Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday, and the mood seemed to be even more reflective and sombre than usual. It’s a difficult day. The anniversary is no longer shared by anyone who actually fought in the First World War, and it has always struck me as strange that this is the limit we place on remembrance, especially as we are currently re-fighting wars that appeared to have ended (at least for us) many years ago.
Britain has been at war in one form or another for longer than it has been at peace over the last 150 years: during the reign of Queen Victoria there was hardly a year without a colonial war of some description taking place. Even since the Second World War there have been many conflicts involving British troops – Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Suez, the Falklands… it is to Harold Wilson’s great credit that he avoided involvement in the Vietnam War.
It is in some ways a fortunate (though in Britain hardly recognised) co-incidence that this week also marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, which in many ways actually marks the end of the sequence of European conflicts provoked by the approach to the First World War. The fall of the wall was a decisive move in the process of Western European integration in a way that makes inter-European wars increasingly less likely. The European Union is exactly what its original designers intended it to be – a direct response to the lessons that we should have learned: that in an age of total war there are ultimately no victors. Many people now living are too young to remember the aftermath of the Second World War – hunger and poverty that took years to eradicate. Only cooperation offers a way forward – and that’s the path that European nations have chosen. It’s only those who wish to re-awaken ancient rivalries and hatreds who oppose this.
But if we only remember the lessons of the two great wars, we miss lessons that are still relevant today. Many of the colonial wars in Queen Victoria’s reign were fought in and around Afghanistan and the tribal areas of North West Pakistan. There is little comfort in looking back that far. No attempt to enforce an external settlement on Afghanistan against the wishes of the tribal factions has succeeded – in fact the Afghans wiped out a 20,000 strong British army that occupied Kabul for a short time. This is a lesson that the Russians also failed to learn: a country like Afghanistan, where communications are difficult, and there is no tradition of strong central government cannot be ruled by force alone.
Each time Afghanistan has been invaded it has been for the same basic reason: that the “lawlessness” of the tribes is a danger to the country’s neighbours. And each time the only long-term answer has been the same: to form a coalition of tribal leaders (the current jargon is “war lords”) to enable a modicum of stability to allow the population to live their lives in peace.
The initial defeat of the Taleban should have provided an opportunity for this kind of coalition building, but extending the “War on Terror” into Iraq simply made a difficult situation worse. Now the West appears to be just like the Russian Communists, portrayed as a godless invader whose ultimate purpose is to eliminate Islam – more easy propaganda for extremists.
Negotiation is the only way forward. We do not have the will to try to impose a puppet regime on the country, as the Russians did (and even they did not have the military power to sustain that regime), and the failure of the democratic process simply makes negotiations even more vital both in the short and long term.
But that means that we have to define why we are in Afghanistan in the first place. If it is simply to oust Al Qaida from its strongholds (which was the original reason) it cannot be done by force alone, as the past years of destruction have shown, unless we are willing to contemplate an open ended commitment to fighting a guerrilla war in terrain that gives all the advantages to the guerrillas. Such wars cannot be won militarily by the means that we are willing to use – and the methods required to win a military victory are repugnant to civilised society. The British Army learnt that lesson in Malaya and Borneo. The US should have learnt the lesson from Vietnam.
If we do not learn the lessons of history, then we simply make the same mistakes over and over again.
That is true remembrance