Afghanistan: the war for New Labour’s soul
All of those who are suddenly asking ‘Why are we in Afghanistan?’ should look for the answer, not in Helmand or Kabul, but at home.
Following the deaths of eight British soldiers in two days in Afghanistan, everyone is suddenly asking: what are we doing there? Eight years too late, commentators and political oppositionists are raising questions about the casus belli of the war, trying to decipher why ‘our boys’ are still in the hot, dusty, dangerous terrain of Helmand, and whether it is worth it.
All of them are looking for the casus belli in the wrong place. You will not find the reason for Britain’s continued presence in Afghanistan in the hills of Helmand or on the streets of Kabul. Rather the casus belli is to be found here at home, in the offices and meeting rooms of Whitehall and amongst the increasingly isolated and panicked officials of the New Labour government. The ‘case for war’, the reason why British forces remain, is the desperate need and desire of New Labour to prevent its authority from unravelling entirely. Britain stays in Afghanistan, not in order to achieve any of the various goals invented by officials and observers, but in order to project some semblance of authority, steadfastness, will, to try to do in a foreign field what New Labour has failed to do at home: behave like a government.
The war in southern Afghanistan has become, explicitly, a test of the British state’s authority, with, on one side, desperate government officials ‘staying the course’ simply for the sake of staying the course, and, on the other side, defeatist opposition politicians and commentators cynically using the Afghan debacle to try to intensify the mood of anti-New Labour disgruntlement and exhaustion. Caught in the middle of this battle between the Desperate and Defeatist wings of the British elite, which is being played out in its southern fields and deserts, Afghanistan remains the basket case of world affairs.
Right from the start in October 2001, the West’s Afghan adventure has been a war in search of a war aim. Launched in the aftermath of the shock of 9/11, by America, Britain and NATO forces, this was a mission that lacked a mission statement, a military exercise with no clear military goal or endpoint. Washington and London, assisted by numerous other nations, were keen to reassert their global authority post-9/11 but had little clue about what their authority represented or how it might best be projected. It is striking that, in the wake of 9/11, then US President George W Bush declared ‘We are at war’, but didn’t, or couldn’t, say who with. An instinctive desire to be ‘at war’, to be engaged in an assertive international mission, came first, and was followed only later by the movement of forces to Afghanistan and by various cut-and-paste casus bellis.
There is an unnamed, even unnameable, existential nature to the West’s Afghan venture, yet it is continually papered over by ever-changing mission statements. Never has a war come with so many different justifications, not a single one of which has been convincing. First, in October 2001, we were told that the war was about hunting down those responsible for 9/11 and for international terrorism more broadly. Yet while there were some geographical associations between Afghanistan and 9/11 – Osama bin Laden was based in Afghanistan when he offered funding to the planners of the attacks on America – there is no convincing political or moral link between Afghanistan and 9/11. The plane attacks were masterminded and executed by wealthy Saudis and Egyptians, many of whom had lived or studied in the West and who were infused with contemporary Western attitudes of victimhood and modernity-bashing (1). Chasing down the Taliban, an intensely local, myopic, backward movement with no interest in executing international stunts, for what happened in Manhattan was a displacement activity of historic proportions.
When the hunt for the Taliban and al-Qaeda ended in failure (both Mullah Omar and bin Laden escaped) a new casus belli emerged: Western forces were in Afghanistan, we were told, to liberate burqa-clad women from brutal Taliban men. It was renamed a ‘war for women’s liberation’ (2). When, unsurprisingly, the destruction of much of Afghanistan and the subsequent re-emergence of tribal warlords to take the place of the mostly dispersed Taliban did not improve women’s position, and in some instances worsened it, another casus belli was wheeled out: the war in Afghanistan was about protecting the West from the scourge of heroin. It was renamed a ‘war on drugs’ (3). In 2006 Britain advertised itself as ‘leading the anti-narcotics campaign’ in Afghanistan and sent 3,000 troops to help local Afghans destroy poppy fields in the Helmand province (4).
When the destruction of poppy fields failed to solve the world’s drug problem, which has its origins in the demand side of decadent Western societies rather than in the supply side in Afghanistan, the war became about ‘promoting democracy’ (5). In 2005 and 2006, Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, became Western governments’ favourite foreign politician; he was praised as an ‘inspiration’ and we were told that American and British troops had to remain in Afghanistan to shore up the ‘progress’ he had made (6). When it became clear that Karzai had very little authority outside of Kabul in the vacuums created by the West’s routing of the Taliban, and that what authority he did enjoy was secured through widespread corruption, yet another casus belli was invented: in a flashback to 2001, we are now told, by both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, that the Afghan venture is a ‘war for security’ designed to protect America from another 9/11 and Britain from another 7/7. The fact that 7/7 had even less to do with Afghanistan than 9/11 – in fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with Afghanistan, having been carried out by four Britons from normal British communities – is not important in the relentless churn of casus bellis.
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From ‘war on terror’ to ‘war for women’s liberation’ to ‘war on drugs’ to ‘war for democracy’ to ‘war to prevent terror’… The constantly changing casus belli is revealing: it speaks to Western governments that feel a powerful need to remain in Afghanistan, to pursue missions in foreign fields far away from the complexities, confusions and crises of domestic politics, yet which lack any coherent sense of purpose or even any overarching language with which to express their aims. A war born of an existential instinct to assert something about the West is continually presented and re-presented as a war for some fleeting, fashionable, unrealisable aim. The real case for war, however, has nothing to do with poppies in Helmand or women in Kandahar and everything to do with the need of London and Washington to escape problems at home by executing military stunts abroad.
It is against this backdrop that the British handwringing about Afghanistan is taking place today. As the violence increases in Helmand, and the isolation and disorientation of New Labour intensifies at home, so the existential nature of the Afghan War becomes more explicit. What we have now is New Labour officials vocally committing themselves to the ‘Afghan mission’ purely to shore up what tiny bit of governmental authority they have left, and, even worse than that, critics of the government using Afghanistan to create a mood of defeatism, victimhood and incompetence which they hope will push New Labour over the edge. It is history repeated as despicable farce: where the Afghan War was launched to satisfy London and Washington’s need for a mission, it now continues for the political benefit of the deeply unpopular Brown or is turned into an electoral tool by the deeply cynical David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
For Brown and his foreign secretary David Miliband – who said this week ‘The mission for us is clear… to make us safer in Britain’ – Afghanistan has become the final outpost of New Labour’s flagging authority. Where the Iraq War ended in scandal and inquiry after inquiry, and where virtually every domestic initiative of the electorally unpopular New Labour government is either shelved or laughed out by the Lords, the physical presence of British troops in Afghanistan provides some sliver of evidence that New Labour is doing something, somewhere. In his various statements on Afghanistan, Brown talks vaguely about ‘the mission’, ‘getting the job done’ and ‘the need for perseverance’ (7), because he is interested, not in the complex reality of what is happening in southern Afghanistan, but in using the British presence there to project an image of, at the very least, New Labour usefulness.
New Labour senses that to let go of Afghanistan now would finally unravel its claim to authority. Where it could relatively easily withdraw from Iraq, an unpopular war that divided the ruling elites of the West and for which the blame can be cynically heaped on to Washington, New Labour has invested too much manpower, moral posturing and claims to international leadership in the Afghan venture to be able to withdraw without suffering serious political injury. The fact that there was a more widespread Western ruling-elite consensus about the need to invade Afghanistan, and the fact that the conflict never caused as much public agitation or animosity as the Iraq War did, makes it a still attractive ‘mission’ for New Labour to defend and promote.
Yet if there is one thing more unappetising than Brown’s clinging to the Afghan War, it is the cynical exploitation of the war’s failures by his political opponents and media critics. What is striking about the current criticism of the Afghan venture, sparked in large part by the eight British deaths, is its utter lack of analysis or political principle. In Cameron and Clegg’s questioning of the Afghan mission and the media’s widespread handwringing about the suffering of ‘our boys’, there is no attempt whatsoever to explain or understand what is driving the war or what kind of conflicts are taking place on the ground in southern Afghanistan; instead there is an explicit attempt to create a mood of defeatism in relation to Afghanistan, which, many hope, will defeat New Labour itself.
Politicians and commentators ask ‘why are we in Afghanistan?’ and ‘what is the point?’, as if they have only just discovered that it’s a missionless venture (8). They focus on the British military’s lack of decent equipment and present young British soldiers as the pathetic victims of wicked New Labour. It may well be true that the military lacks equipment, and it might be worth asking what British soldiers are dying for, but the focus on such things – on military incompetence, victimised teenagers, the pointlessness of it all – reveals a so-called opposition to the war based not on rigorous thinking or principled critique but on the worst kind of shoulder-shrugging defeatism. It is worth recalling the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.’ (9)
Between the ugly war still pursued by New Labour and the even worse promotion of defeatism by its critics, between the exploitation of Afghanistan by the Desperate wing and by the Defeatist wing of the British elite, there has been no serious debate, no serious analysis, no concern with the rights and liberty of the Afghan people. Instead, 130 years after the British Empire first began to unravel in Afghanistan, now the very British state unravels there too. All of this should remind us of the importance of making the principled anti-interventionist argument in relation to Western militarism overseas – not in order to save ‘our boys’ or hide at home out of fear and defeatism, but in the name of the democratic rights of foreign peoples and of tackling domestic political crises head-on rather than projecting them ‘over there’.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) See Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion, Elaheh Rostami-Povey, Zed Books, 2007
(3) Afghanistan’s new jihad targets poppy production, Christian Science Monitor, 16 May 2005
(4) Afghan province to provide one-third of world’s heroin, Guardian, 14 June 2006
(5) Bush praises Afghanistan progress, BBC News, 1 March 2006
(6) Bush praises Afghanistan progress, BBC News, 1 March 2006
(7) Brown defends UK fight in Afghanistan, CNN, 14 July 2009
(8) What are we doing in Afghanistan?, GQ Daily, 14 July 2009
(9) Dissertations and Discussions, John Stuart Mill, 1867