Afghanistan: muddleheaded tactics and pay cuts

Most of us recognise that the war in Afghanistan is futile, probably unwinnable, and a colossal waste of money. It’s unusual to hear outspoken criticism from the heart of the British establishment, however, which makes the words of former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, something of a breath of fresh air. He’s especially hard on American general David Petraeus, who he says “should be ashamed of himself” for bragging about the numbers of Taliban killed by armed forces.

Petraeus has made a point of hunting down Taliban leaders and has claimed that his forces are capturing or killing approximately 360 Taliban leaders every three months. As Cowper-Coles points out, however, this approach is “not conducive to a stable political settlement”. It’s more reminiscent of the kind of trash talk that fuels sporting rivalries.

It’s possible that Petraeus really does see the conflict in Afghanistan in these kinds of ‘us against them, winner takes all’ terms; a truly horrifying prospect. If we’ve learned anything from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, it’s surely that brute displays of military force do not win people over. Quite the reverse: they appear crass and clumsy, and generally alienate those who they are intended to cajole.

Meanwhile, it’s become clear that cuts aimed at saving money will cost around 4,000 paratroopers, some of whom only earn just over £1,000 a month after tax, about £2,000 a year each. We may not be in favour of the war in Afghanistan, but to reduce the pay of people who are risking their lives there, and who hardly earn a fortune in the first place, strikes us as inhumane. £1,000 a month is barely enough to live on in many areas of the country, and this for some of the most uncomfortable, risky, and psychologically traumatising work available.

There’s a simple solution to both these dilemmas: stop funding a large-scale military offensive in Afghanistan, and concentrate either on securing peace or simply on withdrawing from this needless — and probably illegal — war.

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