Against steadfast public opposition, the British government is attempting to rejuvenate its tired case for war this summer. As Operation Panther’s Claw was launched in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, this June the government went on an ideological offensive.
Gordon Brown repeated the argument that the war’s purpose is to “prevent terrorist attacks here in Britain and across the world”. He claimed that three quarters of terrorist plots against Britain originate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth reiterated the case – “for Britain to be secure, Afghanistan needs to be made secure. If we leave now the Taliban will take control and Al Qaida will return.” General Sir Richard Dannatt, former head of the British army, was wheeled out to explain that to leave Afghanistan would be to hand a “propaganda victory” to Al Qaida.
This was a bit of a turnaround, given that Dannatt had previously argued that the majority of Britain’s adversaries in Afghanistan were not “Islamist extremists” or even Taliban. Dannatt was right the first time.
The Taliban was a marginal rump in 2001, but now the insurgency lazily characterised as “Taliban” has a permanent presence in three quarters of Afghanistan and deepening support from the public. This insurgency has nothing to do with Al Qaida, and no Afghan has ever launched a terrorist attack on Britain or the US.
The journalist Rory Stewart has written that, “The idea that we are there so we don’t have to fight terrorists in Britain is absurd. The terrorist cells and training camps are not in Afghanistan. The people the Americans and British are fighting in Afghanistan are mostly local tribesmen resisting foreign forces.”
Stewart’s criticisms have not been the dominant tone in the media, however, which has overwhelmingly reflected the government’s case, not public scepticism.
Independent editor Roger Alton urged readers “to be mentally prepared for the duration of this vital mission to secure Afghanistan’s democratic future, as well as the likely human cost”, repeating Brown’s claim that “three-quarters of UK terror plots... have links to militants based on the Afghan/Pakistan border.”
In July, the Mirror columnist Sue Carroll berated the paper’s anti-war readers for “hand-wringing” when soldiers in Afghanistan are dying to “protect us” from “thugs and fanatics”. The Sun showered its readers with its typical childish patriotism.
There has also been an effort to generate an atmosphere of rising public enthusiasm for war, against all prevailing evidence. The Guardian – the least pro-war newspaper in Britain – reported on a poll that showed support for the war at approximately 46 percent, with 47 percent opposed. The same poll in fact showed majority support for withdrawing the troops either immediately or by the end of the year. Later polls indicated that a clear majority of people in Britain remain opposed to the war.
The media is deeply embedded in the government’s war strategy. A recent report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which surveyed the successes and failures of the occupation of Afghanistan, cited senior journalists for their opinions on tactical matters.
They were called upon to use their expertise and knowledge to help the government fight the war more effectively – which they duly did. The government sees the media as a crucial part of its war operations, but it is also clear that much of the media is only too happy to oblige.
The print media is suffering a prolonged crisis. There are many reasons for this, but its unpopularity is hardly a surprise when the newspapers, from tabloids to “quality” broadsheets, effectively behave as conduits for government propaganda.