Sunday, 13 June 2010

I have this morning written to my M.P.

I have this morning written to my M.P., Mr James (Jim) Paice, who is now an important Minister in the Coalition Government. The letter follows and is self-explanatory:

"Dear Jim,

I write this on a sad Sunday morning. The overnight news that yet another British soldier has been killed in Afghanistan is deeply distressing.

You may recall that I first wrote to you on this subject in June, 2008, when the total of British dead had reached 100. The total is now 295 and very little if anything seems to have been achieved in the past two years. When the total of British dead reaches 300 in a few more days, I have no doubt that there will again be much national wailing and gnashing of teeth, as there invariably is when a 'round' total makes for more arresting headlines. Well, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth here - on the part of Sue and I - for more than two years and I draw your attention now to that wailing and gnashing of teeth, not when the 'round' total of 300 is reached but at the point when the less round total of 295 has been reached.

Though I neither always agree with nor always approve of Mr Matthew Parris of The Times, he has put into better words than I could ever cobble together my opinions on Afghanistan. Here is the link to the Parris piece that appeared in yesterday's (Saturday's) paper:

And, lest you are unable now to access the link, here are the exact words of the article as copied and pasted from The Times. I commend them to you:

"They must know our mission is doomed

Cameron and Clegg have made a calculation: sacrifice more soldiers in Afghanistan to keep on side with the US

David Cameron has picked a fine time to make his Afghan debut. Convoy torched; helicopter shot down; the two security advisers to President Karzai whom the West most trusts resigned; and 29 Nato and British servicemen killed in nine days.

The photograph in Thursday's Times of a burnt-out convoy of Nato supply trucks bound for Afghanistan took me back: not to Afghanistan, but to an earlier visit and another place.

More than 12 years ago I stood at the head of the Asherum Pass in the baking heat of the low, dry mountains of northern Eritrea. "The bodies — thousands of them —", I wrote in The Times, "have been taken away, but the Russian tanks are still scattered across the valley like children's war-toys, smashed and discarded. Everything shows the marks of burning. What a way to die . . . fried alive in those cast-iron coffins of tanks and trucks."

Who now remembers the twists, turns, causes — or even the consequences — of that brutal, pointless, idiotic conflict? I would today be trying my Editor's patience by devoting even a paragraph's space to a war that ended hardly 20 years ago, killed up to half a million people, and cost the Soviet Union perhaps £8 billion. What was that one all about? Who cares now? At the time we all (including this newspaper) had opinions about who should win, and why; but the truth is that the Eritrean war was just a stupid and confused mess, in which no nation's ambitions finally succeeded, no nation's fears were properly conceived, and everybody lost. Thus, in a waste of rusting gun-metal, do geopolitical strategies die.

There are reports that in the ambush of military supply trucks bound for Afghanistan this week more than 50 vehicles were torched and destroyed, and many of their drivers murdered too. Appearing alongside our photo of the ambushed convoy was a report that a US helicopter (on a mission to rescue injured British troops) was shot down in Afghanistan this week, killing four American servicemen.

It has been little noted, but should be, that air transport — the backbone to military logistics in Afghanistan — has so far escaped serious attention from the insurgency. I remember wondering, while flying low and slow in a lumbering freight-carrier across the mountains from Kabul to Uruzgan last year, for how much longer that would continue to be the case, or what could be done if it ceases to be. The Afghan National Army (to which, in the crazed imagination of our own military propagandists, we hope to be handing over the conduct of operations "as soon as possible") doesn't even possess a serious air capability.

So let's get this straight: Afghanistan's own army can't shoulder, their own air capability can't support, and their own economy can't pay for, this war. And that's reckoning without the corrupt and impotent Government in Kabul we are there to shore up. Some exit strategy.

How did we get ourselves into this? In a powerfully sustained inquiry by this newspaper's defence team, The Times this week has gone a long way toward explaining how we British did get ourselves into it. Military chiefs and politicians put the exhortatory Tally-ho! before the more inquisitive What-ho? The melancholy Heigh-ho will follow, in due course. The covering of backs has started already but the truth is that many people actually wanted a fight.

I remember wondering whether my column on this page on January 21, 2006, ("An uplifting country, a worthy cause, but the mission will never work") was any more than ignorant guesswork. "We can't do this with 3,000 men," I wrote, describing what I knew of the geography and economy of Helmand, "I doubt we could do it with 30,000." It felt like whistling in the dark. But as The Times has now shown, people who knew their onions were whistling too.

I've felt proud, this week, of my own newspaper's research and analysis. One thing, however, troubles me, and it should trouble the Prime Minister as he returns from Afghanistan. This newspaper's analysis, though of the recent past, has consequences for the future. For what are we usefully saying, if not that we should never have got ourselves into this? Shouldn't we, then, get out of it?

Hopeless pursuits in politics are governed by what I shall call the Law of the Reverse Pot of Gold. Deliverance is always just a little bit behind you. My law states that in politics the point-of-no-return will typically move forward with the passage of time, but can never overtake yesterday. We can see now that we should never have gone into southern Afghanistan in 2006 — but feel that today it's too late to repent. In four years' time I fear we'll be saying that quitting Helmand in 2010 (as we are) would have been a good time to pull back completely; but now, in 2014, besieged in Kandahar (or wherever) it's too late. Britain's Afghanistan adventure demonstrates horrible parallels with the Eurofighter project which, once its developments costs had passed a few million, people thought too late to cancel. That project will cost us about £20 billion in the end.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg must know in their hearts that this Nato-Isaf operation is doomed. But pull the rug from beneath America's feet now — now, of all times, when we're trying to save BP from the wrath of President Obama? No. The Prime Minister and his deputy have made a calculation.

In one side of the balance they have placed the lives of servicemen alive today, but who will die in Afghanistan in what (when we finally, like the Russians before us, abandon a client government to its fate) will be seen to have been a hopeless cause.

In the other side of the balance they have placed the value of Britain's friendship with America; the share price of BP (with its consequences for our economy); the goodwill of militarists in Mr Cameron's own and (led by Paddy Ashdown) Mr Clegg's parties; the goodwill of much of the media (including, I suspect, this newspaper); the trust of millions who genuinely still believe we are capable of underwriting our own security by guaranteeing a stable state in Afghanistan; and the respect of millions more whose instinct would be that the humiliation of an early exit is just too high a price to pay.

That is the balance. The coalition, like its predecessors, is going to tip it against the lives of those who will, in consequence, die. The politicians don't know who they are. We don't know who they are. They have yet to make their appearance in Wootton Bassett. They remain an abstraction, and abstractions do not weigh as heavily as — in retrospect — those burnt-out tanks at the Asherum Pass now seem to weigh against Soviet adventurism in Africa. The still-to-die have therefore been outweighed. The decision may be right. But, if we can bear it, let us not turn our eyes from the logic."

When I wrote to you in June, 2008, you were a Conservative front-bencher with Governmental hopes and some expectations. You are now a Coalition Government Minister with an important Government post and influence.

I respectfully advise, request, demand that you use what influence you have in the Coalition Government (that is neither fish nor fowl - and it shows) to save the lives of 'those who will, in consequence, die.'

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Woollard."

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