It took thirty years for the British army and security forces to bring the situation in Northern Ireland to the point where terrorists were willing to give up fighting before becoming part of mainstream politics.
During that time there were many calls to abandon the province, the ‘Troops Out’ movement being just one voice amongst many. Even in the general public on the mainland, there was widespread disillusionment about the worthwhileness of the military commitment and the cost in money and lives.
Fortunately, not just for those on the mainland but for the people of Ireland, there was just enough determination to see the worst of the conflict through to a solution.
There were many misunderstandings and mistakes on the way. English politicians, in particular, never really ‘got it’ regarding Ulster Protestantism, and there was no Canon Andrew White around to spell out the real importance of religion in the situation. Had this been appreciated, I personally believe the conflict could have been resolved ten or fifteen years sooner.
In the end, however, sheer stubbornness and the growing skills of the security forces, combined with a communal weariness over tit-for-tat killings, all combined to make the conflict something everyone wanted to bring to an end. That, and the fact that we didn’t have Wootton Bassett.
The efforts of the people of Wootton Bassett to honour the returning war dead from Afghanistan are entirely commendable. Unfortunately, in the post-Diana era, they have created an emotional flash-point which simply cannot coexist with the kind of determination necessary to bring such a conflict to a satisfactory conclusion.
It is the job of soldiers to kill and, as they remind themselves with typical humour, Afghanistan is a ‘two way range’. The enemy shoot back and sometimes they kill in return. An acceptance of this and the willingness to tolerate the consequences is part of what is known as ‘morale’, and morale is an essential element in victory. It is not guarantee of success, but its absence is a sure guarantee of failure.
And in both Iraq and Afghanistan, morale has generally been good. The modern soldier is much less like those who fought in Vietnam. There are no demonstrators in the colleges chanting, ‘Hell, no, we won’t go!’, for example. Indeed, the modern soldier is unlike any in this country since the introduction of conscription in the First World War and the ending of National Service in the 1960s. For the equivalent, you would have to go back to the professional armies of the nineteenth century. And a professional army accepts risk in a way that a conscript, however brave, does not.
Thus it is not the soldiers who are asking to be brought home (read the British Army blog linked from this blog). Rather, it is the politician, who is sensitive to public pressure.
That is why President Obama’s announcement of a dramatic pull-out from Afghanistan has to be seen as tantamount to surrender. There is still the rhetoric of reaching a successful conclusion, but it is a clear signal of the absence of will. Imagine if, in 1984, following the Brighton bombing, Margaret Thatcher had announced the intention that all troops would be withdrawn from Northern Ireland by 1990? Now you can imagine how the Taliban must be feeling today — ‘it is only a matter of time’.
And the reality of the situation can be gauged by responses in the media here — not just the actual articles, but the comments, most of which seem to be along the lines of ‘about time too, we were stupid to get involved in the first place’. Above all, the perception of many seems to be that this will finally bring the conflict to an end.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not a conflict from which we can walk away, because it is already present in our own Western communities. Rather what it will do is embolden globally those who are committed to armed jihad.
The place to look, I think, will not be the comments sections of the Guardian, the Independent or even the Telegraph and Times, but the jihadi chat rooms. There, I suspect, the doom and gloom following the death of Osama bin Laden is being replaced by a new optimism. Just when it looked like America indeed had the will and the determination to pursue its enemies to the ends of the earth, light has appeared at the end of the Afghan tunnel.
But remember, those chat room participants do not, by and large, live in Afghanistan. They are not even confined to Pakistan, or the Middle East. They live in Bolton, in London, in New York and in Sydney. And their view will be, ‘We almost beat you in Iraq, and we’ll beat you in Afghanistan. Next we’re going to beat you on your home territory as well.’
As one writer put it yesterday, “America is no longer capable of being the policeman of the world, and may retreat to its historic isolation. Across the Channel, the debt crisis is wrecking the European dream. History is moving faster than ever, and taking us into a new and formless world.”Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.