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Book Review

John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.


  • Cities: A Guide

    Book Review

    John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.


  • The Hurt Locker


    Eric Randolph reviews Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and notes a shift in film-making sensibilities from the war-as-heroics paradigm of earlier Hollywood, towards the everyman's war-as-hell model that has now lodged itself in Western cultural consciousness.


  • Architecture & Biopolitics


    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).


  • Wired For War


    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.


  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?



Afghanistan and the UK's Desperate Flirtation With America

Event: First Wednesday: Afghanistan Then and Now
Venue: Frontline Club, London
Date: 2 September 2009

Increasingly, the British public seems to be adopting the view that the war in Afghanistan is either unwinnable, unaffordable, unnecessary, or all of the above. But perhaps that's because few people are telling them why we're really there. With this in mind, I was interested to see what a room full of journalists would have to say at the Frontline Club’s inaugural First Wednesday open forum. The results were largely underwhelming.  

What was most surprising was the extent to which journalists on the panel had accepted the government line that this war was about making the world a safer place and bringing democracy and human rights to Afghanistan. They used this framework to criticise the government for its failings over the past eight years and exhort them to do more: More rights for women! More helicopters for troops! More focus on Pakistan and its vulnerable nukes! Bob Ainsworth is an idiot!

But for all their criticism of the UK government, much of their thinking seemed to reflect what they are being told by politicians. The government gives two basic reasons for the UK’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan: firstly, that protecting Britain from terrorists means preventing Al-Qaeda from re-establishing a sanctuary there; and secondly, that it is fulfilling its promise to bring security and human rights to the Afghan people.

It knows these arguments are specious. Al-Qaeda already has sanctuary in places like Somalia, Yemen, Algeria and many other dark corners of the globe. The humanitarian argument, meanwhile, is rather undermined by news of corrupt governance and laws that allow men to beat recalcitrant wives. The public increasingly wonders why Afghans are any more deserving of improved human rights than other suffering nations and why this is worth so many British lives, so the government presents the nation-building aspect of the mission as crucial to the security aspect. Give people education and democracy, they say, and you reduce extremism, keep out the Taliban and thus bring greater security to the world.

There are two other arguments for the war which the government is much less keen to discuss in public. The first is that what really drives the nation-building mission is that they don’t know how to stop. Ideally, the recent elections in Afghanistan would have passed off smoothly without fraud allegations and would be part of a significant shift towards enabling the Afghans to take over responsibility for their own administration and security. That now looks a long way off. Leaving midway through would be morally reprehensible and so the government is forced to argue that this work is crucial to UK security and worth all the young British lives it is claiming.

The second argument, which David Betz has emphasised, is that the war is the price Britain must pay to maintain its special relationship with America. This means not just showing willing but also capability, and on this last point the under-resourced British Army is struggling to realise what is actually its primary objective. And yet, when I made this point to the Frontline panel, they gave me the sort of blank stare normally reserved for jabbering conspiracy theorists. It is not surprising that Gordon Brown can’t be blunt about this, since it implies the reality of Britain’s reduced status in world affairs, but it is a shame that journalists are also uninterested in discussing the point.

Some excellent views and interesting anecdotes were shared, it must be said, but overall the Frontline gathering seemed to exist within the government’s preferred framework for understanding the war, one in which the British are playing a pivotal role in securing the world against the scourge of terrorism. In fact, this was always America’s war – launched in rapid and possibly ill-considered retaliation for a strike on its mainland and increasingly becoming the exclusive preserve of the only country with the resources to see it through.

The attacks on the World Trade Centre are often presented as an attack on the values of the West as a whole, but they might more accurately be seen as an attack on the power of America. What drew the other coalition members into Afghanistan was a mix of genuine shock, sympathy and confused fear. But, cynic that I am, I would argue that there was also some degree of gloating relish. 9/11 was a rare opportunity to pity the world’s only superpower, to offer rather than beg for help and to feel a redressing of some notion of balance. Europe, so recently humiliated in Kosovo by its absolute dependence on American air power to resolve a problem on its own doorstep, suddenly found itself useful again. Sure, the technical superiority was all America’s, but she needed the solidarity of her Western partners, and she needed the guidance that only centuries of foreign interventions and counter-insurgency were supposed to provide.

Having vowed their support, most of NATO quickly balked at the reality of the mission, hiding behind national caveats and sticking to uncontroversial administrative functions. Not so Britain, which got stuck in to the worst of the fighting. In his parting speech at the IISS a few weeks ago, outgoing chief of the general staff Richard Dannatt was unequivocal that the motivation behind this was the longer term aim of keeping in with the Americans and ahead of the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, that desire is starting to look horribly extravagant. If Britain is in Afghanistan to keep its place at the top table, then there are big questions about where the money will come from. The sheer cost of staying anywhere near America’s capabilities is way beyond Britain’s means and even a modest level of inter-operability seems exorbitant. In the meantime, the cost of remaining America’s most fastidious ally is being paid in a steady stream of young soldiers killed by IEDs in under-protected vehicles.

The government - and it seems a contingent of the commentariat - need to move the focus of the rationale away from terrorism in the UK or human rights in Afghanistan. We are there because we have yet to create the conditions in which a withdrawal would not represent a huge dereliction of our moral responsibilities to the Afghan people. We can worry about disrupting Al-Qaeda sanctuaries when we are not occupying a Muslim country. More importantly, the UK's current strategy is being dictated to some extent by the fact that we still carry a hugely inflated sense of our own importance on the geopolitical map. The lessons of Afghanistan for the UK ought to be entirely chastening – a more modest assessment of our capabilities, a more realistic understanding of what a nation-building intervention can achieve, and a realisation that once you make a commitment, you may well be stuck there for much longer than your public is willing to tolerate.

Watch the video of the Frontline Club debate here.

Reader Comments (1)

I deal with Afghani youths who are among the most traumatised people I have ever seen. The religious leaders the Mullahs are bound by Taliban fundamentalists. One story told by a youth here tells very clearly about an overheard conversation between Mullah and Taliban leaders. Those listening in but unseen young men who had been 'dressed' from a very early age were going to be recruited into the Taliban ranks very soon. The terms of the handover were being met. He fled with horror in his heart because he had witnessed the atrocities being done on his people daily by the taliban. He did not want to be next !
Taliban sympathisers are rife througout Afghani Politics all the way to the top. The reports about foreign journos not only of late who have been killed or lost are at best attempts to sway attention away from the Taliban and their insanely evil and rough treatment of a people they acre nothing for. It is not the focus on a war or its derivation nor is it the specifics of a government's poltics which are the problems. It is a haeartless and raw religious fanatisism which sucks the grace out of pepole and which covers the true author of confusion in the
wake of Its insanity. It is a poor peoples dillemma once again being ignored almost blatantly now by the same old strategic importance issues as those during the cold war. People are fearful of sliding back into Russian or worse a fundamentalist Taliban all-out regime which would destroy the people's freedom to move into democracy. It will be years hence when the country has fallen in to the hands of a
dictatorship of fear that the bodies will be counted we will go forth from our swimming pooled peaceful oase and counter the physical abuse of thousand with arguments and studies humanitarian issues coming to the forefront. We will stand by in our protected world of
'I'm allright jack' and take note of tzhe atrocities afar yon borders and talk about peace in goldtrimmed offices while the machine-gun fire blazes in a place we do not know.

We are a living in a europe which went through many years of carnage to get to the level of relative peace we have attained. Are we really any better when we can lose ourselves in complacency and forget the pain of the the wars we went through in our collective insanity?This carnage was alleyed at a horrible price. A price which no man can ever honestly try to debate. Blitzkreig , Atomic allout . All things which in the Afghani world have thankfullly not been thought of yet. Iran is as insane as usual with its stance of stioc 'kill the bloody rest
one day' we are all going to heaven for doing so attitude.

But the innocent Afghani is still dying in the streets. The children are being abused, sad parents and families drag the bodieswhich lie in blood on the unseen streets as foreign reporters count only their countrymen's bodies! Reports are made by the Taliban only of the foreign journalists, controlling their statements but what of the deaths of hundreds of locals ?

Wake up ! This is God's world and our heritage wherever it may be. We are guardians of His manifest gift. God and our advances in technology or Globalisation has put the resonsibility fully into our laps to do something. Those who do not react and yet have the possibility and the means to do so are becoming fewer and further apart. As the race for alternative fuels slows down and hybrids as well as other fuels become more accessible to the common folk so does the desparate need to stabilise the economy in the Persian and Middleast become less interesting for western govts . Camouflaging a withdrwal of troops with anything else other than a waning energy crisis is hoodwinking the nations.

As procrastination about helping the poorer peoples of this world increases this around the raspberry bush politics boils my gall.
Only christian or religious institutions are doing the job any more 'voluntarily' at a cost which God can see and will honour. Like the blessed during the war against the Nazis which was played out in the 'hinter höfe' of dutch houses so we are to prepare ourselves daily to sacrifice
just that little bit of vanity and reach out to the world. Not for personal gain but tio help and do so sustainably.

Like America which hung back in the second world war until millions had allready copped it, we are not to delay in sending aid to rout these
Taliban foreigners from a land which can move forward if they are removed.

God bless all of you who will work for the common good ! God will bring justice onto those who misuse His Grace , His Mercy and His love. Doing Killing in His name with ulterior motives of power and Genocide is nowhere justified , no where !
Be brave !

Sep 25, 2009 at 14:43 | Unregistered CommenterRAMAC

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