On rare sunlit mornings like today I usually mooch around the allotment plots to chat about whatever takes our fancy. But conversations with Eric have a sombre note these days for he has a grandson serving in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly worries occupy his thoughts and there is one even bigger than the obvious one of his safety. Like many, Eric agonises over the war itself. Of course he knows that a professional soldier’s career entails high risks but in the wars that we both remember so well there was a clear aim; victory. But how can that ever be achieved against an enemy that wears no uniform and protects no specific territory. Even worse, one that has the support of large sections of the community.
All these doubts and more are enhanced today as a result of an appearance before the parliamentary foreign affairs committee by Britain’s former special envoy to Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who has also served twice as ambassador in Kabul. He said that the army was submitting “misleadingly optimistic” reports on the state of the war and that ministers who questioned them were accused by the Defence Ministry of being “defeatist or disloyal”.
The former envoy told of an army officer in Helmand province who told his superiors that the strategy was not working. He was instructed to change his report to make it positive “because cracking on about Helmand is what it’s all about”. This was typical and the civilian administrators must wrest control from the military whose “can-do” appproach had distorted any understanding of the real problems. Part of those problems, Sir Sherward argued, was the Afghan government that British and American troops are fighting to uphold. In fact the government is less popular in the south of the country than the Taliban!
The Taliban, he said, were in his experience violent and unpleasant but for many Pashtuns were a less bad alternative than a “corrupt and predatory government”. There can be no solution based solely on military action, was the former envoy’s conclusion. He added that we are merely suppressing local symptoms of the disease, not curing it. He was particularly damning of the American miltary approach and used a revealing metaphor. Sometimes, he said, if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem can look like a nail.
It was a very revealing appearance by someone who understands the situation in Afghanistan intimately and, unlike the politicians, is prepared to speak out. He emphasised that he was not criticising the military who clearly must remain upbeat. He was in effect spelling out the unpalatable fact that the war, as it is being conducted, cannot ever be ‘won’.
This meeting took place as Prince Harry paid tribute to the fallen at a moving ceremony at the Royal British Legion Wootton Bassett Field of Remembrance in the walled garden of Lydiard Park, Wilts. No less than 342 of our serving men and women in Afghanistan have been killed and the Field was ablaze with the poppies placed by their families and friends.
When we bring together the two events of yesterday we face an appalling question. What have all those deaths achieved? We have to answer ‘a great deal’ if only to help those who mourn, those whose families have been destroyed. But we surely have to also cry this far and no farther. There can be no doubt that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles knows what he is talking about and the cause of humanity demands that the government listens and acts.
In constantly banging the drum of eventual victory David Cameron and the rest are not simply deluding themselves and misleading us. They are condemning to death yet more brave men and women who, based on yesterday’s evidence, are themselves asking how this conflict can ever be resolved other than by a ‘patched-up’ withdrawal like that in Iraq.
The best defence of this country now open to us is to focus on improving the security of the United Kingdom. That does not mean to persuade mad people to leave by paying them £1500 as has been announced. Our troops are dying and we should show no tolerance to those who threaten from within. If they love the Taliban they should be forced to go and dwell wth them.
It sounds crude I know but maybe we are reaching the last resort of bringing ours home and sending theirs to them!
BIG SOCIETY IS BECOMING A BIG JOKE!
Presumably anyone reaching the dizzy heights of Prime Minister must have acute self understanding. That makes David Cameron’s continuing to bang on about the ‘big society’ even more puzzling. He must surely realise that he is merely articulating his own dream of what a utopian society could look like without having any idea as to how it could be brought about.
Readers will already be aware of the trial being run in Windsor which seems to involve rewards for those who pick up dog poo and litter. Clearly that is not what the PM has in mind for in Utopia no one seeks reward. Now we have an explanation from yet another minister.
Yesterday the children’s minister, Tim Loughton, presented the Edith Khan Memorial Lecture in the House of Lords. He remarked that the trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers like himself who have to articulate it. Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be, he pondered.
Then he produced his own definition. Is it in fact Ann Widdecombe asked Mr Loughton!
YESTERDAY’S QUIZ ANSWERS; 1. Chad 2. Sir Robert Mark
TODAY’S QUESTIONS; 1. Who wrote ‘Flashman in the Great Game’ which wsa published in 1975? 2.. Which game did Prince Alexis Obolensky make popular in the 70s?