Brian Brady – The Independent April 18, 2010
It is one of the few genuine issues of life and death during this general election campaign. It will not dictate how much any British school improves, how many police appear on the streets of a city, or how quickly patients are allowed to leave hospitals around the country. But it will, literally, decide the fate of thousands of British service personnel and, ultimately, how many of them live and die.
Yet nobody wants to talk about Afghanistan.
When Nick Clegg "won" the televised party leaders' debate on Thursday night, his victory owed nothing to his limp response to a question about support for British troops serving in Afghanistan. The Liberal Democrat leader agreed that British troops in Afghanistan were under-paid and under-equipped, but he did not question why they had lost 281 colleagues in that country, or why they were there in the first place.
Similarly, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have pledged loyal support for a campaign that is deep into its ninth year, and shows no sign of nearing an end. In front of the cameras, the Prime Minister offered sombre reflection on the campaign, while Mr Cameron queried the number of helicopters available to British forces. Yet neither has gone out of his way to tackle the issue head-on elsewhere during this campaign, to explain why the UK should remain in Afghanistan, why it should continue to support a discredited government in Kabul, and how many more British service personnel must die before the mission can be brought to a close.
Last November, The Independent on Sunday called for a "phased, orderly withdrawal" of British forces from the "ill-conceived, unwinnable and counterproductive" campaign in Afghanistan. The UK still remains in there – and more than 50 servicemen have died since then. Last month, The IoS revealed that Britain harboured profound concerns at the highest levels over the quality of the Afghan police who must guarantee security before our troops can leave.
The leaders may, at last, be forced to explain their positions this week, when the second debate concentrates on foreign affairs. But, given their performance so far, it is unlikely that they will offer any fresh hope for the service personnel in Afghanistan or their families back home.
"We want to see more substantive engagement on defence issues from the parties," said Douglas Young, executive chairman of the British Armed Forces Federation, an independent staff association for service personnel. "Up to now, there have been too many airy-fairy platitudes and not enough substance."
These are leaders who last week presented election manifestos amounting to more than 80,000 words on their grand plans for education, health, the economy, but who managed to mention Afghanistan only 19 times between them.
The stifling of the issue might be due to the fact that all the main parties know their policies are entirely at odds with the feelings of the population over Afghanistan. In November, a poll found that 73 per cent of people wanted British troops to come home within "a year or so" – and almost half of them called for immediate withdrawal.
A poll for The IoS today finds that this number has increased, with 77 per cent now supporting withdrawal on the same terms. The number disagreeing is now below one in seven. Further, more than 50 per cent of those polled believe that the risk of terrorism in the UK is increased by the presence of British troops in Afghanistan.
However, none of the major parties is promising to pull troops out if they get into government and only the Scottish National Party – confined to one part of the UK – is calling for an honest reappraisal of the operation. The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, last week made much of his record of "speaking out pretty forcefully" on Afghanistan. But his manifesto commits the party to being "critical supporters of the Afghanistan mission'', albeit with a pledge to match the military surge to a strategy of tackling corruption and winning over moderate Taliban.
The Lib Dem defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, yesterday conceded that anti-war voters have few choices. "If they are against the whole principle of being involved [in Afghanistan], they'll struggle to find anyone putting that case," he said. For opponents of the war, the lack of differentiation between the three main parties and their failure to embrace the Afghan question during the first two weeks of the election campaign amounts to a "conspiracy of silence" to suppress debate.
Chris Nineham, of the Stop the War Coalition, said: "There has been a deafening silence about Afghanistan in the run-up to the election. The three main parties are doing their best not to mention the war, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population oppose it."
Yet, despite complaints from the most vocal critics of the war, there is no guarantee that, however strongly voters feel, they are prepared to treat it as an electoral issue. In November 2006, when the toll of British deaths during five years of the campaign stood at 41, pollsters Ipsos Mori found that "defence/foreign affairs/Iraq and Afghanistan" topped the list of concerns facing the country. Two out of five voters spontaneously identified it as a key national problem. Three and a half years on, with 240 added to the death toll – 36 this year alone – it has slipped to seventh.
A leaked CIA report last month observed how "some Nato states, notably France and Germany, have counted on public apathy about Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the mission". It also argued that such apathy "enabled leaders to ignore voters". It seems that Britain's leaders are banking on indifference to help them through a potentially troublesome campaign without having to confront the most troubling issue before them.
"All three parties in 2001 thought we should go in. There are no votes in it, so they keep quiet about it," said General Sir Hugh Beach, former deputy commander of British Land Forces.
Five years ago, public opposition to the Iraq War was widely listed as a contributory factor behind a general election result that cut Labour's majority from 167 to 66. And lingering rancour over the war helped to lever Mr Blair from office two years later.
Afghanistan has been different. It has been overwhelmingly regarded as the "just" war. It was portrayed as a campaign to democratise a wild nation, to oust the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and all the extremists threatening the West with terror plots over the past decade.
That justification has lost its power as the death toll spirals and Afghans show little inclination to take control of their own affairs. Military commanders in Pakistan, where suicide bombers killed more than 40 people yesterday, regard the failure of US-led forces to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan with ill-concealed derision.
"They don't have the legitimacy we do," said Colonel Nauman Saeed, who commands 3,500 solders in Bajaur, a mountainous district on the Afghan border. "Afghans see them as illegitimate intruders and occupation forces." At the moment, the Pakistan military are in a victorious mood after retaking much of the territory along the Afghan border which was ruled by the Pakistan Taliban a year ago.
When experts point to terror plots from Pakistan and even within the UK, the Government's contention that the Afghan campaign is vital to protect Britain's security at home is difficult to explain.
And the government of President Karzai continues to raise concerns in Nato capitals. "The problem we have is that the regime in Afghanistan, which we support, is built on electoral fraud, with graft and corruption," said the SNP's foreign affairs spokesman, Angus Robertson. "We need to be absolutely honest about our options, and one of the aspects of that is that there needs to be a decision about when we bring our forces home."
Last updated 20/04/2010