I managed to miss Bonfire Night (5 November when we celebrate the burning of Catholics – although that bit is usually forgotten when we chuck the guy on top of the pyre) and the first instalment of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity on BBC4. Instead, I was enjoying a visit to a multi-ethnic parish in Thornton Heath (which has just planted a new Ugandan congregation as a ‘Fresh Expression’) and didn’t get home till 11pm.
A quick glance at the news made me pause. The Prime Minister is to make a statement today on the war in Afghanistan. This follows a number of deaths in the British camp and the growing unease in this country about why ‘we’ are there in the first place. Pity anyone who has to lead a country in circumstances such as these – even if they did lead us into it.
What worries me is this: what would it look like if the war in Afghanistan was ‘won’? Would there be a western-style democracy? Would tribalism be ended? Would there be an ‘uncorrupt’ leadership backed by highly-trained and well-equipped armed forces? Or would it be that children were attending schools and women were working openly in the professions? I could go on.
I think several things worry me about the campaign in Afghanistan:
1. I closely followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Paying no great attention to the demands of a human rights world, the Soviet armies went in and applied all the might they could to overpowering the ‘peasants’ from the mountians. Ten years later – and with a huge casualty list – they left with their tails between their legs. Huge firepower and determined violence failed. The arguments used by the West about that invasion/occupation then are now (ironically?) being used by the West to justify its own ongoing involvement. I am not sure that Afghanistan can be ‘re-ordered’ by outside powers to serve their own interests.
2. This campaign is struggling in Afghanistan itself and is clearly being lost in the pubs of Britain. I guess this is because of two things: (a) we see constant images of violence, death, repatriated coffins and weeping relatives of the casualties, and (b) it is hard to find anyone who can easily articulate the rationale behind our presence there. That is not to say there isn’t one; but if it can’t be clearly and simply articulated, then it can’t be communicated – and if it can’t be communicated, it can’t be owned by people who don’t have access to all the arguments and facts.
3. It is hard to know what ‘victory’ might look like, but it is equally hard to know if ‘defeat’ is the only other option. Is it not possible, having learned from the experience, to put armed support into bolstering the security of Pakistan, ring-fencing the Afghan opium trade and persuading more ‘acceptable’ forces to bring order within Afghanistan itself (such as other middle-eastern countries)? A peace-keeping force that was not made up of provocative western types might be possible and would call the bluff on the Taleban’s claim that they are only fighting to get the westerners out.
And isn’t it weird how Iraq has almost fallen off our screens and newspapers now that our troops have left? Aren’t we fickle when it comes to deciding what is important in the ‘news?