Kath Noble

Betraying the dead

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 23, 2009

Honouring those who fought and died for a cause – reflections on the death of a British soldier in Afghanistan.

An article about the death of a British soldier in Afghanistan caught my eye last week, mostly thanks to the photograph of his best friend and colleague weeping on his knees at the funeral in a bright green dress and pink legwarmers. His outlandish attire was the result of a pact that the two boys had entered into when they headed out to Helmand Province – whoever survived the other would pay their last respects in style. It was a reminder of the humanity of those who are fighting what I have always considered to be an illegitimate war.

Even more thought provoking were the comments left by readers, most of whom simply expressed their deep sadness at the passing of yet another brave serviceman. Around 200 British soldiers have been killed fighting the Taliban in the last eight years.

This isn’t very many, of course. Britain lost several times that number on D-Day alone, and more than 200,000 members of our armed forces perished in the Second World War as a whole. But we bring our dead home nowadays, rather than burying them where they fall, and I have the feeling that this makes a considerable difference to how much their demise affects public opinion. Coffins draped in the Union Jack are a lot more emotive than telegrams.

One remark struck me in particular. We can’t give up, it said, because so many young people have sacrificed their lives in this awful struggle. Let those who call for our troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan keep quiet.

It reminded me of what Prabhakaran used to say. He called the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 a betrayal of the 600 cadres who had by then died fighting. They had given their lives for Eelam, he declared, so he could hardly settle for as little as the Provincial Council system. By 1994, more than 3,000 of his boys had been killed, so the proposals made by Chandrika Kumaratunga had to be rejected too. And thus it went on. The number had gone up a lot further when Anton Balasingham undertook to explore a federal solution in 2002, and Prabhakaran got ready for war again.

He undoubtedly had other reasons for this obduracy, honesty not being one of his most recognised qualities, but the deaths of so many cadres provided him with a very convenient excuse.

We all know how the situation developed in the years that followed. Some analysts claim that 40,000 cadres were killed in the three decades of fighting, many of them conscripts. Tamils were forced out of their homes in massive numbers, some to live in IDP camps within the country and others to move abroad. Those who remained in the North and East had to put up with the economic and social problems that always come with protracted conflict. Many of them are still waiting for normalcy to be restored to their home areas. Tamils are going to end up with a worse deal than the LTTE could have extracted if it had been willing to compromise.

As a leader, Prabhakaran failed his community. That he did his best to eliminate other leaders simply compounded the failure.

Curiously enough, some people on the other side of the ethnic divide have been emulating Prabhakaran since his demise, arguing that the deal proposed to address outstanding grievances and aspirations of Tamils is too good. If agreed, it will undermine the valiant efforts of the Sri Lankan forces and betray the deaths of more than 25,000 of their members.

This is even more wrong, of course. The brave men and women of the armed forces were not fighting against devolution. They were out to eliminate the LTTE, and they did it. At best, it could be argued that they enlisted to prevent the Government from handing over any powers to Prabhakaran. They achieved that too. I’m not sure that the soldiers would have offered their lives to save the country from a fully implemented Thirteenth Amendment or even the proposals agreed by the All Party Representative Committee. It seems morally questionable to suggest otherwise.

After such a long and bloody war, this myopia is perhaps unsurprising. But it just goes to show how badly Sri Lanka needs strong leaders to sweep aside this woolly thinking and get on with the job of building a lasting peace.

Coming back to Afghanistan, British leaders are demonstrating exactly how not to behave in what is a much less difficult situation. When the 200th serviceman was killed sometime in August, Gordon Brown issued a statement not just expressing his gratitude to those who had given up their lives for the cause that his government has taken over so eagerly and his solemn undertaking to support their families, but also emphasising the need to honour their memories by continuing with the occupation.

At a time when polls show that a clear majority of people in Britain are in favour of withdrawing our troops, it seemed a little unfair. But our wishes have been ignored for quite a while.

Their presence is supposed to be protecting our citizens from terrorism, but they spend the vast majority of their time fighting people who have never attacked British targets outside their own country. And we aren’t winning. Afghanistan is more dangerous today than it has been at any point since the invasion. Ridiculously, our forces are now restricting their movements in some regions to avoid encountering the Taliban.

This is despite having made huge compromises. When it comes to mustering support in Kabul, pretty much anything goes.

Although Gordon Brown and friends are now tired of Hamid Karzai, to the extent that they have spent a good deal of the last month since the election praying for his defeat or at least sufficient doubt about his victory that he would feel compelled to invite their preferred candidates into a government of national unity, this is hardly out of concern for democracy. His corruption and dubious political associates were perfectly alright until they decided that the failure of their military operation was his fault. Rigging a vote is barely a crime in their approach to politics in Afghanistan. Once they accept the fact that they are stuck with him for another few years, they will get back to work with an administration that still includes people like Rashid Dostum, famed for having killed a couple of thousand prisoners who had surrendered to our forces by locking them in airtight freight containers and shipping them hundreds of kilometres across the desert.

Readers might assume that investigators are busy poring over satellite images of the area in a desperate attempt to launch a prosecution, but in fact everybody from Tony Blair and George Bush to the United Nations has known all about the massacre pretty much since it happened. A mass grave was found by an American NGO and the results of a preliminary examination handed over to the authorities, but our zero tolerance policy on war crimes has turned out to be more flexible than we thought and they left it for Rashid Dostum to dig up the evidence.

I suppose that it isn’t very important when compared to the number of Afghans we have killed far less imaginatively, with our bullets and bombs. At least the prisoners were confessed members of the Taliban.

Hamid Karzai probably blames us for his need to stuff ballot boxes. With the situation in Afghanistan worse than it has ever been since the invasion and so many of his citizens dying in our military operation, it is hardly surprising that his popularity has waned.

It is about time that Gordon Brown started thinking and issuing statements about these people and the fact that the death toll on the Afghan side is several orders of magnitude higher than the losses we have incurred. The bombing of hijacked fuel tankers near Kunduz three weeks ago made this difference in scale only too clear. Up to 100 civilians are said to have been killed by our forces in about four seconds, which makes 200 soldiers dying in the last eight years seem quite incredibly fortunate. It would put the situation into some healthy perspective.

Just don’t let him dare to claim that we have to go on with the war for their sake.

This article was published on the cover of the Midweek Review on September 23rd, 2009. The internet version can be accessed here.

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