The reality of Britain’s War in Afghanistan

As the conflict in Afghanistan enters its tenth year, a report by War on Want exposes the truth behi

As the US-led occupation of Afghanistan enters its tenth year, casualties have risen among Afghan civilians and Nato forces alike, making the past 12 months the bloodiest of the conflict to date. US and British forces are engaged in a dirty war in Afghanistan, using aerial bombing, drone attacks, torture prisons and corporate mercenaries against the Afghan people, all of which are fuelling further insecurity and fostering human rights abuse.

Afghanistan has become one of the most militarised countries on earth, with the security sector far and away the largest single element of national expenditure. Recent years have seen UK suppliers export arms worth £32.5m to Afghanistan. Alongside the US and British military in Afghanistan is a "shadow army" of private military and security companies (PMSCs). Between 2007 and 2009, the UK government spent £62.8m on these PMSCs in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has borne the brunt of decades of foreign intervention and conflict, and as a result is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy is 44.6 years, among the lowest in the world. Yet development policy is being used to pursue military goals and to privatise the country's economy, while multinational companies profit at the expense of one of the least developed countries. Of the $38.6bn given in US aid to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2009, 56 per cent was spent on "security", primarily building up the army and police.

The future of Afghanistan is being determined by the self-interest of the USA, UK and other occupying powers. In July 2009 the then defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, stated that "the entire region in which Afghanistan sits is of vital strategic importance to the United Kingdom". British interests in the region are closely aligned with those of the United States. The US considers Afghanistan of critical geopolitical importance for its long-term interests in central and south Asia, as well as for the country's significance as a neighbour of Iran.

In addition to its other strategic interests, the US has long promoted a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. in December 2010. The US assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher confirmed in 2007 that "one of our goals is to stabilise Afghanistan . . . so that energy can flow to the south".

As it becomes increasingly clear that the US and UK military presence is a central part of the problem in Afghanistan, not the solution, we need a new debate on the occupation of Afghanistan. Over 70 per cent of British people favour a withdrawal of British troops either soon or immediately. Yet all three major UK political parties are committed to continuing the military offensive and keeping British forces in Afghanistan until 2015 as well as maintaining a strategic presence for an undetermined period thereafter.

It is time for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and a negotiated settlement that guarantees self-determination, security and human rights for the Afghan people. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan to stand up for their rights and to end the occupation of their country, so that the process of reconstruction can at last begin.

Yasmin Khan is senior campaigns officer for War on Want.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.