The Afghan quagmire

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The summer of 2009 marked the time when the war in Afghanistan came back to haunt the British government.

The "good war" has now become a hotly contested conflict. The new head of the British armed forces has predicted a 40 years British presence in the country, while the US army chief has admitted that Nato forces are losing the war and that they have a year to turn the situation round.

Operation Panther's Claw, launched as the US and British attempt to finally deal with the Taliban, caused ever higher casualties among the occupying troops and was manifestly failing in its stated aim.

The turning point came with the deaths of eight soldiers in mid-July, bringing the total killed in Afghanistan to more than the number who died over six years in Iraq. The summer marked another milestone: by its end more than 200 British soldiers had died in Afghanistan, most of them in the three years since they were deployed in Helmand.

Soldiers on both sides of the Atlantic are facing court martial for refusing to go to Afghanistan. As July and August progressed, several opinion polls showed a clear majority in favour of immediate or very rapid withdrawal of troops there. Attempts by the Guardian and the BBC to dress their early poll result as showing increased support for the war failed to take account of the same poll's finding that 56 percent wanted troops out by the end of the year.

An account by a Welsh Guards officer of his doubts about the war described a rate of attrition among soldiers of injury as well as death, which is clearly taking its toll on the morale of other soldiers. He also stressed the feeling that, whatever the troops did, the Taliban and its allies kept on fighting.

There is, among accounts such as his, and in the views of many of the pro-war commentators in Britain, almost surprise that the Taliban are actually fighting. There is a tone of bewilderment when describing the damage done by Improvised Explosive Devices, as if somehow the other side is not expected to do anything like this.

These developments have come at an unwelcome time for the British government and its allies. The war is right up there on the political agenda, just at a time when Gordon Brown and his ministers are struggling to register even minimal political support despite a Tory opposition which openly boasts that its public spending cuts when in government will be draconian. The effects of the recession, the growth in unemployment and the widespread disgust with politicians over expenses and corruption have all hit the government hard.

The war is, of course, connected to these questions. The military face of imperialism and the economic system it reinforces are twins, acting in concert over the last decade to impose their will throughout the world. The economic crisis has shown how unstable that system is, and the wars of regime change have been marked by failure.

The two great protagonists of the "war on terror", US imperialism and its sidekick Britain, find that the war is not going away. Despite predictions that it would fade from people's minds, or that the attempt to drum up support through military parades would lead to a spate of jingoism, while there is widespread support for the soldiers there is much less for the war. Those, such as some politicians and left sectarians, who believed the war would become a minor issue of British politics have been confounded.

The dynamic of the Afghan war is of course very different from that in Iraq. Afghanistan was a much less contested war, which was over in weeks and for a time seemed to most people to have resulted in a political settlement. That perception has been shown to be false in recent years. While British withdrawal from Iraq is nearly complete (at least in the overtly military sense) in Afghanistan it seems like an open-ended commitment, with calls for more troops and equipment.

Barack Obama is still committed to prosecuting the war to its finish, something that is now beginning to be much more contested in the US. Here the anti-war movement is growing again. Unlike with the burst of activity around Palestine earlier this year, Afghanistan is a slower burn, with the possibility of building a mass campaign to withdraw the troops. Everywhere there are reports of growing interest, including from the military and their families. New groups are appearing in areas where there has been little anti-war or left presence in recent years.

The demonstration on 24 October is the first just focusing on Afghanistan for nearly eight years. It promises to attract large numbers of older campaigners and many young people, who polls show are most strongly against the war. It will be a chance to help shape the political debate and keep the Afghanistan war at the centre of British politics.