A recurring theme in the flurry of articles about the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan has been the question as to what British troops are doing there. In reality, there are two separate questions – one far simpler than the other. The first question is why they went into Afghanistan in the first place – which readers will be well aware was in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who was being sheltered by the Taleban, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The second and more complicated question is what they are still doing there, and in turn, what the end game is for the Allied operation? Now, sadly LabourLive are not privy to high level Foreign Office and State Department thinking, so we can’t really answer that question. What we can answer, though is what we think our troops should be doing.
The war in Afghanistan had, until recently, been less controversial than the war in Iraq, because there is not oil in Afghanistan to promote conspiracy theories that the war was mandated by Exxon Mobil, and also because it was a NATO supported invasion following the attacks on September 11. However, as the conflict has dragged on – it will enter its 10th year later this year – and the casualties have mounted, more questions have been asked as to why we are fighting in Afghanistan, and what we are fighting for.
A topic of study of World War One revolves around discussions of the ‘war aims’ of the respective combatants. This study at least has, as its starting point, the written war aims which were produced by each of the main combatant nations. We do not, really, have such a document for the Allies in Afghanistan.
There can no longer be an argument that we are attempting to find or kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan – that has ceased to be one of our war aims – but there is not yet much clarity as to what has replaced this goal. The present government in the UK have been sending out mixed messages – Liam Fox has rather unhelpfully said that we are not in Afghanistan to nation build in a ’13th century’ country, and steps certainly seem to be in process to get troops out as soon as possible.
We understand why people want to get the troops home – but we would strongly argue that there is an important job to be done in Afghanistan, and that it is right for the NATO forces to be there.
There are arguments to be made that we need to ‘take the battle’ to the terrorists, and that there are national security implications for the West in Afghanistan. We are not familiar enough with the day-to-day workings of al-Qaeda to tell you if this is true. It might be, but equally the war may encourage more recruits to their cause. But we think that the troops in Afghanistan are there to, eventually, benefit the people of Afghanistan – and that there are strong arguments in favour of this approach. Not least because the best way to quell extremism in the Islamic world is to attack its root cause – poverty and disenfranchisement.
Many on the left in the UK have written many words in newspapers and blogs saying how economic deprivation and a feeling of isolation from the democratic process has encouraged people to vote for the BNP and other extremist parties. We would apply this, by analogy, to the Islamic world as well.
Where there is desperate poverty and hopelessness, it is far easier for people to be convinced to follow the path of extremism. Where hardline Islamist elements seem to provide education (the Pakistani madrassas) and social services (like Hamas in Palestine) their politics can become very appealing to those who see no other way out.
Just as those BNP voters cast around for someone to blame for their own poverty and look at immigrants, those in the Islamic world who see themselves with no future find it easy to blame the ‘West’, or the ‘Great Satan’ or ‘imperialism’. It is the poverty and desperation which provides the fuel to the fire of hatred which burns so brightly in so many.
It is not a coincidence that it was in Afghanistan, and is now in Somalia that extremism flourishes. In areas where there is such poverty, violence and anguish, easy recruits can be found.
For this reason, if no other, we should be looking to construct a stable, functioning, democratic Afghan state which can take its place in the international system and develop towards prosperity. Enfranchising and enriching the population of that country is a key step towards removing it as a source of extremism. If that process can be accelerated or aided by the presence of western troops and money, then that is only to be encouraged. We would add, of course, that should we reach a point where that process can be encouraged more rapidly by the removal of western troops, then they should indeed be removed.
It is easy to forget, and difficult to imagine, what life must have been like in Afghanistan when the Taleban were in control. Women not allowed to drive, go to school or go outside unaccompanied by a family member. ‘Adulterers’ stoned to death. Music and dancing banned. If this happened anywhere closer to home, liberal opinion would have been outraged and it would not have been tolerated. For some reason, however, because this was taking place in a Muslim country on the other side of the world it was deemed to be acceptable, and to say that it was not was racist or culturally unsympathetic.
Nick Cohen, in his magnificently rampaging book ‘What’s Left?’ takes huge issue with this approach, and we find it hard to disagree with him. We are not cultural relativists here at LabourLive. We believe in social democracy and liberalism at home and social democracy and liberalism abroad. We make no apologies for believing that all people were created free and equal, and no apologies for hoping that one day everyone in the world will have the same freedoms that we take for granted in the UK. Democracy and capitalism are by no means perfect, but they are the least bad system so far. We will never waver from arguing that it is right that the equal rights that we seek for women and minorities, the drive for opportunity for all, and the search for economic prosperity that we strive for at home should also be our targets abroad.
What is wrong in the UK is wrong in Afghanistan, and what is right here is right there too. We can never understand how or why ‘liberals’ in the UK can be so distraught about the fact that women do not get equal pay for equal work, but can be happy to write off women not being allowed to drive or go to school in other countries as ‘part of their culture’.
People will argue that there are other countries that are just as bad (Iran, North Korea and the rest) and that we (the US, Britain, the West) do not have the resources to play policeman and social worker to the world. This may be true, but we would strongly argue that this does not mean that we should not try. If it is within our power to make life better for people, we should try our utmost to do it. Surely that it what it means to be on the left? To those who say that charity begins at home, we would respond that there is no poverty in the UK which can compare to the desperation in places such as Somalia and the Sudan.
In 1999, Tony Blair set out what has come to be known as, variously, the ‘Chicago Doctrine’, the ‘Blair Doctrine’ or the ‘doctrine of international community’. We would recommend reading the whole speech that he gave to the Economic Club of Chicago. Whether you agree with it or not (and we do, as will become apparent) it is a magnificent piece of oratory. Blair at his very best.
The speech sets out eloquently how globalisation has rendered isolationism redundant, and argues that national borders do not carry the same weight that they used to. Most importantly, Blair advocated that there was such a thing as a just war, and argued that there can be a moral imperative to intervene. Sometimes it is worse to do nothing than to get involved. Yes, it may mean putting the lives of your own soldiers on the line, and yes, things may get worse before they get better, but sometimes things are so terrible (and Blair was, at this stage, specifically referring to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo) that we have no choice but to get involved in order to prevent untold suffering and misery.
Blair quotes John Kennedy, who said that ‘Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved, who is free?’. We have a moral duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves. If that means military intervention to protect the vulnerable, then so be it. We should never take military action likely, and we all know that it needs to be planned better than has been the case in the past, but sometimes we must step in to stop greater evils.
The Chicago Doctrine shows us what our ‘war aims’ should be in Afghanistan and Iraq. It shows us what our aims should be around the world. We want the same rights, the same freedoms and the same opportunities for all people, wherever they are in the world. We respect people’s faiths and hopes and dreams, but we also hold that there are certain truths and rights which are inalienable. We should not leave Afghanistan until it is ready as a country to join the international community in respecting and enshrining these rights, whilst being true to its own heritage. To leave before then would be a betrayal both of the Afghan people and of the memory of those who have fought to make it free.
We should add, that there was an emphasis on encouraging free trade, financial reform and a global approach on global warming emphasised by Blair in the same speech. He was, as was so often the case, ahead of his time on this. We would wish that he had pushed harder for some of these reforms, rather than just eloquently speaking about them, mind you.
Some people argue that we should not interfere in other states, and that the violation of national sovereignty is wrong. If a truly democratic state does things we disagree with, then we can accept that, as the social contract between ruler and ruled should, most of the time, be respected. But even then, and certainly in the case of authoritarian regimes which repress their people without a mandate, we will always argue that human rights are more important than states’ rights.
Read the speech in Chicago. It is powerful and compelling. We firmly believe that it should be the basis for the foreign policy of the Labour Party as we move forwards.
The LabourLive Team