Monday, April 19, 2010

British election: what about the Afghanistan war?

British soldiers in the poppy fields.

In February, 63 percent of Britons hoped that the new government to be elected this year would commit to removing U.K. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2010. Now that the election season is underway (the vote is May 6), fully 77 percent of Britons want out, according to a poll released over the weekend by the Telegraph newspaper.

Trouble is, getting out of Afghanistan isn't the ground on which the parties want to play the political game.

But the three main parties are all fighting the general election on programmes which include backing for the Nato mission against the Taliban.

Between them, the parties’ general election manifestos [platforms] run to around 80,000 words – but Afghanistan is mentioned only 19 times between them. Labour’s manifesto included the most mentions, 11, followed by the Conservatives' on five and three for the Liberal Democrats'.

The Telegraph isn't being quite fair here; the Lib Dems are identified in the public mind with opposition to the wars of Labor's Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown. The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, voiced the truth the peace movement understands about Afghanistan last fall:

"Gordon Brown has failed to explain to the British people why we are in Afghanistan, and how we are going to succeed," said the Liberal Democrat Leader.

Still the Afghanistan war per se doesn't look to be a major issue in the British elections. The parties are confining their back and forth attacks to the subsidiary question of whether Gordon Brown's government has provided British troops with adequate equipment. Nobody wants to weigh in on whether those troops should be in Afghanistan at all.

Both Brits and war opponents in the States are running up against the current strategy of the militarist forces in our affluent, semi-democratic societies. The war makers have learned they have to keep the domestic profile of their wars below some level, because, unless they can articulate a real reason for war (and these are implausible for the current examples), above a certain level of awareness the population just says "no."

I assume there are military think tanks somewhere calculating the exact number of combat deaths that push our kind of societies over that brink. For the U.S., Iraq seemed to prove the number was around 1000 killed a year. Canada has suffered some 125 war deaths in Afghanistan -- and they are leaving! And the Brits? -- the total is 281 as of April 7, 2010, almost all since 2006 -- say a rate of 70 a year. If that goes up, will civil society in Britain force withdrawal?

The election won't answer that, though the effective exclusion of the issue is telling. On the one hand, it is somewhat encouraging to know that our less generally explicable little imperial wars have to be downplayed if they are to be continued at all without arousing destabilizing conflicts on the homefront. On the other hand, that won't help the people whose countries get invaded and who are on the receiving end of all that imperial firepower. They die too and their casualties don't count in these delicate calculations.

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