Offsetting the euphoria of the victorious rebels in Tripoli and the hoopla among their Western sponsors, another image intruded in the past week, recalling a different war that will most likely outlast the sound bites and headlines of triumphalism in Libya.In the southwest of England, as a brass band played, Britain’s union flag was furled, blessed and laid on a church altar to mark the end of a remarkable four-year remembrance, during which hearses carrying the bodies of 345 fallen British service personnel have passed through the village of Wootton Bassett on their way to burial from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those tearful moments started out as impromptu memorials when the airplanes ferrying the coffins began landing at the nearby – and soon-to-be-closed – Royal Air Force base at Lyneham, in Wiltshire. In the future, the airplanes will land at a more distant base in Oxfordshire, and a potent emblem of the cost of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan will be lost, though other reminders will certainly endure, like the family snapshot published in the past week by the Defence Ministry of Sgt. Barry Weston, 40, with his three daughters, Jasmine, Poppy and Rose – the 380th British soldier to die in Afghanistan since 2001. And there will be other considerations and comparisons. The war in Afghanistan began almost a decade ago in direct response to the September 11 attacks in the United States. It drove the Taleban from formal power. It lost focus as George W. Bush and Tony Blair shifted their attention to the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
But, since then, it has drawn in ever more American and allied forces, posing the questions of whether it can be won in any formal sense and, more significantly for politicians, how coalition troops can be extricated with at least an appearance of honor by the deadline they have set for Afghan forces to take over in 2014.Those doubts have gradually deepened with the awkward interplay of politics and soldiering underpinning the Afghan campaign, particularly since 2006, when a small and poorly equipped British force pushed into the Taleban strongholds of Helmand Province to face increasing casualties before the increase last year in American troop numbers eased some of the pressure.
Libya reflected a different doctrine. Apart from the reported presence of special forces – never officially acknowledged – no British, French or American military boots stamped their way, in public at least, across the deserts and scrub of Libya.NATO’s involvement was remote, surgical, airborne – free of the casualties on the ground that haunt politicians’ boasts of missions accomplished.The NATO bombs and missiles that debilitated the forces of Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi fell from planes that faced no threat of ground fire once Libyan air defences had been destroyed.Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where hundreds of thousands took to Europe’s streets to demonstrate against them, the conflict in Libya drew no such protests. Libyans themselves chased their dictator from power – albeit with Western air support – inscribing a new chapter in the putative and still unfolding a cycle that has ended tyrannies in some places but created enormous bloodshed in others.
On the surface, Libya was about democracy and, only just subliminally, about securing European access to oil supplies, trade and post-conflict reconstruction projects. It somehow seemed appropriate that, in one of the first noncombat missions after the fall of Tripoli, a Royal Air Force transport plane flew in Libyan bank notes worth some $220 million, freshly printed in Britain but previously frozen by international sanctions against Colonel Gaddafi. The delivery, in time for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, set the pecuniary markers for future remittances in the opposite direction.
In Afghanistan, the rationale was to fight militants and terrorists in their havens there and in Pakistan to keep Western streets safe.A reader who wished to remind me of the imbalances wrote acerbically to inquire in an e-mail why journalists spend so much time charting the course of events in Libya while, in Afghanistan, 67 American soldiers died in August alone.The notion of shrinking the military at a time of crisis from the Maghreb to the Hindu Kush might appear ill-timed. But, as the mourners fell silent in Wootton Bassett, the spending cuts might well have shown that the bigger challenge for post-imperial Britain lay not so much in the projection of power to distant killing fields as in the struggle with economic hard times back home. – Khaleejnews