Who do you trust on the Afghan war?

Whether or not any war is “worthwhile” is never a pretty discussion. But it may be worth trying out some quite tough thinking, so here goes. I conclude (to my own surpirse) that the most important single factor is the military’s enthusiasm.

Charles Moore (The Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2009) discusses the costs of the Afghan war with a robustness which is rather unusual (as we see in another post). He provides an excellent way into some arguments.

For instance, he remarks that the public believes that the determination to win a war ought to reflect – almost proportionately – its death toll. That is: deaths are only acceptable in the degree to which they are suffered in a war which is seriously prosecuted. The war has to be necessary, to be sure, but it must also be pressed home.

This is a bit like saying that politicians had better make darned sure they win a conflict on which they expend our side’s blood.

It is also a little like the three piece argument that Sir Jock Stirrup made on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, just before going off to his official duties at The Cenotaph on Sunday, 8 November. This was that a war’s being worthwhile depended on (a) the merits of the overall mission, (b) whether it had a winning strategy (c) whether it was properly resourced.  Sir Jock argued that all three are in place in the case of the allies’ work in Afghanistan.

He didn’t add, but might have, that it is traditional for the military to be nervous of discussing these matters. After all, (a) and (c) are extremely political.

It is a poor argument (and I don’t think Moore is making it) to say that one must stick with a war as a way of honouring the people who have already died and suffered in it. If the nation decides that the rationale for a war was or has become misconceived, it would be folly to continue to squander lives on it.

Actually, though, it easy to see how the powers-that-be might stick with a war for longer than the general populace and this may lead to a greater military disaster, but equally to the only chance it has of success.

We need to remember that the military like warfare: it is what they are for and once engaged they don’t like to admit they have failed. Politicians are often like that too, though they are more prone to populist anxieties.

For what it’s worth, I am agnostic about the merits of the Afghan war. I am trying to wrestle with an understanding of whose voice is worth listening to.

I am edging toward the conclusion that the military are becoming the most important single voice as to whether any campaign, including this one, is worthwhile.

It is fascinating that the defence of every aspect of the Afghan war is now in the hands of the military. No-one (including me) is very interested in what politicians or Parliament is saying.

Journalists, retired military, academics, politicians, the Government, think-tanks, grieving parents – these and others are interesting. But a combination of knowledge, intelligence, experience and plain locus makes one listen to serving military voices more than any others. And that is perhaps especially because it is the military who pay the highest of the prices involved.

In future efforts I shall try and pick the bones out of that. It is conditioned by whether the military are truly speaking their minds. And by my understanding that the military likes fighting. It is certainly nothing like the understanding I was brought up with.

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Publication date

15 November 2009