July 9, 2009
No? That could be a problem.
We have been so preoccupied with other issues that it is easy to forget that our commitment to Afghanistan has rumbled on since 2001. It has lasted longer than the Second World War. There are currently about 8,000 British troops there, a steady stream of casualties, and every prospect — for this is an obdurate struggle against tough opponents — that the stream will roll on. I discern little evidence of public approval of the war. As Help for Heroes has demonstrated, there is abundant support for the men and women fighting it, and the mismatch worries me, for we may easily persuade ourselves that the best way of helping our heroes is to keep them out of harm’s way.
We all know what Clausewitz thought: passion in war was typically associated with the population. Their engagement allowed societies to endure great hardship in awful industrial conflicts. But then, they would probably be involved in the fighting themselves. To endure the horror of modern war, it was essential that they were passionately engaged: reason didn’t come into it. Chateaubriand hit the nail on the head when he wrote that:
Men don’t allow themselves to be killed for their interests, they allow themselves to be killed for their passions.
That’s true of modern war, but what about postmodern? How long can you sustain non-existential wars when the much of the population is sceptical or apathetic at best; albeit that it remains well disposed to its small professional armed forces? The answer is, I think, that we don’t really know: we’ve only been here once before in Iraq, and that’s not a hopeful example.
What’s the level of public support for the Afghan war? There’s some worrying evidence. Two thirds in this poll wanted British troops out within a year. In this one, 60% were unconvinced by the government’s case for keeping troops there. In Afghanistan, as it goes, support is holding up rather better.
It’s easy to blame politicians – why can’t they explain the strategy better? Why can’t they resource the strategy better? Why haven’t they got a better strategy? ‘I don’t know why we’re there,’ is a familiar public refrain. But the reasons are plain enough – to tackle extremism that threatens us, to build a better society for Afghans, to maintain our alliance with the United States and the vitality of NATO. The problem is not that there are no reasons, but that the reasons do not resonate with the public – they are not passionate, they are not involved.
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