The funerals of those servicemen killed in Helmand have been a sombre fixture of our news so far this summer. There was something uncommonly grave in the coverage of the interring of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe: the most senior British officer to die in action since the fighting on Goose Green during the Falklands War. That gravity was embodied in the deeply dignified bearing of the widow, Sally Thornloe (pictured above in Shaun Curry’s striking photograph), required to manage that unanswerable sorrow of which I suppose the greatest empathetic version we have is Andromache’s lament for Hector in The Iliad (‘… for you did not die in bed, and stretch your arms to me, nor tell me some last intimate word…’)
Currently we are having a passionate national debate about the worth of a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice in respect of ‘our mission in Afghanistan’: a phrase that came to made to sound either dutiful or scornful depending on from whose lips it issues – for instance, those who don’t want to see the recrudescence of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, breeding and exporting global jihad in concert with a nuclear/jihadist Pakistan; or, alternatively, those who say that Afghanistan is merely a notorious graveyard of imperial hubris, now occupied merely for the sake of America’s longterm strategic interests in the region. (Whatever side one favours, it's possible to believe that the craggy ungovernable vastness of Afghanistan will devour more lives and efforts than are truly worthwhile - or as one Taliban commander supposedly said, 'They may have the watches, but we have the time.') Personally, I can see the case for both arguments, but if one has to state a preference (and one does) then I’m in the former camp, supportive of 'the mission', as dangerously stretched and implausible as it can often seem.
Last week Paddy Ashdown defined that 'mission’ as one that has migrated from ‘the limited military aim of driving out al-Qa’ida’ into ‘another full-scale attempt, in a far-away country, to create a state of which we in the West can feel proud.’ This analysis is echoed whenever General Stanley McChrystal, head of the NATO force, speaks of 'fighting for the population.' Today David Miliband has tried to confirm that sense of a worthy endeavour: 'In Helmand, we are working to help build schools, provide clean water and electricity, surface roads and support agriculture...'
In this context the grisly fight in Helmand was part of a clear military strategy known as ‘Clear, Hold and Build’: that is, to take ground into which constructors and committed democrats can move and start to work peacefully. Today that clearing of Helmand is supposedly done, ground taken from the Taliban in the area between the economic hub of Gereshk and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. This was an intense fight with, inevitably, a high risk of casualties. Alan Mallinson described it as ‘very like the ‘break-in’ phase of any offensive battle in conventional war.’ And so British soldiers were killed, at a rate that I suppose would be commensurate with losses sustained during the Falklands campaign.
But people of conservative instincts contend that in the Falklands there were material British interests at stake, it wasn't in the name of ‘good projects’ or ‘nation building’ or humanitarian windiness. Moreover, in both liberal and conservative media alike you can now read the charge that our forces in Afghanistan are lions led by donkeys, armed for the task by a lying miserly government.
As far as I can see, what really matters right now is what the Army thinks: lose the morale of the troops and you’ve lost the war. The British Army seems to be holding its course, though its commanders would - to say only the least - like more helicopters. Clearly helicopters allow faster action or response, they aid force protection, assist supply lines, evacuate casualties quicker. Our options would be enlarged if we had more. And yet Paddy Ashdown (one of the few politicians the general public respect on military matters) believes the real issue is ‘having enough ‘boots on the ground’ to do the job.’ Allan Mallinson agrees, citing ‘a bluff saying in conventional warfare: the more you use, the less you lose.’
It's hard, though, to be sanguine about such 'losses.' And clearly a significant swathe of the British public are fed up with it and want us either to do the job by remote control or get Our Boys out of it altogether. Of the former party, those who simply call for more choppers must surely be aware that helicopters too can be shot down in spectacular and deadly fashion by forms of ordnance available even to cave-dwelling mujaheddin. Some people believe our mission can be accomplished better by safe removal of ground troops and occasional bursts of heavy ordnance, laser-guided aerial bombing. If they seriously believe that, they must be ready for the accidents: the collateral-damage annihilation of wedding parties.
Those who want us to wash our hands of The Mission altogether are never going to be convinced by the argument that we are doing Good Works out there, and so the Government has a tough case to make. Miliband is clearly trying his best when he says, ‘We are not fighting in Afghanistan because girls were not allowed to go to school, but helping them do so will lead to a better future for Afghans.’ Paddy Ashdown too stressed the element of self-help: 'The key principle through all this should be not to seek to do things 'for' Afghanistan, but to increase Afghan capacity, especially at the local level, to do things for themselves.' As such it's no surprise that the UK is subtly and carefully shifting the focus to whether or not the Afghan Army has the will and calibre and capacity to do the 'holding' stuff, and whether Afghan people and their politicians will 'build'. (One notes the care with which the text of Miliband’s speech has been entitled, ‘How to help Afghans defeat the insurgency.’)
The hope is that the main way Afghans will be helped is by legitimate local politics. It’s hard to be dewy-eyed about Afghan democracy when the main choice on offer is the compromised and placeman-packed Karzai government. And one can’t shoot one’s mouth about a renaissance of women’s rights when the young female Afghan politician Malalai Joya makes clear she thinks things are no better in that respect. Joya wants the West to clear off, and her voice clearly rhymes with the message of any Stop The War platform: ‘The Afghan people want peace, and history teaches that we always reject occupation and foreign domination.’
Well and good, but I just can't see that there's any prelapsarian choice available here. Our fortunes are all tied together now: we are the world. When it comes to the rights and wrongs of one’s country at war I try not to mouth off too confidently from the comfort of my swivel-chair when it’s not my backside that’s getting shot at. But I'm on the side of 'good projects' and against the Taliban. And as Christopher Hitchens puts it, ‘Might we not be able to shape events in Afghanistan nearer to our heart's desire without making ourselves responsible for the running of the whole nation and society?’