Thursday 3 July 2008

Forgetting The North West Frontier

There is a grim irony in the fact that the poppy, the symbol of remembrance for those who die on the battlefield, should also be Afghanistan’s major cash crop, one that fuels the continuing war. In May and June, there were 16 deaths of British service personnel in Helmand during fighting with ‘terrorists’, who are in reality a mix of the resurgent Taliban and fighters from the Ishakzai and Alikozai clans that are heavily involved in the province's opium trade.

And already, the public has become inured to these deaths, to the repetition of the solemn but brief announcements on the news: another tragic death, another name, “and now over to Penny for the weather”. It’s as though we have stepped back in time, back to fleeting reports from the 1980s of casualties in the north of Ireland, but with Afghanistan now Britain’s new forgotten war. Like the Irish ‘Troubles’, it seems to much of the public like another conflict that is apparently infused with incomprehensible religious dogma, one where those killing British soldiers are reduced to sweeping single-word stereotypes (for ‘Republican’ we now have ‘Taliban’) that say nothing about the political circumstances that put soldiers in danger in the first place. It certainly seems like there is no end in sight.

But just as arguing that Iraq is America’s new Vietnam is just a rhetorical flourish (Iraq is in many ways far worse), so the similarities between Ireland and Afghanistan end. To begin with there were 1855 civilian deaths in the north of Ireland over nearly 30 years but according to the United Nations, in 2007 alone over 1,500 of the 8,000 conflict-related fatalities in Afghanistan, were of civilians. This week, it was reported that the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has risen by almost two-thirds in the first half of the year compared with 2007. But if soldiers’ deaths get scant attention, the deaths of ordinary Afghans gets none at all.

Meanwhile, the government that British soldiers are dying for is so corrupt that western governments, still donating billions of dollars to President Harmid Karzai, are apparently “losing patience” with his regime’s dismal record tackling corruption and drug-trafficking. The hypocrisy of this is, it should be said, quite breath-taking, for the same nations were responsible for creating an Afghan government made up of the warlords that are directly responsible for much of the violence, corruption and human rights abuses. But if Afghanistan, like Ireland, seems likely to result in another ‘Long War’, then it is because, like Ireland, the British government seems willing to continue with policies that have already failed. It is evident that Nato’s presence continues to destabilise not only Afghanistan but Pakistan too. Opium production is at a record level, despite the claims from Gordon Brown that more Afghan provinces are now poppy-free, leading his own diplomats to warn that “the drugs trade is fuelling the insurgency” and will extend the war for years. Yet all the British government has to offer is an even larger deployment of British troops.

The war in Afghanistan began as an action of terrible vengeance for the 11 September attack on the US. But it has become Britain’s terrible war. Until British soldiers are withdrawn, they will continue to die unnecessarily, their names all too quickly forgotten by all but their grieving relatives, along with thousands of innocent Afghan citizens whose names we will never know. Western powers may counter by saying that we cannot abandon the country's people, although they have largely done so themselves by handlng over the population to the corrupt administration in Kabul that British forces help to maintain. But those of us who opposed the war mustn't forget about Afghanistan, no matter how bad the situation in Iraq continues to be or however possible it may seem that the US intends to turn next on Iran. Rather, the importance of not forgetting for us means saying that seven years of failure is long enough.

It's really is time for an end to all the needless deaths. It's time to the immediate return of British troops.

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