Tony Blair's Great Afghan Adventure

Alan Woods takes a look at the unsuccessful military exploits of the British expeditionary force that Tony Blair so enthusiastically sent to Afghanistan, hoping to take on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

(Or, Stirring Tales for Little Children)

There is an old children's nursery rhyme that goes:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Like many other English traditional children's songs, this is actually a very old political satire, based on the unsuccessful military exploits of an English general who really was the Duke of York and whose statue, if I am not mistaken, can still be seen in central London, not far from Piccadilly.

What brought this song to my mind was the recent exploits of the British expeditionary force in Afghanistan, which closely follows the military pattern established so long ago by the aforementioned Duke of York.

Some time soon we must republish what we wrote about the perspectives for the war in Afghanistan and the whole world situation after September 11. I believe that, with this or that error of detail, the general development of events closely correspond to what we predicted.

We said that the Americans could easily take Kabul, for the simple reason that the Taliban would not fight to defend the cities, but would just melt away, merging with the civilian population or crossing the border into Pakistan, where they would await a convenient moment to launch a guerrilla war that could go on for years.

Now, anyone who has read Mao knows that the first principle of guerrilla war is to avoid a head-on conflict with superior (regular) forces. He wrote: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

All this would seem to be pretty ABC stuff for anyone with a slight knowledge of military science. But things are obviously what they used to be in the British army, and even worse in number ten Downing Street.

A few weeks ago the British announced the sending of a military force to Afghanistan. These were not just any troops, but the Royal Marines - some of the finest fighting troops in the British army. Tony Blair and his ministers were emphatic in their speeches in the House of Commons that this was no mere token mission, but the Brits were going there to sort out the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The unfortunate marines were immediately dispatched, loaded down with heavy packs of equipment, to some of the most remote and unfriendly territory in this most remote and unfriendly country. For weeks on end they trudged up and down rugged mountains 11,000 feet high, gasping for breath in the rarefied atmosphere, without so much as catching sight of a mountain goat, let alone Osama bin Laden.

Things were getting bad. And in Bagram, in Washington and in London, there a lot of questions were being asked, as the Observer newspaper unhelpfully pointed out:

"Some are simple demands: what exactly are the 750 Royal Marines who went 'into combat' last week actually doing? Others query the aims and effectiveness of the whole coalition campaign in Afghanistan. Where are the al Qaeda? Why has no one mentioned Osama bin Laden for weeks? Why are British forces being withdrawn from peacekeeping operations while our soldiers are drawn deeper into a guerrilla war?

"Other questions, from people broadly supportive of the aims of Operation Enduring Freedom, raise more profound concerns about the presentation of the war, the apparent spin on deadly serious operations and the seemingly meagre flow of information that actually reaches the public about what 'Our Boys' are doing in the harsh, dusty, dry mountains 3,500 miles away."

When the "gentlemen of the press" begin to ask awkward questions about the usefulness of military operations (which, apart from lives, cost a lot of taxpayers' money), then it really is time to act.

The Observer was finally able to report dramatic developments from the front line:

"Last Thursday night, six black Chinooks lifted off from the airstrip at Bagram, hovered for a moment and then howled off through the black night. They were taking British troops into battle.

"According to the official account, around 1,000 British soldiers were flown into the rugged mountains between the eastern Afghan cities of Khost and Gardez after Australian SAS units were engaged - with rocket propelled grenades, 122mm mortars and heavy machine guns coming at them from four directions - by fighters loyal to bin Laden's al Qaeda and the Taliban at 2 pm on Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning American airpower, primarily an American AC-130 'Spectre' flying gunship, had wiped out the attackers, killing an unknown number. Through Friday the Chinooks flew in and out of Bagram ferrying Marines, with all their military hardware, to where they were to find and destroy all remaining resistance. Other coalition troops had taken up 'blocking positions' to prevent escape. Significant numbers of 'AQT' elements were engaged, it was announced. At last, it seemed, Our Boys were in action."

Tony Blair could breathe freely at last! On Friday morning, Brigadier Roger Lane, the commander of 3 Commando brigade, told listeners to the BBC's Today programme that coalition forces were in combat. "The coalition has made contact with the enemy and some have been killed," Lane said. Operation Condor had been launched against a "substantial force".

This was good news indeed! But then, as the Observer, points out, things began to get more complicated:

"Locals said that the Australians had walked into a tribal squabble over some precious woodland and the US bombers had merely killed battling villagers. Then an Afghan press agency based in neighbouring Pakistan said that in fact the men 'engaged' belonged to a wedding party, whose traditional AK-47 firing celebrations had been mistaken for offensive fire. After 'Brits in combat' headlines running on all morning bulletins the Ministry of Defence clarified their position. In fact no Marines had actually encountered an enemy yet, spokesmen said."

There can be no doubt that most of those who have been killed in the recent "fighting" (mainly American bombing) were not al Qaeda men at all. It has emerged that the rival warlords who have now seized control of the country have been deliberately giving false information to the British and American forces to bomb positions held by their rivals, alleging that they are bin Laden's men.

"It's impossible. They all look the same and they all carry guns," one Royal Marine soldier told the Observer during Operation Snipe.

This comment itself is sufficient to make us understand the nature of this war, which has been so effectively silenced by those who control the information coming out of Afghanistan. As we predicted, the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have just melted away, mingling with the local Pashtun population or finding sanctuary on the other side of the border. In fact, intelligence sources in Pakistan say there are no more than 400 men loyal to bin Laden still on "active service". Many of those are hiding in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas.

Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of the al-Quds newspaper, said that he believed that only 200 al Qaeda fighters were still under arms. The rest have dispersed into Pakistan's huge cities, he told the Observer:

"Atwan, who has met bin Laden and has excellent al Qaeda contacts, said that bin Laden is hiding in the lawless border regions at least 100 miles south of where the Marines are now deployed. 'There is no way he or his followers will stand and fight. They will take on the coalition forces on their own terms or not at all,' he said."

Finally, Brigadier Lane was forced to announce that 45 Commando's showpiece operation, Operation Snipe, had ended after 16 days without any contact with the enemy. The morale of the marines was rock-bottom. More seriously, the morale on Tony Blair's government benches was even worse. Something really must be done!

The Brigadier obliged by organising what was announced to the world as one of the biggest controlled explosion since the second world war. On May 10, a sizable al Qaeda arms dump, found in a cave, was blown up in one of the Army's biggest controlled explosions since the war. Unfortunately, a local warlord - Ibrahim Omari, an Afghan ally - later said that the arms belonged to him. The British claimed that they had uncovered the arms dump as a result of painstaking intelligence work. But Mr Omari told the Daily Telegraph he informed forces of the cache four months ago and last week led British officers to the site:

"The former anti-Soviet fighter is the head of tribal affairs in the Gardez city, one of the coalition forces' forward bases. He said: 'The weaponry was nothing to do with al Qaeda - my own people had been guarding it for years. I had been hoping to save it for when we have a national army established.' He added most of the weapons had been supplied by the United States when it backed Afghanistan's anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s. 'Now the Americans' friends, the British, are blowing it up.'"

Naturally, the British strenuously denied these claims. But, since they had to prove that they were actually doing something, these denials are not worth very much. In an article entitled "Anyone seen the enemy?" in the Guardian on Wednesday May 15, Rod Liddle wrote:

"Six weeks ago, some 1,800 Royal Marines were dispatched to south-eastern Afghanistan to search and destroy al Qaeda fighters who had, in a most obliging fashion, left the area some time before. Since then, the marines have met only bemused shepherds as they yomped up and down hills, poked around in a few caves and had a sort of private fireworks party with some ammunition left over from the fight against the Russians. Every now and then someone thinks they've found the body of Osama bin Laden, but it later turns out to be a goat, or a Canadian.

In order to create the impression that the British forces were fighting a serious war, the media begun to circulate reports about a mysterious and allegedly highly contagious intestinal disease hitherto unknown to medical science. The victims of this terrible affliction - the symptoms of which are too embarrassing to be enumerated here - were hastily isolated for fear of a general epidemic.

It was strongly hinted that this mystery illness was part of a diabolical plot by Osama Bin Laden to put the British army out of action by means of biological warfare. However, as the weeks passed, less and less was said about this mystery ailment. As a matter of fact, there is nothing mysterious about it. The present author can confirm from first-hand experience that any European travelling in those parts of the world is liable to experience the effects of the self-same ailment, which affects the intestinal regions.

The "mystery illness" is known to the medical profession as diarrhoea or gastroenteritis. Since this can lead to dehydration it can make one extremely ill, as apparently happened in one or two cases. Even in less serious cases, it is both highly distressing and incapacitating. However, it is not at all contagious and is spread, not by bacteriological weapons, but by primitive living conditions, bad food, the absence of clean drinking water or simple lack of hygiene.

One may feel sorry for the soldiers affected by this illness, but it is hardly life-threatening for them. On the other hand, millions of people in poor countries like Afghanistan die from such things every year - most of them children. And this was not caused by Osama bin Laden, whatever one might think of him. The systematic destruction of Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure over a period of at least twenty years has made the conditions of the people absolutely unbearable. And the USA and its allies are now making a bad situation even worse.

If we ask ourselves what has been achieved by the allied forces in Afghanistan, the answer is clear: nothing at all. The Taliban and al Qaeda have not been destroyed. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar have neither been killed nor captured. The country is in an even bigger mess than it was before. And there is no end in sight for the suffering of the Afghan people.

Insofar as they have achieved anything, the foreign forces have helped the enemy by creating a mood of hatred against the foreign invaders, especially among the Pashtuns. The actions of the Americans and British troops, plunging into a highly explosive situation like an elephant in a china shop, will inevitably result in the deaths of civilians and make the situation even worse than before. In the meantime, they have destabilised the whole region and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

On May 17, hundreds of British troops were rushed to the assistance of Australian special forces said to be involved in a gunfight. But any attackers had disappeared by the time the British forces arrived on the scene. And so the farce continues. However, the British officer corps has always been noted for its unconquerable optimism, The complete and utter lack of anybody to kill has been heralded by the Royal Marines' commander, Brigadier Roger Lane, with words that deserve to go down in history: "…from a strategic perspective, this is an encouraging sign."

Of course, "from a strategic point of view", if the enemy never puts in an appearance, it is a wonderful war for all concerned. Only rather pointless - just like the exploits of the grand old Duke of York…