I was going to write a fluffy, nothing post about naming characters in stories. But that was before I saw a short snippet of news from Wootton Bassett, taking vox pops from people lining the streets for the most recent return of dead soldiers from Afghanistan.

Now. I think the people of Wootton Bassett are marvellous. Any soldier who risks his life on the frontlines of any war we fight deserves the knowledge that any sacrifice he makes will be honoured and recognised by the country they serve. Even if it seems the rest of the country has shrugged this off onto the shoulders of one small Wiltshire town.

But the news report featured one man who voiced the common comment about Afghanistan, or Iraq. “Five years is too long, it should have been five years ago,” he said, referring to Cameron’s statement today. “We’ve done the job, it’s time for us to leave.”

“What job?” I wanted to ask him. In effect, Blair dove headlong into Afghanistan alongside Bush to flush out terrorism. Perhaps the goal was also to bring stability to the region. In an ideal world, there should also have been a commitment to helping the Afghan people rebuild their society and economy after the violence of the last 50 years.

To my knowledge, we’ve not succeeded in any of these ‘jobs’. It’s a reductive view, I admit, and I haven’t read any of the reports or inquests surrounding the war or its ongoing impact. But by rights if we go in somewhere we ought to at least stick around until it looks like we might have achieved something.

Alright, so that could sound dangerously close to certain American thinking during Vietnam. And my entire knowledge of Afhganistan comes from a book, a film and various satirical comedy shows. But I don’t honestly believe that there’s as much direct similarity between the two wars as tabloids might shriek about.

To unearth a point in all this blather, though, it really feels that what people (newspapers, politicians, actual people) mean when they say “it’s time to leave” or “we’ve done the job” is one thing, and one thing alone: Soldiers are dying in a country and a conflict that none of us really understand, and that doesn’t feel right.

Here goes. The truth is, soldiers die. No one should have to die, but between a soldier and a shop keeper the odds are very much on the former catching a bullet and a tragic early grave. Of course it’s tragic. Of course it’s terrible. But we should never forget that these poor men and women are soldiers.

That said, the age of the greater majority of the casualties is obviously upsetting. As is the fact that many of the soldiers killed are young men with few other options in life, and many of them with wives and babies. Perhaps these kids deserve more sympathy than the similarly young but far more privileged officers.

When kids die, there has to be a cast iron reason as to why. When young soldiers are dying, we need to know they died for something. In Afghanistan it does look as if young men and women are being killed for nothing, especially given that the mainstream news outlets are just never going to respect the intelligence of their viewers or readers enough to explain the history of the country and why it needs a hand to rebuild.

I’ve got to say I don’t know exactly why the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 70s, but they did. The Americans supported insurgents in the region with weapons and training to make sure the Russians couldn’t control the country – and these rebels were just as difficult for the Soviets to deal with as they are now. Because they are, effectively, the people killing British soldiers, with weapons dug up from caches of arms provided by the US around 40 years ago.

When the Soviets were driven out, what remained was a shattered and broken country ruled by an uncompromising group who’d made use of the chaos to snatch whatever they wanted and suppress anyone who didn’t fit with their world view. Women, for example, or low caste minorities.

Afghanistan is a huge and barren place, and with no real infrastructure left and the support of the Americans now withdrawn (because the ‘job’ had been done) it cannot be surprising that no one fell over themselves to thank the West for what they thought they had achieved. Yes, yes, okay, so I got all this from Charlie Wilson’s War and The Kite Runner. But both made me ask questions, and that’s what’s really important.

At the same time, of course, we were busy making a bollicks of Iran. But that’s another story. Right now we’re in Afghanistan alongside the Americans, fighting disillusioned and coerced Afghans, many of who have grown up only knowing the West as the side responsible for flushing their country of birth down the toilet. Threatening to bomb them back to the stone age is exactly what they want to hear – it totally confirms their beliefs. They want us in their country, because they want revenge.

Soooo… What am I trying to say? Well, I don’t think we should be leaving Afghanistan. Not now, not in five years. Not until either the country is capable of rebuilding itself – culturally and structurally – or someone else (the US? Other nations from the Middle East?) steps in to help the process.

We cannot make the same mistake again, just to reap the same whirlwind once more another generation down the line. We can’t abandon this country that we’ve ravaged in search of our own revenge and allow power-clutching men to hoodwink uneducated and furious youngsters. Of all the Middle East countries in crisis, Afghanistan is probably one of the only places in which we should be. If, that is, every effort is directed at rebuilding and supporting.

People are going to die in Afghanistan. But if we leave now, and leave because we feel a job has been done, or something has been achieved, or because we’ve no perception of the reasons behind the war but feel enough blood has been spilt all the same, people are going to die again in Afghanistan.

I know very little, which is always a dangerous thing. I would love to be told that I’m wrong, that I myself have been hoodwinked by fiction in film or on the page. I don’t believe that’s totally the case, but it’s only through constant discussion and questioning that any of us find any sort of truth.

Whatever I write is meaningless in the vapid internet, but I can’t help but wish more people asked questions, watched programmes that challenged common perceptions (like the excellent Newswipe, or anything by Adam Curtis). Giving a shit is hard work sometimes, but it doesn’t take that much to just think twice about the big stuff that’s going on around us.

As an example: I can say with confidence that almost everything you’ve ever read or heard about videogames from mainstream, mass-market media will have contained at least one glaring error or fudged judgement. And if the media (and, by extension, politicians, public figures, celebrities, you, me) can be so misinformed and spread such misinformation about fucking toys, where does that leave us when the topic is so complex, sensitive and colossal as that of Afghanistan, and why we simply cannot leave?


About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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2 Responses to Afghanistan

  1. Yes, to all of that, especially the shoutout to Adam Curtis.

    Soldiers sign up to kill and to die and they should be under no illusions about it – there’s something tremendously selfish about signing up to something that hugely increases your chances of death or severe disability when you have a young family.

    Regarding Afghanistan; there are so many failed and pariah states in the world, that the concept of stabilising them all is getting rather scary – but what’s amazing is the way that technology is giving them a way towards carving out a niche that massively improves their quality of life. Even the people of the pirate state, Somalia, are benefitting from global trade, banking and communications – albeit only to make ransoms for abducted sailors easier to transfer. I think Afghanistan just needs a slow build-up of this viral infrastructure from it’s edges (like the book Air) – but our first task before we leave is to put the country into a stable state.

    • zephyrtron says:

      The interesting thing would be to look at how many young men with no other choices and low education (and no patronising here) have their marriages and families after enlisting.

      My guess is that these guys know their risks, and know that married couples receive more compensation, and probably more so if they have kids. This might sound a cynical or even insulting opinion, but I think it’s actually really sensible and caring.

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