A broad swath of the press and the political class, including most importantly our Prime Minister, continue to insist that putting our forces in Afghanistan will somehow protect us from terrorism. This notion assumes that al Qaeda's notorious training camps have been instrumental to attacks on the West. The fact is they have had little to do with the attacks.
For example, the perpetrators of the most infamous attack of all, on the World Trade Center in New York, needed to know little more than how to fly airliners, and they learned that not in camps in Afghanistan but at flight schools in the United States. The Spanish authorities have now confirmed that the Madrid bombings had no connection to al Qaeda at all. They were home-grown, as were the London bombings. In any case, those who carry out these atrocities, or those in Bali and on the American embassies in East Africa, only need to know how to build a bomb, and they can learn that on the Internet. Indeed, that is apparently where the Madrid bombers learned their craft.
We cannot defend ourselves against these kinds of attacks with armies, navies, air forces and missile defence shields. They can only be prevented by good police work, good intelligence and good social work. The importance of the latter was exemplified by the London bombings, executed by alienated youths from an ethnic community unsuccessfully integrated into the larger society. Armies cannot mitigate this problem, only good social infrastructure can. If we wish to protect our citizens from terrorist attacks, we should expend our resources on appropriate training for the police, on improved intelligence and on developing healthy relationships between our various communities. Money spent on the military will be money wasted.
We might ask why we are in Afghanistan in the first place. We are there, of course, as part of NATO, but why is NATO there? Because in October, 2001, the United States presented evidence that Osama bin Laden, then ensconced in Afghanistan, was involved in the September 11 attacks. NATO's secretary general, George Robertson of the U.K., declared the evidence to be clear and decisive, thus justifying application of Article 5 of The North Atlantic Treaty which states that an attack against one is an attack against all, and armed force may be used to "restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area." The evidence presented to NATO was not made public.
This story sounds disturbingly familiar. In order to justify invading Iraq, the Americans presented evidence to the United Kingdom that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was also involved in the September 11 attacks. Tony Blair declared the evidence sound and justified an invasion. The "evidence" was, in fact, utterly false. Why, then, should we believe the evidence presented to NATO regarding bin Laden's involvement was any better? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Bin Laden has complemented the bombers, but even though the attacks would be a big feather in his turban, he has denied involvement. The FBI is inclined to agree. In the crimes they list him as being wanted for, the September 11 attacks are conspicuously absent. He isn't even their most wanted terrorist which he certainly would be if he was responsible for 9/11.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Harper has stated, "Our two military objectives [in Afghanistan] are to fight terrorism ... and ... to aid the Afghan forces in fighting it themselves." Yet if the evidence the Americans presented to NATO was false, then we, and NATO, are in Afghanistan on false pretences. Furthermore, any fighting we do now is principally against the Taliban which means we are not fighting terrorists, we have joined a civil war.
If we are confident the Afghans want us to help them rebuild their country, we may be able to justify the presence of our troops to safeguard that effort, but there is no justification for the Prime Minister's stated objective "to fight terrorism." It will not make us safer, it may put us in greater danger if we create a critical mass of enemies, and it may be founded in lies. It smacks of seduction by Bushite paranoia.
We should demand three things from the government:
1. A thorough debate in the House of Commons about the mission in its entirety.
2. A policy statement on the humanitarian component of the mission that includes, as a minimum, assurances that the Afghan peoples' support for the mission exceeds the ability of opponents to wreck it, a plan for achieving our objectives including yardsticks for progress, limits of the mission, and criteria for ending it.
3. A clear rejection of the terror-fighting component of the mission.
We need answers to critical questions: For example, what happens when and if we stabilize Kandahar? Afghanistan is plagued by renegade governors and warlords, some as unpleasant as the Taliban. Is it our intention to stabilize the country province by province? And what if the increasing control of Waziristan by the Pakistani Taliban make stabilization impossible? Will we send our troops across the border?
Without answers to such questions, we may slide Vietnam-like into a foreign entanglement replete with noble intentions but based on false assumptions and devoid of thorough public discussion and support.