War is a lot like football isn’t it? Well General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the British Defence Staff seems to think so. Yesterday he told the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) that the British Armed Forces were experiencing a manpower shortage that may end up excluding us from ‘ the Premier League of smart power.’
And as the British ruling elite prepares to transform the World War I centennial into a year of orchestrated war-worship and patriotic-militarist spectacle, a new event looks set to take its place in the stirring pageantry, in the unlikely shape of an England-Afghanistan football match at Wembley.
This fixture, it does take place, will coincide with the withdrawal of British troops from Helmand province next year, and is apparently the brainchild of former England striker Michael Owen, who accompanied Cameron during his Christmas visit to the troops for some striking photo opportunities.
Lord Snooty, as thoughtful and wise as ever, and always eager to jump on whatever bandwagon comes trundling towards him, has described Owen’s proposal as a ‘very nice idea.’ The Daily Mail has compared this ‘peace match’ to the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’, when British and German troops briefly fraternized in the trenches before dutifully returning to the slaughter.
This comparison doesn’t bear out too much scrutiny, given that England will be playing against their nominal allies, rather than the enemies they have been fighting for the last eight years.
Nor does peace have anything to do with a political gimmick, whose main purpose will be to help propagate Cameron’s fatuous claim this week that British troops have accomplished their ‘mission’ in Afghanistan, and provided the country with a ‘basic level of security…so that Afghanistan doesn’t become a haven for terror.’
This is a lie and a delusion on so many levels. In November last year, a report by a British Ministry of Defence thinktank concluded that the NATO war in Afghanistan was ‘unwinnable.’ Many observers have reached similar conclusions. Yet rather than admit to the strategic incoherence and bloody futility of this enterprise, the Coalition, like the badgers, has simply moved the goalposts, the better to prepare the public for more of the same.
Whatever a ‘basic level’ of security is, it is difficult to see how it has been achieved in a country where Taliban attacks are rising not falling; where Afghan security forces are reportedly taking up to 100 casualties a week, and losing soldiers and police even in parts of the country where the Taliban were previously thought to have no strong presence.
The Taliban resurgence owes a great deal to the fact that Afghanistan is ruled by an utterly corrupt and unrepresentative government is only in power because of elections that were universally recognized to be fraudulent, in which Karzai family members and assorted warlord and cronies have enriched themselves through foreign aid, CIA slush funds and drug money .
This, in a country where more than half the population doesn’t have enough to eat, where 8 out of every 12 Afghans work as unskilled day labourers, and where the average income is $1 a day.
Helmand does not stand out as a shining beacon in the midst of this blundering and incoherent imperial misadventure. When British troops were deployed there in 2006, Defence Secretary John Reid predicted that they would pacify the province ‘without firing a shot.’
Instead the British deployment acted as a catalyst for a spike in violence in the province. In an essay comparing the British and Dutch performance in Afghanistan, Professor Joseph Soeters describes how the Helmand deployment plunged the British armed forces into ‘the heaviest fighting they had experienced since the Korean War’ in which ‘ the emphasis came to be military defeat of the enemy, rather than stabilization and development.’
Soeters argues that the British model of counterinsurgency in Helmand was based on ‘continuous dispersed offensive actions at the company level’, and followed the American pattern of no-warning bombing and strafing attacks on villages in which ‘many houses were destroyed, local populations displaced, villages and cities turned into ghost towns, and there was considerable collateral damage from aerial bombing and use of firepower from a distance.’
As early as March 2008, the Washington Post described a campaign that was not going well, in which exhausted and under-equipped British forces were struggling to contain the spreading insurgency across a wide territorial area with insufficient troops. In one village near the town of Garmsir, Afghan elders opposed the British deployment, on the grounds that they would be attacked by the Taliban as a consequence:.
So much for a ‘basic level of security’ then. From 2008, Soeters noted, the British shifted from this ‘warrior-type approach’ towards a more ‘population centric and less kinetic [killing people]’ model of counterinsurgency.
Nevertheless the violence in Helmand has not diminished and this year has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the province since the initial British deployment.
The British campaign in Helmand has also coincided with a stunning increase in opium production. In 2011, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Helmand Province accounted for nearly fifty percent of the estimated 131,000 hectares under cultivation for opium production in the whole of Afghanistan.
So this is what our troops have been doing; propping up a parasitical and sleazy government which is despised by much of the Afghan population, and which may well face its day of reckoning when NATO forces leave; empowering an insurgency and laying the basis for another round of civil war; presiding over a rise in opium production and global heroin distribution.
446 British soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians and combatants have died to make this outcome possible. Whatever else you can say about this, it is only a success in the sense that Iraq and Libya are successes.
And whatever Cameron and Michael Owen might say, it will take more than a footie match to put this one right.