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Commentary 336 – November 2009
07 November 2009 (19:06:43)


Gordon Brown managed a moment of dignity in parliament when he read the names of British troops killed in Afghanistan during the summer.

With public support for the war sliding, and even the habitually pro-Tory and pro-American Times newspaper saying, “our troops cannot continue to die to defend a corrupt regime”, it cannot be long before Afghanistan becomes a general election issue.

The Liberal Democrats at least now have a policy, as eloquently set out by its author, Professor Paul Reynolds, in this issue of Liberator.

This policy would be an entirely sensible approach were the party taking a position on a conflict in which Britain was involved only diplomatically. Reynolds is surely right that Afghanistan is a regional problem that will not be contained without a wider settlement of the multiple tensions in southern Asia.

But Britain is up to its neck in Afghanistan, and this makes it as much a matter of domestic politics as of foreign policy.

As Reynolds notes: “The absence of any major UK party calling for immediate withdrawal looks odd – especially given majority public opinion against the war.”

Quite. While Lib Dem policy does not look as odd as it did before conference, it must look unsatisfactory to the large segment of public opinion that thinks British lives and money should no longer be thrown into the gaping pit that is Afghanistan unless there is a clear objective and some convincing path towards securing it.

The problem is not that party policy is wrong in itself – far from it – but that it was not designed to help the party do the political job it will sooner or later face of telling the public whether the Lib Dems wish to continue this war or not.

A war with no discernable strategy – other than counter-productive ones – and no real goal beyond a desire to bottle the Taliban up in mountains where they can do limited harm, is hardy likely to command public support, and particularly not with the almost nightly parade of dead soldiers on television.

Labour’s assertion that we are fighting to keep Britain’s streets safe has become an insult to the public’s intelligence. When lethal bomb plots can be hatched in Leeds, Afghanistan hardly has much bearing on British streets other than in the sense that the war may be a provocation to some Muslims.

So if Britain is not fighting in Afghanistan to keep its own streets safe, what is it fighting for?

Not for what most people would consider as democracy, given President Karzai had to be strong-armed by influential foreigners to re-run his monstrously corrupted election.

Are we fighting for secularism and women’s rights? The last Afghan government to take an interest in such matters was the communist one overthrown by fundamentalist militias armed by the west. It is hard to see any real commitment by the Karzai government to these laudable objectives.

Are we fighting because, having started, America cannot, even under as well-intentioned a leader as President Obama, see a way to stop without being humiliated, and so will fight on hoping that something or other turns up to get it off the hook, with its British ally in tow along the way?

Britain cannot long fight for a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy, dependent for its survival on foreign armies and dubious warlords, without public opinion turning hostile, just as American public opinion eventually ended the Vietnam war.

If the Lib Dems’ new policy stance were to come to fruition (not something the party has any real influence over), it would undoubtedly be good for that part of the world and for the UK.

But with a general election looming and an angry public wanting to know why recession-hit Britain is pouring blood and treasure into Helmand, the party will, barring some unforeseen change in Afghanistan, have to say whether it wants to stay or go.

It is hard to see any political reward in ‘stay’, but it is easy to see further voter disenchantment if all three main parties continue to say nothing clear about the war.


The ability to win public hearts and minds is not among the strong points of pro-Europeans. If it were, they would long ago have sidelined irrational Europhobia.

So unless the European Union really wants to shoot itself in the foot by antagonising Britain’s notoriously sceptic voters, its governments should not award the new presidency to Tony Blair.

Blair’s record as a lying, blood-soaked, war criminal on Iraq ought alone to rule him out from holding any public post again.

But in this case, so too should his European record. His decade in office was spent cynically stirring against the EU to appease the Daily Mail. When he could have used his huge majority and popularity in 1997 to lead public opinion away from the EU-hating of the Major years, he instead stoked it for his own short-term ends. No pro-European should want to see Blair anywhere near power in the EU.

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