Afghanistan: No simple solution

Image: Spc. Daniel Love, U.S. Army; Public domain

Image: Spc. Daniel Love, U.S. Army; Public domain

It has become an all too familiar story. Sitting down with my Browns sandwich to watch the BBC one o’clock news, I hear of the tragedy of another British soldier having been killed in Afghanistan. This is almost inevitably followed by the government vainly trying to rally support for the war whilst opposition parties criticise the methods the government is using, or the equipment, or the defence budget, or something else which they can find fault with.

My housemate watching this with me turns and asks me, “Kieran, why are we still fighting in Afghanistan- shouldn’t we just pull out?” My answer surprises her, as my answer is no.

You may, quite rightly, ask why, as did my housemate. It is not because of the government’s previously stated aims. The main explanation given is that the UK’s military presence is reducing the threat from terrorism. In fact, the vast majority of Islamist terrorist incidents in the UK since 2001 have used the war in Afghanistan as a justification for their attacks. Most of the planned and executed attacks involved not Afghanistan but Pakistan.

Another justification is that Britain is bringing democracy to an oppressed people; the name of the war is after all Operation Enduring Freedom. No one can doubt the importance of this; however if this is a central foreign policy objective of the UK then it has a long way to go to bring democracy to all nations which do not meet that criteria.

The government also says that British troops are also being used to try and curb the international opium trade. Unfortunately it has risen substantially from pre-war levels.

This left my housemate feeling a little confused as to why I believed it was vital for the UK and its NATO allies to remain in Afghanistan. The reason why seems to have been overlooked by almost everyone. If the British Army was to leave, then the NATO forces would be gravely weakened, and would probably be unable to meet the challenge of defeating the Taliban. This would almost certainly lead to its return to government, plunging the lives of millions of Afghans back into the misery which they are they trying to escape. However, it is across the border that the wider implications would be felt.

To the south of Afghanistan is Pakistan, also currently fighting against Islamist militants. Failure in Afghanistan could have disastrous consequences for Pakistan. Pakistan is currently in possession of more than 70 nuclear weapons. This year, Pakistan began producing new warheads and missiles. At present, its longest range missiles can go 2500km, which gives it reach into Iraq India, and China. The new missiles aim to increase that reach to 4500km; suddenly, southern Europe, Russia, the Chinese coast and East Africa are potential targets. The consequences of a nuclear armed Pakistan in the hands of the Taliban do not bear thinking about.


  1. It’s not a war (unless you’re American), its OPERATION HERRICK. What evidence is there which suggests it reduces the threat from terrorism – other than Brown rhetoric?

    Is there suggestion that the Taliban have the ability to successfully invade Pakistan? If so, surely they would have to drastically change their doctrine and increase their numbers/military equipment by hundreds of thousands?

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  2. I’m not biting that Afghanistan is a direct threat to the UK. It is, however, our responsibility to make the country safe for its people again – whether through military or through aid. Troops alone won’t be able to stop the continuation and growth of the new-and-improved Taliban, frankly, so we need to push for more non-military support there too.

    “In fact, the vast majority of Islamist terrorist incidents in the UK since 2001 have used the war in Afghanistan as a justification for their attacks.” How many have there been?!

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  3. A really interesting article. I just wanted to respond to the two posts from Jason and ‘Experienced’.

    Experienced- Justfying how something ‘prevents’ something when it is ongoing is academically, almost impossible. However, there is absolutely no doubt at all that by our presence in Afghanistan, we have reduced the threat from Afghanistan-based terror-cells to us in the UK. That cannot really be denied and military success’ has ensured this.

    On Pakistan, it’s not about actual ‘invasion’ or military conquests defined by territory ‘gained’ . It’s about the ability to conduct a covert and geurilla war against the Pakistan government, to destabilise it region by region and eventually topple it. This is a reality I am afraid and why the current offensive by Pakistani forces in Waziristan is just as important as our own presence in Helmand.

    Jason- you have a short memory. 9/11 was conducted from Afghanistan where the Taleban allowed Al Qaeda the freedom to train and breed terrorists. You are correct, that troops alone wont be able to stop the growth of the Taleban, but trust me, without troops do you really and honestly think that Afghanistan will develop and this aid that you speak of will trickle down to the people? The truth is that as in any post-conflict period, development must be accompanied by security. At the moment, we do not have the troops to ensure that once development has taken place, it is safeguarded. In order to achieve success, this must be addressed.

    Aside from the military and political goals of Afghanistan, let’s not forget that we’ve lost close to 240 troops there. Make no mistake, if their lives are not to have been lost in vain then we must stay out there until our job is done and the mission accomplished, because that is our duty to them, to our country and to the Afghan government and their people.

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  4. Just remember Taylor – you are not experienced. Do your service, then come back. If you do make it, you’ll come back with different views.

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  5. 17 Dec ’09 at 10:08 pm

    Kieran Murphy

    Sorry, I should clarify, when I said Islamist terrorist incidents in the UK, I originally had put actual and planned; looks like it got lost in the editing process… Hope that makes that point a little clearer!

    ~J: I completely agree that force alone cannot solve this messy problem; a political solution is essential. My argument was designed to increasing rumblings that we should turn tail and withdraw all of our effort from Afghanistan. A mixture of force and diplomacy is needed- carrot and stick!

    Experienced- Operation Enduring Freedom is the name of the military operation under which British and American forces began operating in Afghanistan in Oct 2001 in an attempt to take Osama Bin Laden into US custody. Operation Herrick is the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan since 2002, when their mission was more of the peacekeeping-nation building one currently seen. However either term seems acceptable, as they do both refer to the same conflict.

    Nowhere in the article do I support the idea that British soldiers are making Britain safer- indeed I identify that as a piece of Brown rhetoric. I was simply pointing out that this is one of the prime reasons given by the UK government as to why our armed forces continue to fight in Afghanistan.

    As Dan Taylor said, it isn’t a question of military force in its traditional sense- from late 2007 onwards, Pakistan has been fighting for its survival against an Islamist guerilla war in its mountainous border regions. These areas are next to Afghanistan. If the Taliban were to succeed in Afghanistan, then the guerillas in Pakistan would be greatly bolstered, possibly to the degree that they would succeed in seizing power. Which is too scary to contemplate.

    Dan Taylor- Given your near legendary status on campus and on the Nouse website, thank you very much for the comments, which I actually can’t find anything to respond to in them!

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  6. What does that last comment add to this comment thread apart from a very American ‘you dunno how bad it was’ Vietnam attitude? You don’t have to ‘be there’ to have an opinion, ‘experienced’.

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  7. Dare I say I may well change my mind if I get deployed there before we have withdrawn. With respect though, having ‘experience’ of a conflict doesn’t give you more right to hold a view on something. This may well have shaped your view but there are other strands of information that allow someone to hold a view on something.

    My point was supporting this article and praising its publication: we must remain in Afghanistan until our mission is achieved. If I am deployed there at any point during my future career, I like to think that my attitude would remain the same, come what may.

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  8. “9/11 was conducted from Afghanistan where the Taleban allowed Al Qaeda the freedom to train and breed terrorists”

    “the vast majority of Islamist terrorist incidents in the UK *since* 2001 ”

    To be honest, the comment can be stretched further back – Al Qaeda weren’t based solely in Afghanistan and the 1993 World Trade Center [sic] attack was by a Kuwaiti Muslim who asked for “a demand for a pledge by the United States to end interference ‘with any of the Middle East countries’ interior affairs’.” The 1998 US Embassy attacks were “scheduled for August 7, the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly a deliberate choice by Osama bin Laden”…

    The attacks prior to 2001 were as a result of US operations in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other Middle East countries (maybe Israel-Palestine?) as much as Afghanistan; but the point was that the phrase “war in Afghanistan” implies that 9/11 wouldn’t qualify, as that was the justification for the Afghanistan war itself – my point was actually that the phrase “vast majority” implies a large number of Al-Qaeda attacks since the invasion of Afghanistan (and also that they were because of Afghanistan) when according to wiki:

    2007 Algiers bombings: “These attacks constitute another act of violence in the ongoing Islamic insurgency, a continuation of the Algerian Civil War that has claimed 200,000 lives” – not because of the Afghanistan War.

    2008 Danish Embassy bombings: “Al-Qaeda issued a statement after the bombing, claiming that the attack was a response to the 2005 publication of the Muhammed Cartoons” – not the Afghanistan War.

    Even then, those aren’t the UK! How many attacks in the UK?

    21/7 – “Late Thursday night, a group calling itself the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade…posted a statement claiming responsibility for the attempted bombings. The group vowed that the terror would continue as long as Europe’s soldiers were in *Iraq*. The group also claimed responsibility for the 7 July 2005 London bombings, the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings, and the 2003 North America blackout.”

    2007 car bombs: “Barot was born in ..India.. His parents moved to the UK from Kenya.. when he was only one year old….Barot travelled to Pakistan in 1995. He took part in militant campaigns against Indian forces in Kashmir” – not linked to Afghanistan specifically then?

    Main UK Islamic terrorist non-Al Qaeda group: “Al-Muhajiroun’s proclaimed aims are to establish public awareness about Islam, to influence public opinion in favor of the sharia, to convince members of society that Islam is inherently political and a viable ideological alternative, to unite Muslims on a global scale in the threats facing the Ummah and to resume the Islamic way of life by re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate.” – not Afghanistan?

    No specified link to Afghanistan for this either:

    Glasgow: “Police identified the two men as Bilal Abdullah…of Iraqi descent…and Kafeel Ahmed…aka Khalid Ahmed, born in India”; “Mohammed Asha, 26, from Jordan”, “Marwah Dana Asha, 27, from Jordan”, “Sabeel Ahmed, 26, born in India”, “Mohamed Haneef, 27, from India” and two “Saudi” men – none of whom have links to Afghanistan.

    2001 shoe bomb: “He is the son of an English mother and a Jamaican father…It is reported that Reid followed a form of Islam known as…Wahhabi…Wahhabism being the state form of Islam in Saudi Arabia…Reid made multiple trips to Pakistan” – again, not Afghanistan

    “China Northern Airlines Flight 6136 (CBF6136, CJ6136) was a flight from Beijing Capital International Airport to Dalian Zhoushuizi International Airport” – nothing to do with USA or UK and therefore can’t be because of Afghanistan.

    My point is that Afghanistan isn’t the cause. It’s the general involvement of the UK and USA in the middle east – or it’s just people fighting for Islam in general. But feel free to counter with examples; I’m always willing to learn!

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  9. “My point is that Afghanistan isn’t the cause…”

    Then we agree. Afghanistan isn’t the cause for terror attacks, but it was the place where Bin Laden- head of Al Qaeda- was residing and being protected. I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make, Jason, other than supporting what we’re saying?

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