Tuesday 8 September 2009

How many lives is Afghanistan worth?

In my pessimistic way, I have often dreamt of returning to my house to find it a smoking ruin, as a result of some momentary inattention to detail by the fighter pilots who regularly train overhead.

Luckily, in my nightmare, a policeman always places a consoling hand on my shoulder and assures me that Biggles ejected safely before the plane came down. So that’s all right, then. And at least I feel reasonably sure that the RAF is on my side.

But what if foreign airmen – say Afghans, to pluck an example at random – came along and flattened my house with a bomb? It would also be an accident, “collateral damage” while they were trying to pick off some bloke with a beard and a funny hat who was holed up in a cave in the Cheviots while he masterminded terrorist atrocities overseas.

Would I laugh off their little mistake, accepting that it could happen to anyone, and feel eager to help them tracking down that nasty man? Or would it make me wish more power to his terrorist elbow to get my own back?

Perhaps it is perverse of me, but I suspect the latter. Which rather undermines the main plank of last week’s argument from both Gordon and Dave for our presence in Afghanistan, namely keeping terrorism off our own streets.

There is also the objective of making Afghanistan a functioning, Western-style democracy. After the triumph of the recent, not at all rigged or corrupt, Presidential elections, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website assures us that “Parliamentary and district council elections are scheduled to take place in 2010.”

How strange that we should be spilling blood to create district councils in another country, when the Government has just casually abolished our own. I have tried manfully to picture Afghan councillors politely debating whether to move to fortnightly wheelie bin collections, and working on their expenses claims, but have enjoyed only limited success.

We are also training and supporting the Afghan armed forces until they are strong enough to take over from us, overlooking the detail that the country would never be able to generate the tax revenues needed to pay for them. We are clamping down on the world’s biggest supplier of opium, which will obviously be why drugs are now unobtainable on our streets. We are protecting the rights of women, by keeping out the evil Taliban, who threatened to kill girls seeking education, and replacing them with a cuddly, liberal regime which has just made it legal for men to starve wives who deny them their conjugal rights.

It was entirely understandable, after 9/11, that the world’s greatest military power should feel the urge to give someone a powerful retaliatory kicking, and attacking Afghanistan with its Al Qaeda bases at least made a little more sense than invading Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

But terrorists can and will operate anywhere (it is widely argued that the destruction of the World Trade Center was actually planned in Hamburg) and our continuing involvement in Afghanistan strikes me as being more likely to win converts to the anti-Western cause than to deter them.

In short, I question whether whatever we think we are doing in Afghanistan is worth the bones of one British soldier, let alone hundreds. And when we leave, whether in five years or 40, as one general recently predicted, I suspect that we will do so not with Kandahar District Council happily twinned with Sunderland and beating its recycling targets, but with our tails between our legs and no clear sense of achievement. Just like the Russians did in 1989. Not to mention the previous great power that barged in thinking it could sort the place out once and for all. Who was that again?

Oh yes, it was us.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.