Afghanistan: why there’s no anti-war movement

The lack of public protest against the current conflict has its roots in the inadequacy of opposition to the Iraq war.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Seven years ago this week, London saw upwards of one million people turn out in protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq. Whistles were blown, placards were waved, and the capital was brought to a standstill. Not even during the Vietnam War had anti-war protests been quite so visible.

The war in Afghanistan, however, has never generated a similar outpouring of protest. In fact, in the autumn of 2001, as US and UK troops rolled into Afghanistan, barely a murmur of dissent was raised anywhere in the Western world. In fact, in the nine years since – nine public inquiry-rich years in which criticism of those who led the Iraq invasion has, if anything, intensified – the war in Afghanistan has trundled on, with criticism and protest on mute. As John Kampfner, writing in the Guardian, put it: ‘How can a war that has taken the lives of more UK service personnel than any other in half a century be met with such ambivalence?… Why are we not responding to Afghanistan in the way we did to Iraq?’

What lies behind this seeming contradiction in public sentiment? Some have pointed out that the war in Afghanistan was simply that little bit more just. This sense of the Afghan War’s legitimacy and the Iraq War’s illegitimacy has certainly played a role.

While the Iraq War was attacked from the UK government’s own front and back benches, including by former cabinet ministers Clare Short and Robin Cook, the invasion of Afghanistan seemed almost beyond criticism. The attack was launched in the aftermath of 9/11 on the dubious pretext that Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden was based at the time, was complicit in the terror attacks. To criticise the invasion was to criticise America, a nation at that point deemed to be in mourning (and not, as it was to be perceived by 2003, as a neo-imperial aggressor). The US was regarded as being within its rights to invade Afghanistan because it was the victim, a status that meant neither conservatives nor radicals felt comfortable questioning it. As Mick Hume has pointed out elsewhere on spiked, such was the semblance of justness hanging over the invasion of Afghanistan that wannabe-radical Michael Moore could, in his 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, call for the removal of troops from Iraq in order to help out with the war in Afghanistan (see Afghan questions: eight years too late, by Mick Hume).

But this tale of two wars tells us less about the intrinsic justifications for either conflict than the context in which they were waged. In 2001, 9/11 had given President Bush’s US administration, and by association, Tony Blair’s UK government, a just cause. Moral posturing and overblown rhetoric flourished. By 2003, however, the righteous lustre conferred upon the West by the attack on the Twin Towers was virtually exhausted. In its place, the pre-9/11 disconnect between disenfranchised electorates and politicians in search of a purpose had reasserted itself. The attempt to grab back some authority, to regain moral purpose through the invasion of Iraq, played itself out in a context dominated not by a sense of mission, but of public cynicism.

And it was this mood of cynicism, this anti-political climate, that infused criticism of the Iraq War, not a forthright criticism of militarism. There was the constant talk of the dodgy dossier deceit of Blair’s government, the machinations of the neocon cabal around Bush, and a general sense that these were people who could not be trusted. Our leaders were, in some undefined but invidious way, opposed to the public; the terms of opposition to the Iraq War drew upon a definite anti-political climate at home. It was not political solidarity with the civilians of another country that mobilised millions against the Iraq War, nor clear arguments against military intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation that were voiced in the amassed, placard-waving throngs. No, what got people motivated, what pushed vast numbers to protest was a suspicion and distrust of the political elite. The enduring slogan of the time was ‘Not In My Name’, a testament to political estrangement, not anti-militarist zeal.

That the opposition to the Iraq War owed more to the climate of cynicism in the West than what was going on in the Middle East is inadvertently hinted at in Kampfner’s Guardian article: ‘In contrast to Iraq’, he writes, ‘the UK government has been relatively straight with the public about its intentions [in Afghanistan]’. Given the sheer number of rotating reasons provided for the war in Afghanistan, from women’s liberation to national security, Kampfner is aware of the absurdity of this statement. But what it captures, what he is recalling, is the sheer depth of public cynicism at the time of the invasion of Iraq – the overwhelming sense that the government was not being straight with the public over its oil-grabbing intentions.

Ironically, the inadequacy of opposition to the Iraq War helps to explain the dearth of anti-war protest around Afghanistan now. As the smattering of Stop the War demos last year showed, protest consisted of little more than recycled slogans from Iraq protests (see The defeatism of the anti-war movement, by Tim Black). Even the arguments against the conflict sounded familiar, with oil, or rather an oil pipeline, cited as the real reason behind the war. The terms of oppositon are cynical, the arguments conspiratorial. And they certainly do not amount to a coherent opposition to the war in Afghanistan.

What’s missing in today’s anti-war movement is not something ineffably present back in 2003. Rather what is missing today was also missing then; that is, a genuine opposition to purpose-giving militarism, an argument in favour of sovereignty, and, at its heart, a conviction that the only people capable of ‘enacting regime change’ or of ‘liberating women’ are the people who actually live and work in these societies themselves.

Sadly, since too many critics of the Iraq War were – and still are – perfectly happy to sign up to the creed of humanitarian intervention, whether in Kosovo or, initially, Afghanistan, such a principled stand seems unlikely. Instead it seems that, for apparent opponents of the Afghanistan or Iraq conflicts, the real problem is that these messy, bloody conflicts have tarnished the ideal of humanitarian intervention. Despite the anti-war pose, they remain militarists at heart.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume saw NATO’s offensive in southern Afghanistan as a model of how not to win a war, and argued that the West has defeated itself. He also looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the Afghan state. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

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