LORD Ashdown’s blunt and damning assessment of the Nato military occupation of Afghanistan as a failure serves, superficially at least, as a stark warning against any involvement in the worsening civil war in Syria.
Maintaining the pretence that Britain, America, and the other allies are building a peaceful, stable, and democratic state is a fiction, he says, which does not merit the sacrifice of any more lives. Britain should just get out now. Looking at the bloody chaos in Syria, it is tempting to conclude that it would be another Afghanistan if western powers did commit any military resources to ousting President Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime. Tempting, but probably wrong.
Comments by Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday imply that the British government is moving towards some decisions that may go beyond recognition of the loose coalition of Syrian opposition leaders, whom Mr Hague is meeting, as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Once recognition is accorded them, their first question will be: what will you do to help us replace President Assad as the legitimate government of Syria?
Lord Ashdown’s comments, on close reading, also demonstrate his dismay at the West’s complete mishandling of Afghanistan – the failure to engage the people economically in nation-rebuilding and the toleration of a corrupt elite unworthy of description as a government.
While Lord Ashdown thus has some weight behind his call to get out of Afghanistan now, it does not add up to a reason that western powers should do nothing about Syria. Rather, what has happened in Afghanistan should serve as lessons to be learned.
This seems to be what Mr Hague is saying. Perhaps remembering that prior to the Nato occupation, there was the arming of groups opposed to the Soviet occupation, some of which turned out to be the precursors of al-Qaeda, he wants to be assured that the Syrian groups in the opposition are not Islamist fanatics.
As he talks, however, the death toll – now somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 – is rising. The refugee count, in the hundreds of thousands, is soaring. Many are “housed” (which is certainly not the right word) in flimsy tented encampments with no sanitation and where food is scarce. Winter will soon be upon them and an icy, disease-ridden exile in starvation may look to many to be as bad as what they tried to escape.
While Mr Hague says he is committed primarily to a negotiated solution, President Assad’s intransigence makes that an empty hope. And the more the West talks and dithers, the more likely it is that the rebels will turn to Islamist sources who can give them what they want: weapons.
Consideration should be now given to arming the opposition, particularly with missiles that can bring down aircraft and help stop the bombing of civilians. Inaction risks turning Syria into another Afghanistan.
No turn-out for a turn-off
ANY democracy, democratic purists argue, is better than no democracy at all. The elections for local police commissioners in England and Wales yesterday may end up demonstrating that this is just not true.
Turn-outs were truly abysmal. They range from a low of about 13 per cent to highs of around 20 per cent, which is to say no high at all. By the already grim standards of local council elections, it is merely a slightly higher low. One polling station in Wales saw no voters at all turn up.
Some in Scotland might see this as an excuse for merriment at the expense of David Cameron, who made democratising police services one of the Conservatives’ main election pledges. Actually, it should give pause for thought.
People turn out to vote for two main reasons. Firstly, where the outcome of the election is seen as important and likely to affect their lives and secondly, when there is demand for change. These elections look to have met neither test.
But is it also undeniable that the job of a police commissioner – overseeing the work of police officers and the strategy of policing within a locality – is important. And the low turn-out may cause many police officers, who may well have seen their new boss elected by rather less than a tenth of the electorate, to wonder exactly what legitimacy the commissioner has when telling them what to do.
And since officers are more likely to have day-to-day contact with a wide range of the public than the commissioner, they may well judge those opinions to be more weighty than those of the elected supremo.
This is a recipe for conflict within the police, rather than for better policing.