Thursday 23 July 2009

How many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban?

It is getting to sound more and more like the old music hall joke. All these pleading cries about the lack of equipment for our “boys” in Afghanistan. Well, how many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban? The answer is always the same – more than we have at the moment. Not much of a joke really. Then again, our military presence in Afghanistan – killing and maiming hundreds of Afghanis – is not much of a joke either.

This constant harping on about the need for more and more weapons and equipment is very much a distraction from the really important question – what the hell are we doing in Afghanistan anyway? The surreal nature of the debate, if one can dignify the pathetic pleas as a debate, was given away by Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence staff, who in an interview said there was "no such thing as enough helicopters in an operational campaign". He expanded on this to more or less say that for the military there is never enough. No matter what you are talking about – weapons, munition, transport – from the perspective of the military there is never enough. Most revealing indeed. A bit of a gaffe I would have thought, if there was a real debate going on, that is. If according to the defence staff there is no such thing an “enough”, how on earth is the government or we, the people to figure out how much equipment to supply? Presumable Sir Jock just wants us to give him lots and lots of everything, never mind the cost.

I wonder if this kind of talk was the centre of media coverage during the second World War, when the British military were almost certainly well short of adequate weapons and equipment for most of the war? Don't think so, somehow. When a country is faced with a real life or death threat, the overwhelming majority of people just get on with fighting the aggressors, with whatever weapons and equipment are at hand. We only get this sort of public squabbling because a) the government is on its last legs and b) no-body believes this to be a life or death threat to the UK. This is manifestly a war of choice and as such it becomes more and more difficult to justify the growing number of British casualties.

The attempts by ministers and their Tory party shadows to claim that this war of occupation is preventing terrorism on the streets of Britain is just plain absurd. Before 2001, other than terrorist action by the IRA there was no terrorism on the streets of Britain. Since our invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq there have indeed been terrorist attacks, but all have been home grown.

Now Nato are getting in on the act with the alliance's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warning that Nato cannot afford to walk away from Afghanistan however dangerous or expensive the campaign becomes. Bully for him. One thing for sure, he is not likely to get blown up by a roadside bomb. Good of him to volunteer the deaths of others, and I wonder how much money he personally is prepared to give towards the costs?

Mr Scheffer went on to claim that failure would give free run to al-Qaeda. These and similar extravagant claims are pretty preposterous. The Taliban is a political and military organization which wants to regain control of Afghanistan. If they were ever to achieve that aim, and even if Nato troops did withdraw, it is not inevitable that the Taliban would win complete power again. The other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Tajiks, Uzbeks etc, are much stronger than they were when the Taliban were in power. However, even if the Taliban were to return to power in Kabul, why would they want to risk their victory by allowing a free rein to al-Qaida? The Taliban were never that united in their previous links with al-Qaida, according to this article by Simon Jenkins.

And why does al-Qaida need a base in Afghanistan anyway? As Rory Stewart asks in a must read article in the London Review of Books; “And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?” You can access Stewart's article – The Irresistible Illusion – here.

There is of course an alternative answer to the question posed at the beginning – How many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban? This alternative answer is none – we shouldn't be in Afghanistan anyway.

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