AS British troops quit Afghanistan, it is time to face up to the West’s losing war against the jihadists, writes George Kerevan.
British troops finally have abandoned Afghanistan after 13 long years, 453 dead and £20 billion of taxpayers’ money. Predictably, the British media celebrated the retreat from Camp Bastion as some sort of moral victory. Dear reader, I understand the need to give the maimed and the families of the dead some reason to think their sacrifice was worth it. But it wasn’t.
The British army leaves behind a Taliban insurgency that has reached new heights. Last week, the Afghan army admitted that 950 soldiers had been killed between March and August, their worst casualty rate ever. The Afghan police have sustained even more devastating casualties: 2,200 dead during the same period.
Far from Afghanistan being a democratic success story, British lives have just been sacrificed to protect a booming narco state. Afghanistan’s opium economy is now bigger than ever. The latest report from John Sopko, the US inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, published last week, says there is now more than 500,000 acres under poppy cultivation – a 36 per cent jump in only a year, a historic record.
Unfortunately, we are failing everywhere else too. Take Yemen, where Britain played the imperial game of divide and rule for over a century. The crisis in Yemen, on the southern tip of the vast Arabian peninsula, could soon rival Syria and Iraq. At the end of September, insurgent Shiite rebels (supported by Iran) captured the capital of Yemen. Why worry? Because this could be the launch pad for a Shiite uprising just across the border inside Saudi Arabia.
Notionally, the Sunni regime in oil-rich Saudi Arabia has a big army and air force to defend itself. But in past encounters these have been bested by the Yemeni Shiites. A defeat of the Saudi military on home turf and any loss of sacred Sunni soil to the hated Shiites will topple the regime, whose only claim to legitimacy is as guardian of the Holy Places. Then it’s a toss-up between al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), as to which brand of Sunni fundamentalism captures Mecca. (My bet is IS because they have an army on the ground, with tanks and even captured Syrian jets).
But aren’t the Americans containing IS with their own airstrikes? Haven’t the Iraqis started to force IS away from Baghdad, as I heard the BBC claim? Besides, why would IS want to capture Shiite Baghdad, with its population of 7 million?
Again, I detect wishful thinking. Remember that while Mecca and Jerusalem are religious shrines, Baghdad is the historic political capital of Islam – which is precisely why IS wants it. The city was founded in AD 762 by Caliph Al-Mansur. In the next five centuries, Baghdad became synonymous with the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. So it is no accident that the self-appointed head of the new IS caliphate calls himself Abu-Bakr al-Baghdad.
That said, IS is content to invade the Iraqi capital slowly, stealthily securing the so-called “Baghdad Belt” of Sunni towns that surround the city. It is also building a base among the large Sunni community in urban Baghdad – a third of the population. From this vantage point, it is able to wreak havoc in central Baghdad with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks. Last week, mortar shells landed only 500 metres from the US embassy in the middle of the so-called Green Zone. IS is biding its time, waiting for the Iraqi regime to show signs of panic. The Sunni jihadists understand that if thousands of Shiites suddenly start fleeing Baghdad, the Iraq security forces will take off their uniforms and join them.
One simple way of inducing such panic would be to interdict Baghdad airport, which is only 10 miles from the city centre. For comparison, Edinburgh airport is eight miles. In July, the Americans rushed Apache helicopters to Baghdad airport to ward off IS probing attacks. But since then, IS has been equipping its units with shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles captured from the Syrian and Iraqi military. These have already shot down several brand-new Iraqi army helicopters (supplied by Russia). Imagine what will happen if IS commandos armed with these missiles penetrate the sprawling complex of Baghdad airport.
In ordinary circumstances, IS should be a sitting duck for western military might. But neither Britain nor America have the political will, popular support or finances to mount such an offensive. Cynically, they might arm proxies but this option seems closed. Turkey, a Nato member, is tacitly backing IS in order to see off the threat of a Kurdish state and a Shiite challenge from Iran. Syria could do the job but Assad’s odious regime is allied to Iran, so neither Saudi nor Turkey will play ball.
Iran might be expected to defend Shiite Baghdad. But Iran is in no position to launch an all-out war against IS. For starters, it has a Sunni insurgency of its own, on the border with Pakistan. There have been armed clashes between the two regimes in recent weeks – minor so far. One reason elements in the Pakistan military favour the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is to provide them with an ally against both Iran and India.
Once you examine the kaleidoscope of interlocking economic, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Muslim world, it is obvious that we are dealing with something a lot more complicated historically than a few psychopaths or a handful of romantic teenagers looking for adventure. Most western explanations of IS and the jihad are painfully facile, as are the proffered solutions.
Having gotten us into this mess, western politicians seem determined to go on lying to themselves and to their electorates. No, we have not left behind reliable and trained local security forces in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor, despite British dead and treasure, have we secured for either state “a breathing space” to modernise or democratise. Rather, we blundered in with ulterior motives then fled as fast as we decently could, pretending everything was better. Sadly, the citizens of Baghdad – of all faiths – could soon pay the price.