Christopher Lee writes from London: Three British soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan policeman in the latest incident of ‘intended friendly fire’, as some call it. A few weeks before another British soldier was killed by an Afghan cop. All three were mentoring members of Afghan forces, including the gunmen who shot them. In other words, these men were trying to help the Afghan people and were killed in cold blood while doing it.
Afghan police are not exactly widely respected by the Afghans themselves. The British army is not over the moon with them either. But as it happens, highly trained and disciplined British soldiers have to deal with the Afghan police force that is easily influenced by the Taliban. Moreover, an armed Afghan cop undergoing training is often a dangerous individual, especially if he has a grudge against his mentors for, say, pointing out that he is doing something wrong – especially in front of others.
At a comfortable distance from these realities most independently-minded military analysts would shake their heads in sympathy with the families of those young soldiers and would restrain themselves from saying, we told you so. What would you expect? Why the cynicism? Because the UK government got involved in Afghanistan without thinking through what it was doing.
Now, the British are busting to get out of Afghanistan. The starting date to go is 2014, just before the next UK general election campaign gets under way. All political parties know two things about Afghanistan: firstly, the UK shouldn’t be there and, secondly, the electorate knows that and has known it longer than the politicians.
The shabby intellect that argued the case for NATO support for what was a Washington B-Grade movie idea should not all be dumped on politicians. There were plenty along the UK chiefs of staff corridors arguing for the British to go. Why? Because it added to the argument for maintaining British defence spending at something approaching Cold War levels. Yes, the military needs a war to justify its existence and budgets.
But the war in Afghanistan has been going on for much longer than even World War II. Okay, it’s not a state versus state confrontation and – perhaps this may sound insensitive – not that many British troops have been killed.
Having said that, proportionally the lower death rate is partly due to amazing improvements in on-the-spot medical assistance. Not long ago, before these improvements, many more lives would have been lost. What doesn’t grab the headlines is the seemingly endless line of horribly wounded. Unless it’s a picture of a victim of an IED gallantly carrying an Olympic torch, the great British public and most of its fearless media outlets, do not want to know about the gruesome consequences of even brilliantly tended wounds and in too many cases, the abject misery that follows.
The last Saturday in June was, in the UK, National Armed Forces Day. Throughout the British Isles, crowds turned out, often in lousy weather, to applauded servicemen and women and ex armed forces on parade in hundreds of villages, towns and cities. Covenants were signed promising a better deal for the forces. It’s tempting to believe that maybe, just maybe, the best deal would be to bring brave boys and brave girls home before the announced deadline.
But that is to argue against the coalition of the willing principle which successive British governments have tacitly agreed with the United States – still the UK’s most reliable ally. If that sounds like a rubbish get-out clause for not getting out now consider the following: to pull out prematurely the numbers the UK has deployed would completely throw a burden on the UK’s allies which they neither deserve nor which they could handle.
Premature withdrawal would thoroughly damage the already strained alliance that rightly or wrongly the UK relies on for a wider defence of homeland and global assets.
To go now would devalue the sacrifices the dead and thousands of terribly wounded have been asked to make.
What should be happening is this: every time a service man or woman dies or is maimed, the politicians, who sign up for conflicts, should put the photographs and names of the dead and wounded on the walls of their offices. Next time the clarion call comes to load the guns (and there will be many) those politicians should look at those pictures and ask themselves the obvious question: why are we doing this again?