General David Richards, the head of Britain’s Army, argues that the UK must succeed in Helmand/Afghanistan, in order to prevent radical Islamists taking heart from our failure:
“I do not think we can afford to fail in Afghanistan because of the intoxicating effect failure will have on those militants who oppose democracy and our freedoms,” he explained. “It would create the view that we are not prepared to fight for that which we hold precious.”
Of all the defences for fighting in Afghanistan, this is the weakest. We must stay and win just in case we excite a group of beleaguered, largely ineffectual and marginal militants?
First, militarily occupying countries intoxicates militant Islam. I would have thought ten years of the War on Terror made this clear. Its ideology presents withdrawal as weakness but staying as oppression. There is almost nothing we can do about that.
Second, is it really worth it? Success in Afghanistan, according to those in the know, will only come with an almighty cost: a strong central state, an indigenous army hundreds of thousands strong, a police force, a proper economy, a legitimate government instead of a weak kleptocratic client…is radical Islam so dangerous that we should go to such lengths to discourage it? These broader problems with the whole Afghanistan caper go strangely unmentioned in the upbeat, ‘last throes’ Telegraph article.
Third, what is precious to us? The uplift of Afghanistan is not, particularly. We are only interested in that tortured country because we were attacked. Our only stake is curtailing international terrorism. We did not invade Afghanistan to do the unfortunate people there a favour. Unfortunately, a whole bag of other aims has grown around the war, from governance to credibility to cultivating a special relationship with Washington, and now, striving beyond our means to make sure that embattled extremists don’t think we are sissies.
What we should hold precious is our ongoing, and increasingly successful, international project of making life difficult and dangerous for AQ’s network.
Here’s what a CIA veteran who was deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, has to say about AQ:
‘We must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are.” Al Qaeda “has only a handful of individuals capable of planning, organizing and leading a terrorist operation,” Carle notes, and “its capabilities are far inferior to its desires.’
Finally, we should be wary of this moralising language of will, resolution and strength. Smart statesmen don’t prolong futile occupations. They cut their losses and leave with their guns drawn, as Reagan did in Lebanon. Withdrawing can be embarrassing, painful and yes, emboldening to our rather underwhelming terrorist enemies. But wise powers can live with that. They have the self-confidence and prudence to keep things in perspective and husband their resources to fight again another day.
Instead, Richards wants the UK to play the role of the noble ‘West’. But British civilization, with all its heritage and richness, and Britain’s conventional armed forces, do not have to depend on the unlikely chances of social engineering in Helmand for their survival or pride. Let Al Qaeda and its pathetic imitators be heartened as Britain leaves. We should be less impressed and worried by them, and take some cues from this man: