I was lucky to get onto a discussion panel in March debating whether or not British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, which was hosted by the university International Affairs Society. One of the speakers against withdrawal, Con Coughlin of The Daily Telegraph, dropped out at the last minute and I grasped the opportunity to hold forth about the war. The opposition appeared intimidating, especially the historian Professor John Newsinger, who I feared would give a detailed analysis about why the military campaign would fail miserably.
As it turned out, both he and Lindsey German from Stop the War were pretty disappointing in the arguments they gave. The narrative that they spun in the debate was that Afghanistan is a neo-imperialist misadventure by the Americans, which the British ‘poodle’ participates in. Our political leaders have given so many reasons for our presence there that have turned out to be hypocritical, from democracy to ‘women’s rights’, that the genuine reason must be wicked. (Professor Newsinger told me afterwards that he believes the reason why the United States is spending hundred of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and losing thousand of lives is because it wants to demonstrate its ‘military prowess’ as it faces economic decline…). At no point did either German or Newsinger mention September 11th. The chronology of their narrative was that we invaded Iraq in 2003 and then invaded Afghanistan in 2006, which confirms the latter is simply American neo-imperialism. That we invaded in 2001 was only referenced occasionally, to make the point that we intervened in a civil war and were ‘biased’ towards ‘one particular side’. German and Newsinger then concluded with the dull point that the conflict can only be resolved by Afghans themselves, so we should leave now and let them get on with it.
I had to restrain myself as much as possible listening to this; as a friend of mine says, it’s difficult to be silent and polite when you know you’re right. But I felt both Josh Arnold-Forster and I destroyed our opponents’ arguments by providing the audience with information about the conflict; not massaging the odd fact to suit a fixed political line, as German and Newsinger were doing. In my speech, I tried to explain who our enemy is in the war, the threat that they pose and how we counter them. With the Q&A session after our speeches, Josh and I improved on our information ‘framework’ and so made the case given for withdrawal look delusional and uninformed.
The difficulties we’re facing in Afghanistan appeal to all the baser sides of human nature and the electorate, especially in Britain: fear, doubt, defeatism, selfishness, isolationism, blood lust (the desire to see the enemy killed, regardless of whether it contributes to success). Distinguished critics of Western presence like Andrew Bacevich and Rory Stewart appeal to some of these baser instincts with seemingly sophisticated analysis. Opponents like Stop of the War, however, have lost an issue in Iraq and have yet to find a role. But I think through educating people about the conflict, they can be won round; this seemed to be the case in March with an audience of liberal, pacific undergraduates.