The working class in Britain is daily faced with its sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and friends in the armed forces being sucked ever deeper in to what appears to be a growing series of wars. The chaos in Iraq is rejoined by the revival of conflict and casualties in Afghanistan, although the full extent of the victims of war is deliberately hidden by the state, which does not report the number of injured. Troop numbers in Iraq are being reduced, but increasing in Afghanistan. The government and media say all the sacrifices are needed in order to bring about democracy and stability.
This spin is starting to wear thin, especially in relation to Iraq. Recent comments by the head of the armed forces about the nation not welcoming the returning troops, express the ruling class's growing concern that the population, and particularly the working class is becoming increasingly distrustful of it. The great lie about the ‘weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq and the appalling bloodshed since the invasion has profoundly undermined much of the support that the ruling class was initially able to rely on. In Afghanistan the invasion in 2001 used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as justification, but the worsening military situation is causing people to ask some very critical questions. We can add to this last year's promise by the former Defence Secretary, John Reid, when justifying the deployment of British troops in the notorious Helmand province, that they probably would not need to fire a shot!
This apparent incompetence on the part of the ruling class expresses the fundamental problem confronting British imperialism: "Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc the ICC has argued that British imperialism is caught in a contradiction it cannot resolve. In seeking to play an independent role and to continue to punch above its weight, it must play the US off against Europe, but more and more the reality has been that it is caught between these powers." (WR 302 "Resolution on the British Situation "). This is graphically expressed by its present humiliation in Iraq and the looming prospect of being engulfed in another military adventure in Afghanistan.
Iraq: between a rock and a hard place
British imperialism rode into Iraq as the US's lieutenant, desperately hoping it could increase its standing as an imperialist power. Far from increasing its imperialist stature it has been undermined. How to extricate itself from this disaster is vexing the bourgeoisie. The destructive potential of staying too close to the US in the way Tony Blair did is clear for all to see. It was hinted when Gordon Brown first became Prime Minister that a total withdrawal would exacerbate existing tensions with the US and look like a defeat to its rivals. The announcement of the withdrawal of 1000 troops from Basra by Christmas seems to be an attempt to reduce the British presence. British imperialism's rivals will still understand that it has been driven back to one heavily fortified base, but they cannot say it has been driven out. It also gives the impression that they have not totally abandoned the US.
The Iraqi disaster precedes a possible further lurch into chaos if the US is to attack Iran. British imperialism, as the occupier of southern Iraq had been given the role of stemming the influence of Iran in the region. Its very limited capacity to achieve this was exposed in the spring with Iran's capture of British sailors and the total inability of British imperialism to do anything about it. This places them in a very difficult situation. If the US attacks Iran, its allies in Iraq, above all in the South, will strike back at the US and its allies. The Basra outpost would be an obvious target. This is causing very real concern to the ruling class. It does not want to get sucked into another military adventure. To avoid this it has been working with other European states to try and undermine the US's efforts to give itself the opportunity to make another display of military might after the debacle of Iraq.
The British government may spin its retreat from Basra with talk of having created the necessary security conditions and stability etc, but reality is very different. In September last year the British launched Operation Sinbad aimed at driving the militias from the streets and enabling the local security forces to take over i.e., a British ‘surge'. However, the initial success of this operation was reversed this spring: "By March-April 2007, renewed political tensions once more threatened to destabilise the city, and relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds. Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by the militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before "("Where is Iraq going? Lessons from Basra ", June 2007, International Crisis Group) And on a wider level the same report makes the point that "What progress has occurred cannot conceal the most glaring failure of all: the inability to establish a legitimate and functioning provisional apparatus capable of redistributing resources, imposing respect for the rule of law and ensuring a peaceful transition at the local level". In August this humiliation worsened when they had to abandon the final stronghold in Basra city, Saddam's old palace (the most attacked complex in Iraq). This retreat was dressed up by Gordon Brown on a visit to the 5500 military personal beleaguered at Basra Airport "What we propose to do over these next few months is to move from a situation where we have a combat role to an overwatch role".
British imperialism's rivals and the British bourgeoisie are not fooled by this; they know this is the bitter price of getting too close to the US.
Afghanistan: another quagmire
British imperialism's ability to impose its authority in Iraq has been weakened by the growing quagmire in Afghanistan. Initially, in 2001, it basked in the reflected glory of participation in the US invasion. At the time, the idea was spread that the Taliban was some rag tag bunch of fanatical peasants, hence Reid's ridiculous comment, in order to reassure the population. As we demonstrated last November this deployment was far from a walkover: "Today it is engaged in the most serious battles since the Korean War and has been unable to contain the situation in Helmand province, effectively being forced to surrender control of some parts. Its forces are over-stretched and taking casualties, leading to increasing disquiet in parts of the military." (WR302 "Resolution on the British Situation " ). The Taliban is well armed, trained, with a level of organisation better than envisaged, and above all with the support of the Pakistani state. They have safe areas from which to carry out attacks and help from the Pakistani secret services and military. The Pakistani bourgeoisie are willing to give support to the Taliban because it has disputes with Afghan imperialism over its frontiers and Afghanistan claims over its Pushtan border areas. But even more importantly "Afghanistan is also a political football in the rivalry of Pakistan and India, both of which attempt to use it to undermine the other's regional interests" ("Countering Afghanistan's insurgency: no quick fixes ". International Crisis Group Report, November 2006).
On a wider level the war in Helmand (and increasingly other provinces) is not only a local but an international affair. The aim of the US invasion was to impose its domination on the whole region. But the Taliban is not only openly supported by Pakistan but also by other powers who want to see the US tied down in another sticky situation
British imperialism cannot afford another defeat and has been increasing its deployment in Afghanistan (there are now 7700 troops there, double the number present during the invasion). The bourgeoisie is seriously worried about the situation. In July the Defence Select Committee issued a report on the situation in Afghanistan which, according to the BBC, delivers a "central message - things are going badly, alarmingly wrong in Afghanistan. With an accumulation of detail, the defence select committee paints a sorry picture - muddled strategy, shirking allies, a lack of helicopters and, stuck in the middle, the servicemen and women who have to make the whole thing work." A similar message was delivered by Lord Inge - former chief of the defence staff - during a House of Lords debate "The situation in Afghanistan is much worse than many people recognise,' Inge told peers. ‘We need to face up to that issue, the consequence of strategic failure in Afghanistan and what that would mean for Nato... We need to recognise that the situation - in my view, and I have recently been in Afghanistan - is much, much more serious than people want to recognise.' According to the Observer (15/7/7) he was speaking with the permission of the Defence Staff.
These warnings underline the depth of the problem facing the ruling class: they are having to devote increasing numbers of troops and resources in order to avoid defeat, in a situation of an expanding presence of the Taliban (and its backers) and the weakening of the puppet government in Kabul. This is going to accelerate the increasing numbers of dead and wound, not only amongst the Afghan population but also in the British armed forces: 35 dead this year, out of 55 killed in action since 2001.
Workers: growing unease
The relentless war, destruction, death and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan is generating a growing unease and discontent. The ruling class is aware of this. When the head of the armed forces complained about the lack of respect for returning troops and called for more public support, Major General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the army during the 1991 Gulf War, responded by saying "The second Gulf War was a very different situation indeed - probably not just, perhaps not even legal and a 50-50 split in the country - not a popular war."
This situation is very difficult for the ruling class. All the lies and spin about Iraq and Afghanistan are wearing thin, and are breeding distrust in what the state says about war. This, combined with the growing toll of dead and injured, which mostly affects the working class can only stimulate a questioning within the class on war and the system that gives rise to it. At the same time increasing attacks on living and working conditions show the reality of what capitalism has to offer the working class.
What lies ahead is a worsening situation in Afghanistan, the continued collapse of Iraq and the threat of war on Iran. The barbarity of capitalism is increasingly exposed for the working class to see. Phil 6/10/7