First Blog on Heritage, Culture and Tourism in Pakistan
Enough. This senseless folly in Afghanistan must stop
Fifteen British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last ten days, bringing the total to 179 and surpassing the number of UK deaths in Iraq. The troop “surge” which was meant to pacify Helmand province has become a nightmare for the British army. This unwinnable war must stop now. All British troops must be withdrawn to prevent any more futile deaths, and to stop the carnage suffered by the Afghan people. [Derek Wall, A British blogger and a green activist]
When something you’re doing is going badly wrong, the options are always limited. You can carry on, spade sinking deeper into the mire; you can take your shovel somewhere else; or you can take heed of the solid 42% demanding withdrawal in today’s Guardian/ICM poll – and just stop digging. There’s no “indefinite” hope left around Afghanistan for Nato troops now. There are 184 young British lives lost, and counting. Inescapably, the long overdue moment to stop has arrived – because none of the reasons for ploughing on makes the slightest sense.
But surely this war is about destroying “an incubator of terrorism” and thus “about the future of Britain itself”? Thank you, foreign secretary. Surely “denying Helmand to the Taliban in the long term” will help “defeat this vicious insurgency and prevent the return of al-Qaida”? Thank you, prime minister. I haven’t the heart to quote Barack Obama on the twin towers and “impunity” in similar vein. So much intelligent promise, such a grisly mistake.
The world is full of places where al-Qaida can hide and operate.Somalia, Sudan, twisting back streets from Jakarta to Casablanca. You don’t need the full military monty to wreak death and destruction. A few deluded kids from Bradford will serve quite as well. And, anyway, to quote Gordon Brown again: “Three-quarters of the most serious plots investigated by our British authorities have links to al-Qaida in Pakistan.” Downing Street’s “crucible of terrorism” is somewhere east of the Durand Line. Our soldiers are fighting and dying in the wrong country – and that’s the idiocy that has got to stop.
In fact, in so many ways, Afghanistan isn’t a country at all:think five major ethnic groups, six major languages, and dozens of local district tongues; think an agglomeration of city states and fiefdoms that remind you of Europe’s hundred years’ war; think sadly about sophisticated, clever, resilient people, good at handling 21st-century weaponry in a society whose structures haven’t made it past 1400 yet. It’s a sideshow, a hopeless sideshow. It is also – as Farzana Shaikh makes clear in her brilliant new book, MakingSense of Pakistan – just another victim of the batty, contorted rivalry between New Delhi and Islamabad for subcontinental influence.
Why suppose that clearing the Taliban out of Helmand for a few weeks or months will solve any problems – as opposed to cost many more lives? While their fighters can flit back to Pakistan, it’s a mug’s game – but a mug’s game, too, if they merely stay in Pakistan and run their schemes from there. The crucial mistake, made almost unthinkingly by both Brown and Obama, is to conflate that infinitely porous border, with its caves, ravines and hiding holes, into the heart of the problem. It’s not. It is merely an area of extreme military difficulty, a reason why “search and destroy” doesn’t find much to destroy. The real problem lies far deeper than that.
Pakistan, as Shaikh argues eloquently, is an uncertain construct of a country, an idea that hasn’t quite worked, a would-be democracy where (25 years ago) the army got extreme religion in order to make itself more like a legitimate government – and where its military schemers literally invented the Taliban, first to drive the Russians out of the place next door, and then to keep Indian influence there at bay. (The obsession that keeps this nation together is India, India.)
But can the plotters who invented the Talibannow see their benighted baby die? Yes, they can. That is happening already inside Pakistan as the army finally abandons its reservations and moves wholeheartedly into action after the recapture of Swat. The people of Pakistan overwhelmingly know now who their enemy is. They want the bombings and killings that target them, in their streets and homes, stopped. And if, with a lot of help from New Delhi and a lot of active diplomacy from Washington, the historically lethal confrontation with India can be pushed into history, what is there left for the Taliban inside Afghanistan, a puppet state without its old puppet masters?
They can rule, to be sure: but only until the foe that has destroyed countless regimes before them– Afghanistan itself, intractable, restless, chaotic, ungovernable – destroys them, too. If Taliban land is cordoned off, isolated, consigned to its own devices, then it won’t survive for long. And if the Pakistani army, without constant western intervention, is left to do what it has to do, then Islamabad opinion will stay focused on its own future, under so much threat from within.
The true war on terror, as we glimpsed on the streets of Tehran a couple of weeks ago, is about hearts and minds, not soldiers dead in a ditch. The hearts and the minds that matter here are Pakistani ones. And the bloodiest delusion of the lot is to think that small surges in Helmand far away can win anything but yet more blood.