Cannon fodder of the Afghan killing fields: Mehdi Hasan on British casualites

Since the US/UK invasion in 2001, 374 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan.

"War is always about betrayal," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning war reporter Chris Hedges once wrote. "Betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics and of troops by politicians." Nowhere is this betrayal better illustrated than in Afghanistan, where Britain is fighting its fourth war (the previous conflicts being those of 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919).

We blundered into the country ill-prepared, underequipped and offering ever-shifting justifications. Was it counterterrorism? War on narcotics? Nation-building? The liberation of women? Crucially, we also lacked an exit strategy. The deaths have since piled up.

The fourth Afghan war is a cross-party betrayal. It was a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, who paid the "blood price" to join with George W Bush in his invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. He did so with the support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

It was a Tory premier, David Cameron, backed by his Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg, who promised a complete withdrawal of UK combat forces - but only in 2015.

Every Wednesday at the start of Prime Minister's Questions, we are treated to the nauseating spectacle of the pro-war PM and the pro-war leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, paying sombre tribute to the latest British soldiers to have died, before they get on with the much more serious business of tearing strips off one another.

Glazed eyes

Beyond the House of Commons, the public is not interested. There are no big demonstrations against our presence in Afghanistan as there were against the invasion of Iraq. Crowds occasionally turn out at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire to honour and welcome home the bodies of dead British soldiers. The rest of us go on with our daily lives, eyes glazing over as the names of the fallen scroll across the ticker at the bottom of our television screens.

This pointless war was lost long ago. In early October 2008, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, outgoing commander of UK forces in Afghan­istan, bluntly told a Sunday newspaper: "We're not going to win this war." He urged a "political settlement" with the Taliban. But we carried on fighting. On 15 October, 21-year-old Trooper James Munday from Birmingham was killed in an explosion in Garmsir. On 27 July 2009, the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, called for talks with the Taliban. Yet the war raged on. On the day of Miliband's speech, Trooper Phillip Lawrence, a 22-year-old from Birkenhead, was killed in an explosion in Lashkar Gah.

On 22 June this year, President Barack Obama announced the start of the US "drawdown" in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by October 2012. On the same day, Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that, come 2015, British troops would not still be fighting in Afghanistan. However, in the meantime, we carry on fighting. And Hague has conceded that the British military's involvement will continue for "many years" after the end of combat operations in the country.

It cannot be said often enough: Britain's national security is not at stake in Afghanistan. None of the hundred or so Islamists imprisoned in the UK for terror-related offices hails from Helmand. Nor did our military presence in Afghanistan on 7 July 2005 prevent four suicide attacks on the London transport network that left 52 people dead.

As a US official noted at a recent briefing to reporters in Washington, DC ahead of the Obama speech: "We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years." Even by the standards of the US government, the cynicism is breathtaking: play up the threat from terrorists to justify an intractable conflict until the time comes to start withdrawing and then reveal that the "threat" was, after all, non-existent.

Since 2001, 374 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan - a death toll that long ago exceeded the number of military casualties in the Falklands war (255) and the invasion of Iraq (179). The average age of British casualties in Afghanistan is 22; 28 of those 374 dead were teenagers.

Kids to slaughter

What have we done? Why have we sent our children to fight and die in a civil war between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras? And why do we continue to do so? In May, it emerged that 16- and 17-year-olds, the youngest soldiers in the British army, were being taught basic counter-IED skills as part of their training at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate.

Whether we admit it or not, the war is lost. We are now negotiating with the Taliban from a position of weakness. It pains me to say this, but every British soldier who dies in Afghan­istan from this point onwards will have done so in vain. He or she will have died simply to preserve the tarnished credibility of the US and UK governments.

The parallels with Vietnam are unavoidable (and it is worth noting that the war against the Taliban has now dragged on longer than the one in Indochina). The US signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973; the Church-Case amendment officially ended US military involvement on 15 August 1973. Yet the last US soldier to be killed in Vietnam, 18-year-old Kelton Rena Turner, was gunned down on 15 May 1975. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" asked a young John Kerry, not long back from the front line in Vietnam, in testimony to Congress in 1971.

Before they enter the chamber for PMQs each Wednesday, Cameron and Miliband should ask themselves this: on what grounds do they prolong this futile conflict?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.