Thursday, September 24, 2009

Home Front: Afghanistan battle for hearts and minds must be won - Times

Picture - New recruits to the Afghan National Army take part in a training session at the Kabul Military Training Centre. A massive effort is under way to train thousands of new troops to join the fight against the Taleban-led insurgency.

By Michael Evans

It was early 2006, and the paratroopers of 16 Air Assault Brigade took a breather during exercises on Salisbury Plain to say what they had been told to say about their forthcoming campaign in Helmand province. “Reconstruction, reconstruction, reconstruction,” they piped in unison.

Three years later the politics of this campaign have changed beyond recognition. Instead of reconstruction, we have had violence and mayhem, and the public in Britain, in the United States and in every country that has troops in Afghanistan are asking what has gone wrong, and if lives are being sacrificed needlessly.

The biggest challenge for the Government now is not how to beat the Taleban but how to keep the public at home onside. People tend to support the Armed Forces whatever they do but if there is any perception that British troops are dying in Afghanistan for no good reason the tide of opinion will turn.

It is difficult to get across the message that Britain is at war. There are no daily bulletins from the Ministry of Defence, as there were when a Royal Navy Task Force was sent off to the Falklands in 1982. But the “Wootton Bassett factor” — the Wiltshire town where mourning crowds gather whenever a hearse carrying a dead soldier passes through — is having an effect on the nation’s psyche.

Other Nato countries have the same problem. In Italy, for example, the mission in Afghanistan is normally described as a peacekeeping operation. Then six Italian soldiers are killed by a suicide bomber, and suddenly it’s a war, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, tells his public that he wants his troops out.

Germany was the forgotten ally, with its troops engaged in non-combat roles in the north until the Taleban began to move in and upset the peace. German soldiers died and the soft rules of engagement had to be changed to allow them to shoot first and ask questions later. Back home in Germany the “war” was suddenly no longer an issue just for the British, Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Danish and Estonians, engaged in daily skirmishes with the Taleban in the south. It was a shock for the German public and for the Berlin Government.

No government can afford to forget the power of public opinion. Despite the mantra that the troops are being sacrificed in Helmand to prevent terrorist attacks on our streets, the argument is difficult to grasp when even the head of MI5 admits that the majority of the terrorist incidents in this country can be linked back to Pakistan — not to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the argument is sound. Afghanistan has to be seen in the context of the region, not as a country in isolation. If the Taleban were allowed to dominate Afghanistan, there are enough links with their fellow fanatics in Pakistan — in the Taleban and in al-Qaeda — for the nightmare scenario to develop: jihadist extremists with their hands on nuclear weapons. British troops are not being sacrificed in vain.

For the full report click here for the TimesOnline


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/24/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. This is a great article.