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Martin Parsons: What sort of war are we fighting in Afghanistan?

By Martin Parsons

Unless this question is clearly answered first, we will be in danger of lacking clear war aims (which appears to be the case) and appropriate political and military strategies to achieve them, and still less will we be able to bookmark on the calendar any particular dates for the end of our involvement in hostilities.

Broadly speaking, in the last century there have been two sorts of war Britain has been involved in:

  1. Wars that have the potential to be ended by negotiation. Arguably, the First World War fell into this category. In fact, some historians have suggested that had a world statesman of the calibre of former Conservative Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury been around, then the war itself might have been avoided.
  2. However, there are other wars where the intentions of the enemy are such that the only safe outcome for us is either a) a holding operation that neutralises the enemy in at least the short term by containing them (something that arguably we are currently doing with the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan); or b) in the longer term total military and political defeat of the enemy. This was the case in World War Two where Nazi ideology led to genocide, and attempts to impose Nazi rule and ideology on the rest of Europe and elsewhere meant that there was no safe alternative but to continue the war until the Nazis were totally removed from power.

I have argued before that one cannot negotiate with the Taliban or with other Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan such as Hezb-i-Islami. I speak from personal experience: as an aid worker in Afghanistan ,I had to negotiate with senior members of both organisations.

Neither can they safely be appeased, any more than Hitler could be appeased in the 1930s. In fact, the parallels there are quite striking, these organisations have an ideology that believes the rest of the world should be invited to submit to being governed by, and if they refuse, should have war declared on them until they do submit; they allow no dissenting opinions – murdering and torturing their own people; they run their own secret police; dispense what is in practice summary justice… and even made religious minorities wear yellow cloth badges pinned to their clothes.

Moreover, they have shown utter ruthlessness in their craving for power. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, leader of one of the Hezb-i-Islami factions, is probably the only prime minister in modern world history to have bombed and shelled his own capital city into ruins, because he wanted to be president, rather than merely prime minister. Significantly, he has been lurking in the shadows biding his time while the Taliban fight the Afghan National Army and Western coalition forces. However, when coalition forces withdraw, make no mistake, he will be there.

The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, but there is a sense in which World War Two was won on the playing fields, or rather in the debating chambers, of Westminster. It was there that in the 1930s Winston Churchill led a war weary nation that desperately wanted to avoid a repeat of WWI to believe that Britain should again be prepared to make the highest sacrifices that involved human life, money and moral courage. He faced many critics, not least among his own party who saw balancing the budget as the most important need of the hour.

It took great moral courage to take the stand he did. Yet there is a very real sense in which wars are won – or lost – by political courage.  Great victories come through great battles and great battles require great courage – in this case both moral and political.

History will give its verdict on the news from Washington this week – President Obama’s announcement of a withdrawal of 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan ahead of next year’s US presidential elections. Leaders of great countries need to remember that they are writing future world history, not merely seeking to influence election results.

If a major Western leader has judged that the conflict in which we are engaged in Afghanistan is one that can simply be negotiated to an end, then there must also be an underlying assumption that whilst, like the First World War, there may be pride, tribalism, ambition, militarism, there is, however, no lasting threat to our own security from an evil expansionist ideology.

If that is indeed the case, then based on both academic study and personal experience of living in Afghanistan during the time of Taliban rule, I respectfully beg to differ.


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