Sunday, October 15, 2006

Afghanistan is not Iraq

One extreme irony in the reaction to General Sir Richard Dannatt's comments concerns the differences between our position in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to sources in the ministry of defence, the intention of Sir Richard's interview was to defend Britain's role in Afghanistan. What caused the uproar was that he made a number of distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq - and of course, the Mail was able to turn these distinctions around, without seriously misrepresenting the general, so that what was intended as support for Britain's role in Afghanistan became by implication criticism of our role in Iraq.

The irony is that this has been taken as support by those who criticise our role in Afghanistan as well as those who, on far stronger grounds, criticise the conduct of British policy in Iraq.

A major part of the problems facing our troops is that following the defence cuts of recent years we are in danger of overstretching ourselves trying to take on our present roles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to find a dignified and honourable way to help the Iraqi government take over responsibility for their country as soon as practical, and I am pleased that in the aftermath of Sir Richard's comments Tony Blair says that he recognises this.

But the situation in Afghanistan is completely different and it is about time people stopped drawing false parallels with Iraq.

First of all, while every attempt by a foreign power to conquer Afghanistan has failed, that is not what we are doing there.

We invaded Iraq in 2003, but in 2001 the Taliban attacked us. And don't let anyone tell you that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were just an attack on the USA - it was an attack on the whole of the West and it killed more British citizens than any single attack by the IRA or any other terrorist group.

While our position in terms of international law in Iraq is borderline, in Afghanistan it was rock solid. The action of the Taleban in sheltering those responsible for 9/11 was a valid legal casus belli for action against them if ever there was one, and we had UN support.

The other distinction is that where in Iraq, as Sir Richard put it, we "kicked the door down" in Afghanistan we overthrew the Taliban mainly by providing assistance to rival indigenous forces who were already at war with them. We were then asked to provide troops and assistance to help support an elected government which has as close to a genuine popular mandate as could reasonably be expected given the state of the country.

None of this meant to back away from the need to recognise the extreme challenges facing our troops in Afghanistan: we need to recognise that they must be given a realistic mission and the necessary force and equipment to accomplish it.

Two of the most important and difficult responsibilities of a British Prime minister are to know when to send our soldiers, sailors and airmen into danger, and when not to. Both anyone who supported every single military action ordered by a British government over the last thirty years, and anyone who did not support any, should ask themselves whether that support/opposition is based on a real assessment of the facts, or on an automatic reaction.

People who will never be in power can afford the luxury of pacifistic objection to any military action, or jingoistic support for any war. Those who have, or credibly aspire to have, responsibility for Britain's security, cannot afford either of these luxuries.


Anonymous said...

I initially supported the war in Iraq as I foolishly believed Blairs claims on the intelligence.

Unfortunately as we have seen so many times the reasons for war have fallen by the wayside and it's obvious that the sole intention behind the war was regime change.

The problem is that it's done now, and it's been done tremendously badly by the government which is why we are still there in such a mess. The US and UK governments failed on so many levels in their planning that it is almost criminal.

Afghanistan is a completely different conflict and yet there have still been serious mistakes made, yes we should be there but I'm not sure we are doing the right job.

Right now we are not just in danger of overstretch, there is serious overstretch, in some cases units are having less than 12 months time between operational tours. I know people returning from Afghanistan who already know they will be on another operational tour in less than 12 months time, that is overstretch, units should have 24 months between tours. Some have already done two tours in Iraq and have more to look forward to.

You say "People who will never be in power can afford the luxury of pacifistic objection to any military action, or jingoistic support for any war. Those who have, or credibly aspire to have, responsibility for Britain's security, cannot afford either of these luxuries." Unfortunately while Blair belongs to neither of the classes you mention he has been writing cheques with our armed forces that the treasury and his government won't cover.

We are woefully short of equipment that is needed, but we are even more short of the most neccessary thing our armed forces need, men and women to serve in them.

Anonymous said...

There are thing s here that I would like clarified . ( Loaded things of course ho ho) What do you think international law is , and in case there is any doubt about the intention… when its at home ? When did the Taliban attack “us” exactly , 9.11 you say . Well it was a terrorist outrage against British people but not a justification for war in itself . Close , I must admit but I don’t see it without the notion of the Western world being attacked by a hostile global power. General do-gooding is not what I want British soldiers to be employed at so what is our defence interest
The primary reason for us to go to Afghanistan and Iraq was to support the US who are the major strut of our international defence position . It has to be understood that although the media talk about the UN ( if not the EU ) it is still NATO that is the real forum and our support was part of that given that the US were acting anyway for obvious reasons. As this was the real reasoning many begin to think we have done our bit and we should now look at a staged withdrawal. This is especially true of Conservatives who are far more clear headed about the reapolitik and now simply feel we are doing to much it is not justified our wider defensive needs . .
I am fascinated at the perspective you have on the general’s actual intention. Interesting stuff as ever.

Chris Whiteside said...

Morningstar - I agree entirely with your comments, especially about overstretch. Our armed forces are very nearly as good as their most devoted supporters make them out to be, but they can't be in two places at once and do everything without the right tools and equipment.

Newmania - I don't pretent to be an expert on international law, but I will try to answer your question. Both international custom and precedent, and the U.N. Charter, allow a nation to respond when they have been attacked. If murdering three thousand innocent people isn't an attack, what is? By sheltering and refusing to hand over Bin Laden and the members of his organisation the Taleban regime made themselves clearly complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Inernational law still requires the response to be proportionate -flattening Kabul would probably have been illegal (as well as unethical and counterproductive) but most reasonable people would probably agree that making common cause with the internal opponents of a regime like the Taleban to remove them from power was a proportionate response.

I don't go all the way with your comments, but I do agree that we need an exit strategy, to be implemented when we have helped the elected Afghan government get into a position to better maintain order. In Afghanistan where we are not an occupying power, our presence has much more change of helping to do this than in Iraq.