Afghan fiasco has the Brits squirm

Afghan fiasco has the Brits squirm

In Perspective

Ever heard of a place called Wootten Bassett? No, neither had I until recently. Wootton Bassett has a long history, but few people in the UK had heard of it till a few months ago.

Now, it’s well and truly on the map, due to regular coverage of events there by the British media. This sleepy, picturesque market town in the south of England has become synonymous with the UK’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

The sight on British TV screens of dead service personnel arriving by plane from the conflict in Afghanistan has become a common phenomenon. Shortly after arrival at the nearby air force base at RAF Lynham, they pass through Wootten Bassett on their way to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, in readiness for the coroner.

Local people gather along the edge of the road in silent tribute as the formal procession of flag draped coffins makes its way past. The mainstream media also gather and report on proceedings. With over 200 dead British service personnel from the conflict, this has in recent months become a familiar event.

We are urged by the government and media not to forget that these men were killed fighting for freedom — ‘our’ freedom and that of the people of Afghanistan. The solemnity conveyed by TV reporters as the coffins move through the town resembles the tone used by commentators when the state commemorates the fallen of two world wars who repelled Hitler.

The confusion
But, increasingly, the sanctimonious jingoism that characterises much of the media’s reporting does not wash with sections of the British public, many of whom are confused or angry about the loss of life in a far away place. And it’s no surprise that confusion abounds. Officialdom seems just as confused. At various stages, the official line over the invasion of Afghanistan has shifted from regime change to protecting women’s rights, from defeating the Taliban to eradicating the drug trade, from encouraging economic and social development to preventing terror on the streets of Britain, or to the task of creating a western style democracy within just a few years. Take your pick. The reason for the Brits being in Afghanistan seems to shift from month to month.

And, as the coalition sets out to ‘civilise’ Afghanistan by bringing a good dose of western values, the Left has argued all along that the invasion is illegal and smacks of neo-colonialism. Many figures within the UK, including MP George Galloway and the veteran UK politician Tony Benn, point out that the conflict has less to do with attacking terrorism or high minded notions of democracy, but more to do with geopolitics and US state-corporate self interest and regional domination.

Ordinary people are now increasingly questioning what the UK is doing in Afghanistan and are aware that there is no end-point in sight, despite the rhetoric of Gordon Brown and his ministers who claim that ‘we are winning’ and making Britain a safer place.

Perhaps in saying this, Brown et al are trying to convince themselves because they are certainly failing to convince the public.

As ministers are asked with greater frequency what victory in Afghanistan would look like, they flounder for a clear answer. Their words imply that ‘winning’ is ‘not losing’ and that ‘not losing’ would somehow constitute be a momentous victory. But that’s politicians for you.

In one respect, in the UK, the events in Wootten Bassett have become symbolic of the ideological and moral battleground of the conflict. For some, egged on by the media and government, there is glory in the death of ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan who are fighting for our and Afghanistan’s freedom and democracy. They urge us all to be patriotic by supporting the troops and the war effort, regardless of whether one agreed with the invasion in the first place.

For others, however, this is a futile waste of young life, including the tens of thousands of Afghans who have been killed, which are too often overlooked by the media.

In the UK, public pressure is building for the Brits to get out of Afghanistan. Reading between the lines and despite the official message, the government wants out too, given that there is no end in sight, the loss of British life and the need to tighten public expenditure purse strings after having pumped so much of the nation’s wealth into the ailing banking system. But, having tied much of the UK’s foreign policy to the US in recent times, this will not be an easy thing to accomplish. Being caught between a rock and a hard place is not the best situation to find oneself in. Just ask Gordon Brown.