Saturday, 29 August 2009

Turning up the pressure on Gordon Brown

How can you tell that Gordon Brown's government is entering a political crisis over the continuing occupation of Afghanistan? Answer: because even Ross Kemp has now joined the chorus of criticism.

Yes, the former Eastenders actor and professional 'hard man'/'proper bloke' has described Afghanistan as an "unwinnable war" and modestly suggested "the west doesn't get it at times". Of course, Kemp - previously accused of being a crude propagandist for his two 'documentary' series about UK troops in Afghanistan - doesn't go as far as calling for withdrawal of the troops. Political clarity is not his forte. Instead he calls for negotiations with the Taliban, as well as insisting more helicopters are needed.

Kemp's pronouncments, made at the Edinburgh Television Festival, reflect confused ideas about Britain's role in Afghanistan: deep concern about how badly it's going combined with an assumption that withdrawal is not a realistic option, leading to the seemingly contradictory call for more helicopters and more neogtiations. This is the thinking of a section of popular opinion and is expressed by many in the media; politically, the Tories attempt to make capital from such responses, by deploring shoddy equipment but downplaying the fact that they've been unwavering cheerleaders for war and occupation over the last eight years.

Nobody - not even military chiefs or government representatives - can claim it's all going to be fine anymore. The pro-war camp can only claim, without conviction, that the troops' presence is necessary in order to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain. This conveniently overlooks the simple fact that apparently endless occupation of others' countries has stoked sympathy for terrorists, rather than diminishing it.

Gordon Brown has today suggested we're due another increase in the number of UK troops operating in Afghanistan, in particular in the Helmand Province where the majority of this country's soldiers are based. Brown was making one of those 'surprise visits' that serves no useful purpose whatsoever, but is designed to make him look good in the media. As the BBC radio newsreader pointed out, on a bulletin I heard this evening, Brown's charm offensive was undermined by the news that another British soldier had been killed, taking the total to 208.

James Landale, a BBC chief political correspondent, says that Afghanistan is now a top priority for Brown, writing: 'The sheer scale of British deaths - 38 since the beginning of July - and the rows over possible helicopter shortages have brought the war centre stage at Westminster in a way it has not been for some time.' Brown simply cannot escape this being a very big domestic political issue.

In the United Sates, meanwhile, there's growing pressure from the military for more boots on the ground. General Stanley McChrystal is head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. According to Landale: 'He is expected to recommend to President Obama shortly that more troops be sent to Afghanistan. What he says will have a huge impact on the scale of any British troop increase.'

That must be the famous transatlantic 'special relationship': US generals demand lots more troops, so the British government agrees to send them, irrespective of the mounting public anger about such a wasteful and bloody war. A serious political crisis at home becomes inevitable for Brown.

But the outcome of that crisis depends on something else: the active response of people in this country to our own government's blind pursuit of a war even Ross Kemp describes as "unwinnable". The public meetings, local protests, vigils and - above all - the national demonstration on 24 October, calling for an end to the occupation, can turn up the political pressure on Brown. The debate at Westminster is about mere details - it takes a movement on the streets to demand we change the whole picture.

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