As the pressure for withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan gathers pace, it is countered by one rationale after another – all different – seeking to justify our continued presence. It’s to deny Al Qaeda the opportunity to return to their base of operations in Afghanistan – as though Al Qaeda with its cellular structure is unable to move its base to any number of other places, whether Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen amonst many other options. Or it’s to fight terrorism abroad so that we don’t have to fight terrorism in Britain – as though anybody believes such an absurd notion (when nearly all the terrorist attacks in Britain are home-grown, and anyway if they wanted to attack us from abroad, they don’t need Afghanistan to launch it from). Or to turn a mediaeval warlord-ridden backward country into a functioning modern democracy – come on, pull the other one, there’s 20-30 similar broken-backed States across the globe, so why Afghanistan? Or is it (and this is getting a lot nearer the truth) to avoid the humiliation of the defeat of a super-power by a local insurgency? But if that is the case, how did we get involved in such a disastrous scenario in the first place?
That is a fundamental question which is rarely, if ever, asked since the answer is taken for granted – wrongly. British troops are in Afghanistan because the Bush Administration (i) declared that the attack on the Twin Towers at 9/11 had been launched by Al Qaeda whose base was in Afghanistan, and (ii) wanted diplomatic and military cover from NATO for their invasion of Afghanistan, though of course perfectly capable of completing the exercise themselves. Whilst it is true that some Al Qaeda operations derive from Afghanistan, the whole nature of the organisation is that it is mobile, fluid, non-hierarchical, and non-location specific. The alleged ring-leader of the 9/11 plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was not based in Afghanistan and 15 out of the total 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arqabia, not Afghanistan. So why, 8 years after conquering Afghanistan and completing their mission, are American and British troops still there?
That leads to another question. Why were the Americans so keen to focus on Afghanistan and then switch quickly (as records show that Bush made very clear to Blair within 2 weeks after 9/11 that he intended to do) to Iraq? Saddam Hussein had no involvement whatever in 9/11, though Rumsfeld constantly pressed the CIA (unsuccessfully) to produce evidence that there was such a connection and Bush himself regularly linked together Afghanistan and Iraq in his War on Terror tirades. The answer is oil. Iraq, which was always the main US target, has the third largest oilfields in the world, with known reserves of 115bn barrels of oil and, since so many large fields remain unexplored, quite likely twice as large reserves in total and even possibly more than Saudi Arabia itself. Afghanistan’s strategic position meant it controlled crucial oil corridors out of the Caspian basin which contain the largest repository of oil outside the Middle East.
So 9/11 offered the US the perfect opportunity to go after these two targets which, without the attack on the Twin Towers, would have been politically impossible. Some have even argued that the US was already primed earlier in 2001 to undertake these invasions anyway – it’s just that 9/11 conveniently paved the way for them. The evidence for that is that the BBC reported on 18 September 2001 that Niaz Niak, a former Pakistan foreign secretary, was told by senior American officials in Berlin in mid-July 2001 that “military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October”.
Against all this background, it is clear that this is not our war. It is the Americans’ war, fought for their own ulterior motives. The problem is extrication, which cannot be done quickly. But it should now be an unequivocal goal of UK military and diplomatic planning to achieve an exit as soon as feasible.