Neil Berry
An American serviceman in Afghanistan embarking on a homicidal rampage and evoking one of the grisliest episodes of the Vietnam War, no end to the bloodshed in Iraq. Even those who feared the worst when the US, the UK and their allies went into Afghanistan and Iraq must struggle to credit just how badly things have turned out.
Not surprisingly perhaps, in Britain, as in the US, there is more than a little resistance to facing up to the magnitude of the mess the West has made. It is true that commentators have spoken of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war as the biggest foreign policy blunder since ‘Suez’, the spectacularly botched attempt in 1956 by Britain, France and Israel, to topple President Nasser of Egypt. Yet compared to Britain’s recent military debacles in Muslim lands, Suez pales into insignificance.
Mea culpa, “the blame is mine”, is a Latin locution expressing what has supposedly been a hallmark of Christian culture: The readiness to avow error! But far from apologising for their country’s misbegotten overseas escapades, British politicians robotically reaffirm their determination to ‘finish the job’ in Afghanistan.
Between now and the end of 2014 when the Afghan operation is scheduled to draw to a close, a PR challenge of monumental proportions confronts the British political and military establishment: How to make credible the claim that, notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary, Afghanistan is a better place thanks to the sacrifices of British soldiers. What, indeed, have been the gains of Nato’s mission? Its original objective, the ousting of Al - Qaeda from Afghanistan, has admittedly been fulfilled, its terrorist potential far from extinguished.
As for the mission’s more grandiose goals - the extirpation of Islamic fundamentalism and transformation of Afghanistan into a modern democratic state - it will require singular official effrontery to argue that the US and the UK have made measurable progress on this score, especially if national security continues to deteriorate and there are random eruptions of deadly violence against the Afghans by ‘unbalanced’ Nato servicemen or by un - reconciled Afghan soldiers against their Western mentors. Infused with a sense of the West’s essential beneficence, public discourse in Britain and the US can barely begin to admit that the West’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have been not only wantonly destructive, but also counterproductive in the extreme, a recipe for perpetual global conflict.
The British enjoy the dubious advantage of being past masters at reinventing their more inglorious exploits as success stories. Their history is littered with episodes - the Crimean War, the evacuation of Dunkirk at the beginning of the Second World War - which on any sober assessment were grievous setbacks, yet which were somehow converted into the stuff of heroism.
The remarkable thing about Afghanistan from a British perspective is that it is a country where, in the nineteenth century, the British army suffered two major military reverses. Yet for reasons that strain credulity, the British forces went there in 2001 sublimely confident that history was not going to repeat itself.
Not so very long ago it seemed the British had said goodbye to their empire - building days. The striking of neo - imperialist attitudes by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and rather more extravagantly in the present century by Prime Minister Tony Blair, could scarcely have been foreseen in the 1970s when Britain appeared to be growing resigned to its lot as a post - imperial nation of reduced international consequence. What seems increasingly plain is that Thatcher and Blair’s penchant for behaving like old - style imperial rulers was intimately bound up with the intensified cult of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US that began during the Thatcher years.
It was the boast of Thatcher that she had stiffened the resolve of President George Bush at the time of the Gulf War of 1990, while Tony Blair rivalled Washington’s neoconservatives in his zeal for military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now a voluble advocate of pre - emptive military action against Iran.
Even now, the signs are that the British imperial impulse remains as tenacious as ever. Astonishingly, PM David Cameron has been proposing Western intervention in Somalia, evidently emboldened by the ‘success’ of last year’s Nato operation in Libya, which he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy did much to orchestrate.
By no means all British politicians are heedless of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Conservative MP Rory Stewart - who, in line with British public opinion, is anxious to see the earliest possible Nato exit from Afghanistan - underlines the limits to what Western intervention can accomplish. Stewart’s persuasive polemic embodies qualities of intelligence, moral sensitivity and modesty that have been desperately absent from Western policymaking.

n    The writer is a London - based freelance columnist. The article has been reproduced from Khaleej Times.