On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, the head of the British Army, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, consistently failed to explain why British forces are in Afghanistan. Despite the shift in public opinion in the last few days against British involvement in Afghanistan, all Dannatt could say was:
“A high number of deaths inevitably makes you question what we are doing, how we are doing it. The conclusion one has to reach is, going right back to basics on this, that this mission is really important”.
Yes it is important – but why? Just saying something is important is not enough to convince listeners. He went on, “Things are much clearer if you flip the coin and look at the other side and ask ‘What if we were to pull out unilaterally? What if we were to just come out of this mission?’”
So: what if? What would happen? He didn’t say. How about: it would appear a victory for the Taliban, it would weaken Britain’s position with NATO, it would damage relations with the US, it would undermine the credibility of future British interventions, it would make the death of British troops in Afghanistan seem pointless ... and no doubt many other reasons.
The British Army appears to lack a strategic narrative about why it is in Afghanistan at all. It is when the absence of justifications for policy occurs that opposition voices have space to provide alternatives. Consequently, in the last few days, allied to the increase in British casualties, there has been a proliferation of suggestions that Britain withdraw from Afghanistan - a clear, intelligible alternative. If they want to close the debate down the British Army - and the government - need to find a way to frame and justify the war and not be afraid to keep repeating it. This is not rocket science, and the failure to take this action suggests the army is happy for a public debate about a withdrawal to take place.