is Canada NATO?)
posted by pompomtom at 6:44 AM on July 14, 2009

I feel I should point out that although Afghanistan has never been considered 'popular, recent reports suggest support is strengthening in Britain. Soldiers may have died, but rather than shocking the public into demanding a withdrawal, it has instead provoled the famous Blitz mentality: tough it out, and none of that whingeing.

Defense Questions were scheduled to happen in Parliament yesterday. You would have thought that with eight soldiers dying in one day just a couple of days earlier, Bob Ainsworth (Defense Minister) would be left reeling, but this was far from the case. No MP really put the boot in over the deaths. The Liberal Democrats attacked the lack of strategy and the political goals behind the war, but these questions were shrugged off. The Conservatives, meanwhile, didn't attack the premise behind the war, preferring to talk about whether the equipment was good enough. Liam Fox spent most of his time talking about helicopters, claiming there weren't enough. '60% increase', said Ainsworth. Right, that's that, then.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 6:50 AM on July 14, 2009

The Kings of War blog (for "faculty and research students of the Department of War Studies, King's College London") has several thought-provoking and refreshingly honest articles that help answer the "Why?" neglected by many.
posted by ceedee at 6:56 AM on July 14, 2009

British troops are there, just like the Aussies and the Dutch, to keep the Yanks happy. Is it really that tricky?

As a Yank, I have trouble seeing the basis of this argument. If the Brits, Aussies and Dutch all packed up and went home (or had never come in the first place), what exactly are we (the Yanks) gonna do about that?

The same kind of American exceptionalism that leads to "keep the Yanks happy" can be spun around as "Forget 'em, we Yanks don't need 'em; they'll thank us in fifty years, Just Like With Hitler."
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:02 AM on July 14, 2009

You are fighting to keep the people you have fucked for years with your foreign policy from getting back at you. Obama is smart enough to know this, although he will never say this, and he may just change it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:02 AM on July 14, 2009

Just wait until the Russian Charlie Wilson starts funding the mujaheddin v2.0 if you think this is unpopular now.
posted by tommasz at 7:13 AM on July 14, 2009

...and the Canadians are there to keep Harper happy.

Canadians were there long before Harper came into power.

(sorry, I never quite got why the Canadians are there... Is Canada NATO?)

Yes. Canada is a part of Nato.

The problem with Afghanistan is that the goal is a pretty elusive one. How does one turn a very loosely governed at the best of times nation of poppy growers into a place where terrorist groups can't train? The ideology they want to defeat can simply wait out any military occupation.

As a Yank, I have trouble seeing the basis of this argument. If the Brits, Aussies and Dutch all packed up and went home (or had never come in the first place), what exactly are we (the Yanks) gonna do about that?

There is considerable not unreasonable speculation that the reason the British were in both Iraq and Iran had to with with weapons manufacturing and big fat saudi contracts. An american kibosh on the deals could have entirely killed what little big ticket manufacturing is left in England. That and Tony Blair prayed and god told him to send boys to kill other boys. It's not exactly unheard of for American's to strong arm allies - recall "You are either with us or against us". You also forgot Poland.
posted by srboisvert at 7:14 AM on July 14, 2009

See, when you put it in terms of money, it makes sense to me.
Because I'm a Yank

Also I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the city of Poland.
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:28 AM on July 14, 2009

Canadians were there long before Harper came into power.

Yes they were, and if it were up to Harper, their 'mission' would be extended for a third time.
posted by gman at 7:30 AM on July 14, 2009

There are justifications and reasons. The justifications for Britain's involvement in Afghanistan are all of the talk of democracy, freeing the population from tyranny, fighting the war on extremism, fighting the drug war. As most of these criteria apply to a large numbers of failed states, we must surmise that the real reasons at the very least go beyond the stated justifications, and may even be at odds with them.
Britain's track record in the promotion of democracy is, to say the least, patchy. We have no problems supporting undemocratic governments when their goals align with ours, or ignoring them when we have no interests to protect. "Bringing Democracy" is what we claim when we want to get rid of someone we don't like.
Fighting the war on extremism doesn't fly either. I don't see us invading Saudi, or any of the other semi-theocracies that play nice with us.
As for the war on drugs, suffice it to say that if this is the reason, we're not doing very well.
IMHO it's about strategic interests, military and commercial, in a volatile part of the world. But it's not the first millenium and we're not Rome, so we can't just come out and say that we're going to occupy a place just because it's strategic to us and screw the natives. Rather, we have to go through all of this hand-wringing justification to pretend otherwise.
posted by Jakey at 7:51 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not just Harper; many of my Albertan family, for example, get a strange pride from Canadian operations there.

I think, for a lot of people, the Canadian role in WW I and II was strangely self-defining. Since then we have had military in places like the Suez and Cyprus doing "Peacekeeping" and this hasn't been enough for some of us.

Hundreds line up on the "Highway of Heroes" (they drive the dead soldiers' remains down the 401 to Toronto, for some reason). I think this is morbid, but there are hundreds for whom this is like a sacred event.

I think Harper knows this (maybe even feels it) and any discussion of Canada's role in Afghanistan has to consider this personal/political angle.
posted by sporb at 7:52 AM on July 14, 2009

British troops are there, just like the Aussies and the Dutch, to keep the Yanks happy. Is it really that tricky?

Thank you for responding with the depth of complexity that this situation requires.

As for the Brits being there, well let's just say that there is at least an historical precedent for it.
posted by philip-random at 8:13 AM on July 14, 2009

I really don't think Blair needed to be cajoled into sucking up to Bush. Lips firmly attached to buttocks from the get-go.
posted by Artw at 9:15 AM on July 14, 2009

pompomtom: British troops are there, just like the Aussies and the Dutch, to keep the Yanks happy. Is it really that tricky?

Rat Spatula: As a Yank, I have trouble seeing the basis of this argument. If the Brits, Aussies and Dutch all packed up and went home (or had never come in the first place), what exactly are we (the Yanks) gonna do about that?

Australian foreign policy and international troop deployment is to a large degree desgined to ensure the U.S. Pacific Fleet will assist if/when Australian security is threatened. It's an implied quid pro quo: Australia provides near-unquestioning support for US policy hoping that in return the US will help Oz if the fit ever hits shan.

Whether this stance is valid or required (who is going to invade or threaten Australia, exactly?) is another question entirely.
posted by bright cold day at 9:52 AM on July 14, 2009

I don't really understand why British forces are in Afghanistan, though the opportunity to gain contracts seems saddeningly convincing.

As for Wootton Bassett, it's another England. I don't personally know anybody in the military, and I haven't had a conversation with anybody about Afghanistan for years. I think I supported the invasion in 2001, but mainly because the Taliban were a not-too-nice bunch of people. But I no longer believe in that kind of interventionism, and am more concerned we're spending money we don't have on a war which is going nowhere.

If I was asked to give an opinion on why people seem to be lining the streets for the coffins of soldiers, I would venture that it has more to do with the insecurity of identity. National identity in the UK is questioned by devolution, Europe, immigration, and simple apathy or ignorance. But the military is still a strong and authentic part of British identity for many, and so taking part in its rituals (or in this case creating a ritual around it) is a way of 'consuming' that identity and adding it to your own. In a country where the notion of 'British' is increasingly blurry, this ritual contains values and meanings that bring it into focus.
posted by Sova at 10:07 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

NATO member nations are there because NATO invoked Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks, and Afghanistan was primarily held responsible. There are currently no NATO rules preventing any of them from leaving, however.
posted by rocket88 at 10:10 AM on July 14, 2009

The Great Game.
posted by ovvl at 6:57 PM on July 14, 2009

Seriously; dude?. What's.........with the, (freaked out ) Punctuation .?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:06 PM on July 14, 2009

From the surge in 2007 in Iraq to Afghanistan today, allied military strategy in both conflicts has been focused on three words that have been iterated and reiterated at each crisis and turning point. Those words are "clear, hold, build". General Petraeus's oft-cited military formula is not the key to success in Afghanistan.
If it cannot be clearly defined why US + NATO troops are in Afghanistan, then neither a strategy to deal with it or an exit plan can be defined.
posted by adamvasco at 3:17 AM on July 15, 2009

The invasion of Afghanistan was just as illegal as the invasion of Iraq. Sadly, our leaders have deliberately shattered the nascent international order, and are still dancing in its ruins.

A sane, legal approach to Afghanistan would have been to just leave them alone for a few decades. Trade with them. Buy their crops to relieve our shortage of medicinal opium. Accept their offers of delivering terrorist leaders for trial. Eventually a new generation of Afghans would grow up in a more stable society, where they could start to free themselves from harsh laws and illiberal religious dogma.

Look at Iran, thirty years after their Islamic revolution. Is it perfect?... No. Is it better than Afghanistan?...
posted by mr. strange at 2:49 PM on July 15, 2009

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