The troops have been brought home, Camp Bastion is again empty desert and everyone’s happy the news no longer features Hercules aircraft landing at Brize Norton with another load of coffins. Everyone—the government, the opposition, MoD, the Army, the veterans and the families most of all—wants to draw a line and move on.
But it should not be that simple. Despite the human cost, there are good and bad wars. Without Isandhlwana, Omdurman and other Boys Own adventures, Britain would have languished as a second-rate nation on the periphery of Europe. Whatever you think of Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’, making a fifth of the world pink made Britain rich and powerful, predating America’s ‘manifest destiny’ by more than a century.
All that was possible only courtesy of an omnipotent Royal Navy and an army fielding some of the toughest infantry ever to wear a uniform. That omnipotence went by the board some time ago but the quality of British servicemen in terms of professionalism has remained a standard by which others are still measured.
And, as a result, the British Armed Forces have found themselves in some kind of shooting war in each and every decade since WWII, despite the Empire shrinking from a fifth of the world to odd corners too remote/poor/uninhabited to constitute viable countries. After India, our ‘Jewel on the Crown’ became independent in 1947 and an avalanche of colonies followed suit, the interventions that could once be seen as internal and therefore essential—Mau Mau in Kenya, Eoka in Cyprus, Communists in Malaya—evolved into intervention in sovereign countries.
Although no British Forces were involved in Vietnam, the litany of involvements from Sierra Leone to various Arabian flare-ups and culminating in Iraq and Afghanistan, have become a fixture in British policy.
Developed, mature Western democracies like Germany and Sweden play global roles; they both out-manufacture and out-export Britain these days. They therefore have more economic interest in what goes on around the world than most. Yet they decline to throw their weight around. Their armed forces are deployed outside of their borders only on UN peacekeeping missions. As a result, their standing around the globe—but especially in developing countries—is enviable. They are seen as a force for good, for progress, for co-operation.
Contrast that with Britain, that insists it is still a world power and still entitled to a seat on the UN Security Council, justifying this by retaining Trident. The result? Muslim and ex-Comecon countries regard Britain as an American pawn, ex-colonies use it mostly as a source of aid; British friendship is more cultivated to ease arms sales than anything else. The argument that British Foreign Policy is more driven by the US State Department and BAE than the long-term interests of its citizens is hard to refute.
Because, since Blair mortgaged real global independence to maintain the ‘special relationship’ with Bush and the ‘world’s policeman’, ever-diminishing British forces have been increasingly absorbed in wars of intervention that they are hard-pressed to sell as ‘good’ wars. The initial Taliban-ousting success in Afghanistan was squandered when the focus shifted to Iraq too early. And for the next decade, the British Army was enmired in an un-winnable civic squabble that made Ulster look like a cake-walk. At least everyone in Ulster spoke English.
Estimates vary but the US has spent something like $1.6tn on its involvements to date. That’s £1,000,000,000,000 or twice Britain’s entire budget. The war in Afghanistan alone has cost Britain ‘just’ 4% of that—£37bn. Since 2006, on a conservative estimate, it has cost £15m a day to maintain Britain’s military presence in Helmand province. The equivalent of £25,000 will have been spent for every one of Helmand’s 1.5 million inhabitants, more than most of them will earn in a lifetime.
MoD officials claim “British troops were in Helmand to protect British national security by helping Afghans build up their own security forces”. But, after 2,400 wounded and 444 dead British soldiers (not to mention around 500 ‘civilian’ dead) and ten years, what has been achieved? Contrast with Iraq, a ‘bargain’ at only £8.4bn (MoD figure for 2003-09 only). Civilian deaths in Iraq have been a feature of the country since it was ‘liberated’ from Hussein’s tyranny, worsening recently as the ISIS offensive has destabilised the place yet again. There is every reason to believe that Afghanistan will mirror just as sorry a tale over the next decade.
Unfortunately, nobody in Britain seems to be asking what £45bn has bought civilisation, let alone Britain. Rather than killing umpteen foreign nationals for questionable aims, that sum translates into 115 hospitals or 2,250 schools or the entire government investment in the rail industry for the last decade.
Had the net result of either adventure (Iraq or Afghanistan) resulted in either becoming a model of democracy and stability now taking its place amidst the world community, an argument could be made that the money was well spent. But from the French at Dien Bien Phu to the British in Helmand lies a trail of hostility bred from cultural incomprehension and the mistaken belief that (in a repulsive phrase much in use during the hapless US incursion into Vietnam) “inside every gook, there’s an American trying to get out”.
Typical of the cultural mountain to climb was that in 2010, after five years of war, just three officials among the 160 UK Embassy staff in Kabul spoke Pashto. The proportion among serving officers in Helmand was even worse and among troops engaged in ‘pacification’ none at all. Here and in Iraq, Britain (like its US master) were using the wrong tool for the job. ‘Shock and Awe’ destruction of Hussein’s or the Taliban regular forces was a doddle. The cultural colonialism that followed was doomed to failure, just as a multiplicity of band-aids is no cure for brain hemorrhaging.
But, worse than leaving the country occupied with little or no net benefit, the resentment caused by the presumptive dismissal of local culture makes enemies where there were none. This, in turn, feeds the propaganda of those already hostile. There is an argument that 7/7 would not have happened had Britain not been hostile to such muslim countries. If Britain is to include, as it does, significant numbers of muslims who are to be regarded as citizens and equal as such, then following the US-led ‘global policeman’ foreign policy is hard to reconcile with such principles.
Is it not time that Britain lost the delusion of being a World Power, propping up that claim with nuclear weapons? It can afford neither and would become a better global citizen more at peace with itself and its ethnic complexity. And when the outdated post-imperialists protest that we must be prepared to defend ourselves against the likes of Putin with his designs on Ukraine, ask them how they would feel if Russia started dictating British policy in Ulster or its relationship with Eire.