During this election campaign a figure of speech passed from novelty to cliché: ‘the elephant in the room’. Various elephants — spending cuts, the national debt, the reform of the NHS — were nominated for the role.
But one poor beast never even got into the room. The Afghan war has been distant from our thoughts. Dismal trumpeting sounds have been barely audible from savannahs far away. This was the subject from which, after a polite cough, everybody moved away. The only party prepared publicly to question the wisdom (as opposed to the conduct) of this war has been the British National Party. We should be ashamed.
We’re embroiled in a murderous conflict from which we feel unable to discuss escape. Our servicemen are dying almost daily in Afghanistan — two more deaths announced as I write — in what looks like a hopeless campaign in an operation we should never have taken on and which military intelligence warned we should never take on. Our principal ally, the United States, continues to sound an uncertain note on the trumpet, pouring in resources but agonising publicly about the prospects. Yet all these anxieties, which if they are to surface at all should have surfaced at a general election, have stayed buried. Meanwhile the regime we prop up disgraces itself, steeped in electoral fraud and financial corruption. We fight on, but nobody really believes President Karzai is worth supporting, or can, or should, have any place in Afghanistan’s future. Nobody, however, knows what that future should realistically be, or how to secure it. This too has remained undiscussed.
Our stated exit strategy — to withdraw after the capacity and calibre of the Afghan National Army has been built to a level permitting it to cope unassisted — implicitly anticipates an Afghan military costing vastly more than the country’s entire gross national product. I never once heard the subject properly tackled on the campaign trail. The war has been saluted, not debated, in the 2010 general election. Meanwhile, Britain’s unstated exit strategy is (presumably) to make a public show of loyal support for the Americans, while preparing to creep away behind them once they accept the game is up. You hear this assumption, accompanied by a cynical chuckle, everywhere you go in the world of Westminster punditry. And I think of those hundreds of soldiers, limbless, traumatised or dead, and the hundreds still to come, and cringe. Sending men and women into a lost cause lest anyone question your own ‘Atlanticist’ credentials is more discreditable than I think any of our political leaders have properly reflected.
How is it that the haemorrhaging of lives and money in a war we no longer expect to win, and whose end is obscure to us, failed to arouse any lively debate as we prepared for the next government? Why did Afghanistan sink from our notice?
We do know this matters. Voters feel unsettled about it. We’re vexed by the latest mission creep: the argument that this isn’t really about Afghanistan at all, but about Pakistan — the domino theory that older readers will remember from Vietnam days, reincarnated for a new millennium. The escalatory logic troubles millions.
The problem, and the reason for near-silence, is that on the wisdom of the war itself the stated positions of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are hardly distinguishable. They have sniped and bickered about equipment, of course, but none has challenged the central assumption that we ought to be there, and stay there, in the first place.
Yet beneath this apparent and depressing show of unity, I believe there have been real differences, never disclosed to the electorate. Nick Clegg has failed to muster the courage of his convictions; David Cameron has failed to reflect the ambiguity of his convictions; and Gordon Brown has no convictions.
With Mr Brown I shall not bother. Nothing has ever suggested to me that he was remotely interested in this war, one way or the other, preferring to make whatever noises suited the moment. Nick Clegg deserves closer attention. I have the strongest hunch (he has never told me this) that he believes the war was a mistake, and that ideally we should not be there at all. To what future policy that would point him is less clear (‘we are where we are...’ etc) but the question has not arisen, because Mr Clegg has shrunk from challenging the Afghan consensus in the way his predecessor challenged the Iraq consensus.
There’s a reason for this. Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, a child of imperial India, would blow his considerable top. I’ve been watching (and occasionally crossing swords with) Paddy Ashdown on Afghanistan for some years now, and I’m pretty familiar with his form on the issue. He will agonise; he will question; he will say where he thinks HMG is going wrong. He will describe how awfully it could go wrong. He will confess to profound anxiety that it may already be going wrong. His Lordship will frankly state that if certain things happen, then we might as well quit. But when they do happen he will not say we should quit. It will always, in Paddy’s view, be worth one last heave. And he is sure it still is today.
So this is a blazing row Nick Clegg has judged it unhelpful to have before or during a general election campaign, though to advocate an early exit might attract at least as much electoral support as it lost.
David Cameron is a different case. On Afghanistan I support Mr Cameron because at least I think he has a proper Tory sense of the public duty of a prime minister to the troops he sends to war. But I doubt he was ever an enthusiast for this particular engagement, and I’m fairly sure (though again, only guessing) that he is despondent about the prospects. It’s unlikely this is the kind of thing he especially thinks a cash-strapped Britain in the 21st century ought to be wading in deeper to sustain. David Cameron is not — be sure of this — a neocon, and his Atlanticism is temperate. In the second TV debate commentators overlooked his pointedly nuanced support for the war, and his cool doubt over the clarity of our war aims.
But that’s about where it stops. Mr Cameron doesn’t know, or think he knows, what to do next. Beyond an instinctive hesitation about such adventures, I doubt he’s give much thought to it in the last couple of months. Given (by Washington) any opportunity to disengage honourably and early, however, I believe Cameron would go for it like a shot.
All this I’ve wanted to write, meant to write, and more than once begun to write, during the election campaign. But every time I’ve set to it, the issue has seemed less urgent than whatever has been the latest gaffe or row, or opinion poll from the marginals. Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 British personnel stew in the approaching Afghan summer, the future of their deadly military crusade entirely opaque. ‘Don’t mention the war’ has been the campaign admonition.
Democracy — our democracy, not Afghanistan’s — owes them more.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.