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Wednesday, March 07, 2012 

Lying about Afghanistan.

Politics and lies go hand in hand, always have, always will. On rare occasions we are lied to for "good" reasons, with the media voluntarily going along with it: see the role of the D-Notice committee. More often the lies are simply to avoid embarrassment, such as David Cameron (or his office) denying that he had ever gone horse riding with Rebekah Brooks as was claimed by Peter Oborne, only for him to have to admit that he had at the very least gone hacking with his old Eton pal Charlie Brooks, and on the horse loaned to Brooks by the Met no less.

Occasionally though the lies are so blatant and yet so repeated that they become accepted by almost everyone, to the point where it's only those on the outer fringes of politics who challenge them. One such lie has been repeated multiple times today, and by spokespeople for all three of the main political parties in this country. According to David Cameron, Philip Hammond, Jim Murphy (on Newsnight) and countless others, our continuing military presence in Afghanistan is essential to our own national security, even to the point where we are fighting there to ensure that we don't have to do so in our own cities.

This is a lie so outrageous as to rival the ones that led us into the Iraq war. At least those were somewhat believed by the politicians, even if that was because they had personally convinced themselves that they were true and that to back down would have done irreparable damage to their credibility; with Afghanistan this has long since ceased to be the case. Back in 2009 David Petraeus, the then head of the ISAF, made known that al-Qaida was barely operating in Afghanistan, having moved into Pakistan. This was reiterated by an official in the Obama administration last year.

More to the point, "al-Qaida central" has been weakened to the point where its role in the planning of attacks against the West (always overstated in any case, as cells have acted on their own initiative as well) is very slight. The last foiled plot in this country that was linked directly back to al-Qaida in Pakistan was the liquid bombs one; Operation Pathway supposedly disrupted a plot to carry out attacks in Manchester but no one was charged, even if the investigation eventually lead to arrests in America. Far more active has been the offshoot al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, responsible for the infamous "underpants" bomber and the bombs hidden in printers placed on flights to the US. Also worried about is al-Shabaab in Somalia, yet no one is suggesting we invade either country to guarantee our national security back here.

Ah, some will say, the fear is not al-Qaida is currently a threat in Afghanistan, but they would quickly return should we leave. Except we are of course planning to leave, as are the Americans, by the end of 2014. There is no chance whatsoever that by that point the situation in Afghanistan will be comparable to the one in Iraq at the end of the last year, with the insurgency mostly defeated and the army and police trained to an acceptable standard. There is an incredibly remote possibility that somehow the Taliban, the Americans and Hamid Karzai could reach something approaching a peace accord, but that would almost certainly mean the break-up of the country, or at the very least the setting up of autonomous zones within it. Unless the Taliban severs all links with al-Qaida, something that it has shown no inclination of doing even if the Taliban is fundamentally nationalist while al-Qaida is internationalist, then this leaves wide open the chance that al-Qaida could still return even then.

Why then are we still in Afghanistan? For the simple reason that we continue to regard our alliance with the US as being so important that the "sacrifice" of men and exorbitant cost of operations there is worth it overall. It's also why we will almost certainly be involved in an attack on Iran should the US decide it has to act against their nuclear programme. It doesn't matter that the US could easily do all of these things itself; by giving our support we ensure America isn't left on its own, improving its global image, and in return we receive both American intelligence and military technology, as well as being able to project an image of ourselves as remaining a global power on the world stage. While some American politicians are genuinely grateful for how this gives them extra leeway, others regard it as bordering on the pathetic, as Obama almost certainly does, even if he feels he has to continue to regard the alliance as the "special relationship" for appearances.

Present this in its stark reality and the war in Afghanistan would be even more unpopular. Far better to lie and continue to pretend that al-Qaida remains just as much a threat as it always has been. And why change the message when it's worked for the past decade?

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