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Saturday, September 30, 2006 

Troops out of Iraq! Troops, err, stay in Afghanistan?

It's getting increasingly difficult to come up with the words to describe the situation that continues to afflict Iraq. Baghdad is now almost certainly the most dangerous place on the face of the planet. 250,000 are said to have fled the sectarian conflict that continues to edge ever closer to civl war, if it isn't already there. Torture may be worse than under Saddam. A total curfew was declared last night, either until Sunday morning or for 3 days, depending on which source you believe. Whether this is down to intelligence about spectacular terrorist atrocities, or just an attempt to stop the bloodshed is unknown. The New York Times reports that journalists, not only having to contend with bullets, are also having problems with censorship laws. Bob Woodward, one of the journalists which broke Watergate, alleges that the Bush administration is willfully underestimating the number of attacks on troops and Iraqi civilians, in a break from the more subservient tone he took in his previous tome. Even Jack Straw is no longer attempting to pretend that the invasion has been anything other than a catastrophe, admitting that was in currently happening in Iraq is dire, without the usual caveats that things in some provinces are vastly better than in others.

There's no real surprise then that numerous generals have been trying desperately to extricate the British troops from Basra in order to, in their words, "do Afghanistan". There only seems to be one real argument for keeping troops in Iraq, and that's the "Pottery Barn Rule", as described by Curious Hamster. This is the guilt counter-point to the troops out now demand, that we've broke Iraq and we owe it both to the Iraqi people and ourselves to fix it. As far it goes, it's probably the best argument that remains, one which recognises that when you're in a hole, it's time to stop digging. Even so, our presence in Iraq has now gone beyond the tipping point. We're not helping the Iraqi people; if anything, we're hindering them. Our presence in Basra attracts the insurgents that are primarily based further north. Suicide attacks against British troops, as well as roadside bombs, are more likely to kill innocent civilians than the occupying force. Troops can do little to stop the sectarianism and Islamification which has infected Basra, once one of the most liberal and relaxed of Iraqi cities. The only reason that the troops now seem to be there is to offer political support to the Bush administration, as any attempt to pull them out would leave the Americans as the sole occupying power. It's little wonder that the generals have failed to convince their political masters to pull out of Iraq while the American mid-terms are only weeks away.

The biggest failure of all three of the main political parties today is that none have pulling out of Iraq as a policy. All three, partially frightened of looking soft on terror or of being attacked by Labour as betraying the Iraqi people, continue to believe that the troops there are doing sterling work under huge adversity. That may well be true, but leaving our soliders there to serve as target practice for either local malcontents or jihadists is just as much a betrayl of their families as removing them would be. To advocate pulling the troops out now would not be to cut and run, it would be to recognise that only so much can be done, that only so much pain can be caused to a once proud nation. Without the troops there, the flow of foreign jihadists would start to trickle, making it a harder job for the radicals in charge of the insurgency to convince their recruits that killing civilians will somehow help remove the occupying armies. More money and help could be concentrated on training the Iraqi army, as well as dealing with the grievances that drive the ex-Ba'athists and Sunnis who reject the current government and constitution. That no one other than Respect is calling for this is pure political cowardice.

As for Afghanistan itself, things are little better. Although Nato claims to have killed hundreds of alleged Taliban fighters (no one really knows for certain whether those resisting are actually the resurgent Taliban, locals paid to fight, or criminal warlords involved in opium smuggling) in recent weeks, suicide attacks have sky-rocketed. Another today killed at least 12 people in Kabul. The army itself is suffering from both low morale and shortages of ammunition and equipment. This has been exacerbated by the fact that they themselves don't really have proper idea what they're even doing there; the ministers involved, first John Reid and now Des Browne, have comprehensively failed to convey both to the public and the soldiers what the mission actually is. Is it security and reconstruction? Is it fighting the Taliban? Is it eliminating the opium crop? Is it stopping al-Qaida from taking up residence again? A BBC poll found that the latter was what 71% thought the troops presence was about, while 63% thought it was to fight the Taliban, with 46% believing it's to stop the flow of drugs. This confusion is a result of Reid's claims that they hoped to leave Helmand without so much as firing a single bullet. Instead, they've been involved in a bloody turf war from almost the moment they arrived. That their presence appears to have galvanised the Taliban, something that could have been predicted, seems to have been forgotten about.

The case for the immediate pulling out from Afghanistan, supported by some 53% according to the BBC's poll, is a lot weaker than the one for withdrawing from Iraq. Some welcome the British presence, others are resentful and suspicious, feelings which aren't helped by the troops at times having no idea who they're killing when they call in helicopter gunships and air-strikes; those fighting the troops, despite their occasionally audacious tactics and suicide attacks, are relatively weak, and reconstruction is far less likely to happen if there isn't a western presence, something that can't be said of Iraq. Even so, the current deployment and the political support for it has been a complete fiasco. While the argument made by ministers is that to abandon Afghanistan would be to allow the terrorists to take root again is simplistic, in that they have already done so in Pakistan, it has a ring of truth about it. While Karzai still has little control outside Kabul, the tyranny of the Taliban has mostly gone. Girls are increasingly going to school, despite the threats made against teachers. Women are much freer, even with the attempts by the Taliban to silence their strongest critics.

More needs to done to reassure both the British public and the Afghans that we are not there merely to be either target practice or to kill civilians while attempting to tackle the Taliban. The opium crop requires a radical solution, such as the purchasing of it for medicine. Johann Hari encountered the irony of a hospital in Kabul having no painkillers, while out in the fields the farmers were enjoying their biggest harvest ever. While in the past this blog has been somewhat defeatist about Afghanistan, it seems more and more obvious that something can be done to stop that nation from falling back into being a failed state, the exact opposite of what we're currently achieving in Iraq. The most sane thing would be to announce a departure date for our troops from the south, allowing the Iraqis to be ready in time to deploy there, and as the generals have argued, to concentrate on Afghanistan. We should not be there to conquer, or kill, but to help. The dropping of the mask of imperialism is essential if we are to win hearts and minds both here in Britain and in the Middle East. Until that happens, then the demands to bring the troops home will not only continue, but will be the right policy.

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