At what point does Afghanistan stop being worth it?
Afghanistan has always been the worthwhile war, the one for which there was a genuine casus belli and the fighting of which was supposed to make Britain and the world safer. However, the deaths of seven more British soldiers in there this week raises the questions of just what is being achieved and at what cost.
Itâ€™s well over seven years since the Taliban were deposed from Afghanistanâ€™s government – longer than the entire duration of World War II – but still troops are dying, ministers are being accused of failing to provide adequate equipment to protect servicemen and women and there is no obvious end in sight.
To make matters worse, the deployment of American troops to Helmand province to launch a new offensive implies that the British forces are incapable – through numbers, equipment or whatever – of carrying out the task. And if they canâ€™t carry out their task, what are they doing there?
The publicâ€™s opinion of the Afghan deployment is not guaranteed to change before the election but it might. The recent increase in the rate at which soldiers are dying has certainly refocused the spotlight on it – so why is there no debate on the big questions?
Politicians tend to be very wary of opposing military actions while the troops are engaged in action; it looks dangerously like supporting the people the army is fighting and is the equivalent of telling grieving relatives that their boys died in vain. Yet to do otherwise runs the risk of the World War I dynamic: it becomes impossible to conclude the war because the results achieved donâ€™t justify the sacrifice made therefore greater results are demanded, necessitating greater sacrifice, which in turn requires still greater results before peace can be sought. There is an element of Emperorâ€™s New Clothes about it all.
Even so, when Liam Fox implicitly defines mission accomplished in phrases as broad as getting â€˜
Afghanistan able to look after its own internal and external securityâ€™, combined with â€˜reasonable governanceâ€™, it does look as if a subtle change is taking place in the debate, from how to provide the means to defeat the Taliban to how to get out of the place while neutralising as far as possible any remaining Taliban elements. After all, terrorist organisations are rarely defeated militarily; when they lose, it is usually a combination of social, economic and political reform for the population from which they draw their members combined with sufficient endurance to prove that their targets are not pushovers.The Lib Dems made a lot in 2005 of being against the Iraq War. Nick Clegg today has a piece in The Telegraph in which he could be preparing the ground for a policy change to favour withdrawal. He specifically rules out pulling out at this stage but then goes on to conclude by saying that it is the last chance to get the strategy right.
The terms of political debate have changed massively since 2005. The economy is now the foremost issue by some way, yet the continuing deaths in Afghanistan are a reminder that it is not the only issue and that Blairâ€™s wars have the potential to impact on a second general election.