By some margin the most impressive newcomer to Parliament is Rory Stewart – a fact only slightly diminished by the clear evidence that Mr Stewart strongly agrees with it. I was struck, watching him on Question Time some time before the election, that the other panellists (I remember Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams) were very deliberately deferring to him when talking about Afghanistan – he is clear and authoritative on subjects he knows well.
His controlled pessimism
on the prospects of NATO in Afghanistan are, therefore, worthy of respect – and not because they tally so strongly with my opinion. His proposal for a long-term limited Western presence, acting to prevent things getting completely out of control, but not attempting to act as a Government seems to me to be the closest thing to success anyone is likely to get out of Afghanistan. It is, after all, a mirror of British Imperial policy towards Afghanistan and the North West Frontier in the period following the disastrous First Afghan War.
The lesson learned from that was that it was not possible, with the available resources, for Britain to maintain any sort of armed presence in Afghanistan – the people were relentlessly and enduringly hostile to any sort of foreign occupation. But equally, British aims in Afghanistan (essentially, preventing it from becoming a base for Russian activities in India) did not require any such formal expansion. Better to maintain sufficiently strong forces that if the Afghans did pose a threat, either by raids into British India or by welcoming Russian diplomats, the British were able to launch preventive or punitive raids. The same tactics were used on the Frontier itself – live and let live as much as possible, but be ready to hit quickly when things got out of hand.
In the excellent Bugles and a Tiger by John Masters, a perfect example of this near-permanent low-level frontier war is given in the opening chapter – a description of the British policy of barampta (a sort of military rampage through hostile territory) in Waziristan. NATO ought to consider the probability that a military occupation of Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed, given the resources that we are prepared to invest in it. Augustus called it ‘fishing with a golden hook’ – the prize is greatly outweighed by the cost. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to reach out a long arm and prevent the Taliban from winning power, without maintaining a substantial military presence in the graveyard of Empires?
Otherwise, as Stewart says, the reason for our presence there becomes strangely circular:
Europe is simply in Afghanistan because America is there. America is there just because it is. And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact.
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. Have a banana.