a new significance

11 11 2009

88 years after its first use as a symbol of remembrance for the fallen, the poppy is again being associated with the  sacrifice and valour of the fighting man, amidst questions about our strategy and commitment in another conflict that has lasted far longer and achieved far less than most expected at its inception.

British soldier passes opium poppy, Musa Qaleh, Afghanistan 2009

British soldier and Afghan poppy, Musa Qaleh (Getty Images)

The recent, inevitable, announcement of yet another tragic death in South East Asia and the debacle surrounding Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s communication with Jacqui “J’accuse” Janes, the mother of late Guardsman Jamie Janes,  draws further attention to the United Kingdom’s (and NATO’s) strategy in the region.

I believe we must render Afghanistan and Pakistan impotent as launch pads for another 9/11. We must make it too uncomfortable for extremists to exist amongst the population and influence them, let alone train and re-equip themselves. I don’t buy into the myth that Afghanistan has never been subdued and thus a war there is unwinnable. Nor do I believe that the military have all the answers, or that we should seek to remodel a medieval culture after a western, democratic ideal. The result is bound to be an unconvincing, pale  imitation that will tear itself asunder immediately.

In the short term, force and favour are what is needed. Carrot and stick. As Macchiavelli  famously wrote, when speaking of  rulers in war: Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved. It’s not very PC, but neither is war, and neither are the Pashtun, who we have to admit are the ‘enemy of enemies’ in Afghanistan.

In the past, force and favour brought a kind of stability to pre-industrial kingdoms and empires, including the region now known as Afghanistan. It was once itself even the centre of  the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, an empire that stretched – in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests – from the Indus River to the Caspian Sea, and whose legacy remains in the art and sculpture of the northern Indian sub-continent.

Force, through a military presence, with some demonstration of willingness to use overwhelming firepower, was coupled with favour: the giving of gifts to local grandees and the granting of concessions and power. Today we would call this bribery with menaces, and frown on it. In our democratic, industrialised modern world, this moral standpoint is all well and good, even necessary for the smooth functioning of society. But in Afghanistan political correctness earns no respect, whereas warlordism demands respect. So when in Rome (or Kabul) do as the Romans do: employ realpolitik.

In fact the Romans (or more accurately, Italians) did just this in Afghanistan recently, but neglected to mention their arrangement to the French who replaced them before they departed for home, with disastrous consequences, as the Times reports.

Money is being wasted at home on dead-end procurement projects, and troops and equipment are being committed to Afghanistan in half-measures. If the nettle were to be grasped, and local stability bought with Treasury gold, enforced with many more boots on the ground, tanks, MRAPs,  transport and attack helicopters and intel assets, the civil construction projects might have a chance to raise the local standards of living and bring some of the population to the kerb at the edge of  the long road to modernity.  Rather like an extortionate loan, our current strategy of more or less minimal commitment sees us paying a lot more, over a longer period, than if we acceptthat we are at war and modify our economy to reflect and support the paradigm.

No one can fault the leadership of the troops in theatre, but on the home front, are our lions being led by donkeys once again?




2 responses

12 11 2009

Great post Dom. I more or less completely agree with your central thesis – but as I’m a tinkerer, you know I’ll have to build on a couple of your points as well.

First, I don’t believe that you can dismiss the entire Pashtun tribe as the enemy of enemies. But that said, there MUST be wider, and more decentralised power-sharing among Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups if there is ever to be a chance for peace and stability. This appears to be something that President Obama has understood, and why the final announcement on troop levels has been held off until a model for achieving this decentralisation strategy could be refined.

Secondly, I believe it wuld be more accurate to describe western societies as post-industrial, service-oriented societies. I think this is an important distinction to make, becuase it helps us better understand the vast gulf between “soft” mindset of western populations, politicians and soldiers – and the “hard” mindset of the Afghan population and insurgents.

This battle can be won, but it won’t be won in Kabul. It has to be won – and held- in each individual province, district and village through-out the land.


12 11 2009
Remembering… « Strike – Hold!

[…] That’s why I’m posting these thoughts the day after the “official” date. That’s also why I’m posting a link to Dom Hyde’s thoughts on why this year’s Rememberance Day has special significance… […]

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