The defeatism of the anti-war movement

Instead of opposing the war in Afghanistan on principle, the anti-war movement has merely exploited Western failures.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

For the British anti-war movement, led by the Stop the War Coalition, the conflict in Afghanistan seems to have been addressed only as an afterthought. The invasion of Iraq was always the main source of anti-war zeal; its story was more politically compelling, the actions far easier to condemn. The litany of wrongs associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq trip off the anti-war campaigners’ tongues. There was the absent Weapons of Mass Destruction, the refusal of the UN to approve the war, and, of course, the supposedly hidden, material reason for the invasion: oil.

By comparison, the war in Afghanistan never appeared as easy to criticise. Launched in 2001 in putative retaliation for 9/11, it was apparently just. Little wonder that while over a million marched in London against the proposed invasion of Iraq in February 2003, making a hero of weapons inspector Hans Blix and a fetish of UN legislation, its predecessor in the war against terror prompted no such mass outrage.

Eight years on, however, with the Iraq occupation drawing to an ignominious close, American and British troops are still waging an increasingly difficult war within Afghanistan. Although it might not have been the original focus of Stop the War ire, there’s no doubting that Afghanistan, as a small demonstration outside Downing Street on Monday evening showed, has, for the time being, moved to centre stage.

Protesters outside Downing Street.

‘No more killing, no more lies’ chanted the crowd; ‘Jobs not bombs’ read the placards; ‘More civilian casualties than 9/11’ shouted a banner. The tourists pushing past to take snaps of No10 merely added to the surreality of the demo. Was it really the conflict in Afghanistan they were protesting about? There was a nagging sense that such multi-purpose slogans were honed in opposition to Iraq, and simply recycled for the Afghanistan conflict. In her crowd address, Lindsey German, the StWC leader, even invoked oil as a reason for the conflict. What might have been an unenlightening explanation in relation to the Iraq war becomes knuckle-headed in terms of Afghanistan. Surely not even the most materially driven of caricatured imperialists would conduct an eight-year-long war over an oil pipeline? That must be one hell of a pipe.

The paucity of the Stop the War argument derives from its opportunism. While the Iraq War could be mined endlessly because of the palpable fissures in the ruling elite’s attitude towards it, from those who opposed its illegality to those who thought the justifications were wrong, the conflict in Afghanistan has offered no such easy pickings. It was a just about just war. Before the united front of Western elites in the wake of 9/11, the Stop the War Coalition and its ilk could gain little traction – that was until recently.

As the ever growing tapestry of reasons for the British presence in Afghanistan has unravelleled, so the anti-war movement has picked up the thread, turning each of the ruling class’s failures into anti-war victories. ‘[The invasion of Afghanistan] was originally launched by George Bush and Tony Blair’, German writes on her Stop the War Coalition blog, ‘in order to capture Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Its other justification was humanitarian intervention, including Laura Bush and Cherie Blair calling for war to help liberate women. None of these aims has been even remotely successful’. As for later arguments that it is part of a war on British-based terrorism or that is about protecting democracy, German is simply sceptical: ‘These arguments might have more purchase if the war were a few months old, but it has been going on for eight years.’

Here, the reasons for the war are opposed not on principle but on account of their failure. If these putative aims had been ‘remotely successful’ would that have been okay? Would the war have been justified if women had been ‘liberated’ or if bin Laden had been captured? What there is here by the way of political opposition amounts to little more than an exploitation of Western failure. It is defeatism posturing as political argument.

Anti-war protest banners.

Little wonder that many placards and chants at Monday’s demonstration merely echoed the broader, national mood of please-bring-our-boys-home defeat. A Stop the War letter delivered to Downing Street captured this sentiment, beginning, not with an attack on the government’s pro-interventionist policy, but with the ‘tragic deaths’ of 15 soldiers in the past week, three of whom, we are told, ‘were barely 18 years old’. Writing in the Mirror, German concluded: ‘This is a pointless conflict and that is why the deaths of these young soldiers are tragic because they are not fighting to defend their country… Many of the soldiers killed in the past few days were teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them.’

In the absence of an argument from political principle, it is fitting that critics of the war in Afghanistan should fall back upon mawkish rhetoric. Whether it is ‘our boys’ or the Afghan people, the anti-war argument seems incapable of seeing those involved in the conflict as anything other than victims, objects of oil-questing forces beyond their control. Aside from highlighting the futility of the conflict, the anti-war movement can offer nothing. There is no defence of, indeed no recognition of, self-determination, and conversely no critique of the Western interventionist creed that led to and legitimised the invasion in the first place. The call to ‘bring the troops home’ stems from a sense that their presence can only make a horrific mess worse. This is a world away from saying that they should never have been there at all.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained why he is anti-intervention, but not anti-war. Brendan O’Neill wondered whatever happened to the anti-war movement. Nathalie Rothschild saw a fancy-dress protest against Israel’s war in Gaza as fuelled by narcissism rather than real solidarity with the Palestinians, while Tim Black thought the protests were based less on the brotherhood of man than on the victimhood of man. Or read more at
spiked issue War on Terror.

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Topics Politics


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