The emergence this week of the details of the death in Afghanistan of Ken McGonigle from Derry comes as a suitable reminder of the hideous morass in which the west is entangled there. Much of the lethality is created by the failure of western democracies to grasp the profound nature of the problem. And that, in turn, is exacerbated by the cowardice and political opportunism of the main governments with troops in the field: the US and the UK.
Ken McGonigle, an ex-RUC officer serving as a civilian consultant, gave his life protecting a US Marine general from a rocket attack last year. He opened fire on two insurgents as they aimed a rocket at the helicopter carrying the general. Two Marines -- whose names I also honour here: Lance Cpl Kevin Cornelius (20), and Pfc Vincent Gammone (19) -- were also killed. But what makes this affair so salutary was that the insurgents had just before been freed from allied custody, and then armed, by rogue-members of the Afghan National Army. This incident, one of many, tells us one thing: nearly 10 years into this war, the Afghan National Army is still not to be trusted. Yet the British government is determined to remove all its troops by 2015, regardless of conditions on the ground. If the British go, who will then stay alongside the US? And worse, what if President Obama decides that an exit strategy is the only policy for the US also?
If it is right then, regardless of conditions, it is right now. Indeed, it is better now, because at least thousands of young men and women who are alive today will remain alive and unwounded next year and the year after, instead of having been killed or maimed in the execution of an exit strategy which has no moral purpose whatever. Such a strategy of itself, would make it an immoral war, according to Thomas Aquinas's lasting dictum on military conflict. This declares that one can only fight a just war, which involves the taking of human life, when there is a serious prospect of victory. If there is no prospect of victory, then every life lost is lost immorally, and every death is murder.
This now, is the prospect now being endorsed by the British government: yet before the departure of the British army, to judge from the dreadful pattern of the past five years, at least 200 more soldiers will have been killed, and around a thousand will have suffered life-changing, limb-removing, genital-erasing injuries. Yet the British prime minister David Cameron has apparently settled for a policy which prolongs this horror, and for no reason other than to keep to an arbitrary timetable of his own choosing.
What makes this sort of moral nadir possible has been the re-emergence in Afghanistan of a politicised military culture that helped bring ruin to the American strategy in Vietnam: it is expressed most toxically in the term "politically informed advice". The three traditional and terrible acronyms of war have been KIA, WIA and MIA: these have now been joined by one that is even more sinister yet: PIA.
PIA is what happens when soldiers give politicians the message they want to hear, but usually dressed up in pseudo-military jargon. This is as deadly and as immoral as an oncologist telling his patient the good news, regardless of what the scans are really revealing. Yet some senior soldiers are unscrupulous enough to offer PIA, and others just dislike breaking bad news. Thus are politicians given speciously military grounds for confirming a strategy which they have embraced for entirely electoral reasons. In other words, in Afghanistan, the poor bloody infantry must die in order that some arbitrary timetable might be kept, and thereby keep a political career or two afloat, but NOT so as to achieve military victory. This is depraved.
Is Afghanistan a swamp? Yes it is. But not nearly the vast, continent-shaped swamp that the entire region will become if Taliban triumph first there, and next in Pakistan, and next across Arabia. For this is a war of civilisations such as has not been fought since 1683, when a Polish-Lithuanian, Austrian and German coalition (not unlike the one in Afghanistan today) finally defeated an Islamic army at the gates of Vienna -- the final act in a struggle that lasted centuries.
Last week, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez of the US and Major General Tim Evans of the UK announced that many Taliban were being captured or killed, so changing things for the better, but also that the "level of violence will be as high this year, if not higher than last year". Ah yes, just the kind of thing one might have heard in 1967 -- the year before the Vietcong's Tet Offensive in Vietnam broke the political will of the US. So if NATO is to leave Afghanistan simply because of failed political will, regardless of the military balance, then let it be now, so that at least 1,000 young allied soldiers may stay alive, and another 5,000 remain unmaimed, with their legs and eyes and testes and vulvae intact. The alternative is simply evil.