Every time a solder dies in Afghanistan, politicians immediately say how much the loss is regretted and how much we owe to our “brave heroes”. Their sacrifice, it is gravely pronounced, has been in the cause of keeping us safe from terrorism back home.
To this is added a statement by the generals that operations are going well, indeed far better than expected, and that we are now in the process of handing over to the Afghan forces themselves.
Of course, one understands the need for such mantras. How could a politician say otherwise. That the heroes are mortal men who signed up for such duties? That the whole Afghan enterprise has ended in a fruitless entanglement and that our aim now is simply to be able to get out with some decency?
It doesn’t pay for any politician to voice such sentiments in public (although it should be said that our MPs were rather more robust about the Boer wars and the Victorian engagements). But, even accepting that, it should surely be possible to conduct a discussion on the Afghan venture with a little more honesty than this.
Not all soldiers are brave and not all soldiers are brave all the time. Half the reason why we have been so bad at treating returning troops for stress and other mental problems is the reluctance to accept that these are human beings put under inhuman strains and not a group of invulnerable superheroes.
Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, has taken a toll on our armed forces much greater than is fully understood by the public. More than 400 deaths is bad enough (although it is relatively small by the standards of other wars), but the number returned injured and maimed is around 5,000.
What ministers cannot dare even broach is the thought that these sacrifices have been largely in vain. No one seriously believes, not even those saying it, the nonsense spouted by the Defence Secretary and his predecessors that the engagement has been necessary to stop jihadists coming over here.
If anything, the opposite is the truth. Our continuing occupation of a Muslim country only serves to encourage angry young men to think of us as the colonial power that must be challenged by unconventional means as the only way of hurting it. If there is a source of trained terrorists, it is far more in Pakistan and Yemen than Afghanistan.
Nor is it realistic any longer to talk, as David Miliband did yesterday, of “a strategy” to ensure stability in Afghanistan as we prepare to leave. We have given a date, and our departure now is entirely in the hands of Washington, not London or Kabul. What happens beyond that is not up to us to determine or really influence. If we are concerned about terrorism here, then we should be turning our attention to Pakistan and Yemen and helping those countries.
With luck, our troops can come back without the shame of defeat. But a victory it has not been, let alone a triumph. In that sense, it will be better, but not that much better, than Iraq. There we had to scuttle out of Basra, having had to be rescued by the Americans, and saved by the indifference towards us of the locals. The troops returned, without fanfare, to be quietly forgotten.
The Iraq Inquiry, still to publish its findings, was set up to examine the decisions to go to war not the conduct of it after. We don’t go in for learning lessons in this country. It is not how the political system is structured. With 400 dead in Afghanistan, it’s time we did.
Betrayal of the Japanese
It’s a year almost precisely since the earthquake and consequent tsunami struck Japan. The disaster is being remembered there by solemn ceremony, and over here in a rush of documentaries and articles telling how near the Fukushima nuclear plant came to complete meltdown.
It needs to be said – after all the evasions and half-truths of the initial weeks – just how far the Japanese were let down by the power company that ran the plant, and the politicians who were complicit with it.
No single event since the war has quite so upset the consciousness of Japan, reminding the country just how vulnerable it was to natural disaster and just how ineffective was its corporate-political nexus in coping with it.
Outside, commentators cheerfully said that the Japanese sense of cohesion would see it through. It has. Economists hopefully said that investment on reconstruction would quickly return the country to growth. It hasn’t.
The shutdown in nuclear production has caused energy imports to soar and the balance of trade to go into sharp deficit. The slow-down in Asian growth is hurting exports.
It will be the next 12 months which will really test the balance between cohesion and despair. The West didn’t do so well in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, very much leaving Japan to its own devices. We need to give it a lot more time, attention and understanding now.