It used to be the received wisdom that when you find yourself in a hole, the sensible thing to do is to stop digging. Nowadays, however, the new orthodoxy is that when in a hole, you should dig ever more frantically until – with luck – you re-emerge at the Antipodes.
With scarcely a break in the serried ranks of government and opposition until the other day, when Kim Howells took upon himself the honourable role of the little boy who pointed out that the emperor was naked, the lunatic policy pursued by the denizens of Westminster Walter Mitty Land with regard to Afghanistan has been to redouble our futile efforts to bring Western-style 'democracy' to a country whose proud people have never bowed their necks to a foreign invader, or to foreign notions, in a thousand years. Afghanistan has always been a thorn in the flesh of its neighbours, including the erstwhile British Raj and the Russian Empire. As the gateway to India, it was the focal point of the 19th century 'Great Game' between the two great powers. Successive British and Russian attempts to invade and subdue the warlike and lawless Afghan tribes in their mountain fastnesses have always ended in disaster for the invaders.
The history of all this is an open book to any who cares to read. So why should we imagine that the present Western incursion into Afghanistan will end any differently? Listening to idiotic politicians and well-meaning servicemen prattling on about how we are performing an essential service to the Afghan people by bringing our alien and unwanted notions of freedom and justice to them, and so it is obligatory upon us to remain for as long as it takes to achieve our purpose, would be comical if it were not so tragically sickening.
As the procession of coffins returning through Wootton Bassett gets longer, grieving wives and mums mumble through their televised tears that their brave boys were heroes – but isn't it time now to bring the other lads home, because we don't really know what they are there for? The mood of the country is turning increasingly negative, with a tinge of defeatism creeping in. So the Prime Minister yet again defiantly dons his fake Churchillian mantle and sombrely tells us that the 'mission' remains essential for our home security. His repeated assertion that British troops fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan make terror incidents at home less likely is absolute tosh – the reverse of the truth, in fact – and the crass politician or civil servant who first dreamed up this glib mantra deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered. For the plain fact is that young Muslims born and growing up in Britain are being antagonised, and radicalised, by the spectacle of British troops fighting their co-religionists in faraway places.
If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, Gordon Brown insists, fundamentalist Islamists and that shadowy entity, Al Qaeda (whose existence – like that of God - is always assumed, but never demonstrated, by Western leaders) will take over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons – and then the real balloon may well go up. So the Afghan 'mission' must not fail. And it is for the benefit of the Afghan people – we are their liberators, not their invaders. Strange, then, that the Taleban, who were almost wiped out by the first onset of American and British troops, are now steadily increasing their hold over more and more territory.
Brown, however, has neither sent adequate reinforcements nor equipped the unfortunate soldiers already there with the weapons and armoury they need to do their assigned job successfully. And now, while still insisting that we must remain in Afghanistan and triumph there, he has started to hedge his bets by making the sending of more troops conditional on the Karzai government in Kabul rooting out corruption. This is asking the leopard to change its spots with a vengeance. What we would term 'corruption' is not an Afghan aberration, nor, in their eyes, a malpractice – it is endemic in the way of life of those regions, where business is customarily accompanied with 'sweeteners' – backhanders – which are regarded as a normal part of any deal by all the parties involved. To expect a government, or a people, to abandon its customary cultural practices in the name of bringing them 'democracy' which most of them do not want is as purblind as the flatteries of King Canute's courtiers. And for Gordon Brown of all people to make such a demand is consummate hypocrisy from someone whose own government, and that of his predecessor, has been riddled with corruption and venal behaviour on the part of politicians – the classic case being the abandonment, on Tony Blair's personal instruction, of the BAE Systems fraud investigation over Saudi contracts. Sauce for the gander?
It could well be that the Brown 'condition' is a cunning pretext for an early withdrawal on the ground that the Afghan government is not fit for purpose, and that therefore our 'mission' cannot succeed. If so, it would be the first glimmer of sanity in an otherwise manic policy – and also, of course, gives the lie to his incompatible argument that our remaining there is essential for Britain's own security.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a shameful and troubling episode in our national history. Launched on false or at least flimsy pretexts at the behest of a frightened and bullying power-drunk ally, they have been little short of disastrous in performance and even more so in diminishing Britain's world reputation. And they – Afghanistan in particular – are far more dangerous than most people, including those involved in running them, seem to realise. There are no wars without consequences. It is not simply a matter of either 'winning' or else calling it quits, bringing the boys back home, and resuming normal everyday life as if the whole thing had never happened, or was just a friendly football match. The material carnage and the stench of death left behind will be as nothing compared with the legacy of lasting bitterness against the West, and Britain in particular, which this latest post-imperial adventure will leave in the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Afghans, and their fellow Muslims around the world – not least here at home. We have stirred up a hornets' nest. How these negative emotions will work out in the future remains to be seen. But the outlook is far from rosy.