This week’s Friday’s Phrase is ‘blood on their hands’. OK, so it’s only Monday and I had said Word of the Day was offline until September, but the words of US Admiral Mike Mullen, joint chiefs of staff, when criticising the founder of WikiLeaks seem too ironic to miss: ‘Mr Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.’ (Guardian, 30 July 2010). As David Leigh writes in today’s paper: ‘Damage control efforts by the White House did not improve until the weekend. We then saw the spectacle of generals, with gallons of innocent civilian blood on their hands, orating that WikiLeaks had potentially failed to do enough to protect local Afghans.’
The row over the Afghan War Logs has raised the profile of the conflict in the last week, and seemed to be the prompt for David Cameron’s frank (but rather partial) words criticising Pakistan whilst he was on a visit to India – with the proudly proclaimed aim of doing business for Britain (Hawk jets included). He might have been wise to have sought a briefing from the Foreign Office first; I’m sure they would have reminded him of the dates that a former diplomat, Geoff Cowling (Vice-consul Kabul 1970-73), mentioned in a letter to the Guardian last Thursday:
- 1842: total annihilation of the 6,000 strong British army retreating from Kabul en route to Kandahar in the first Afghan war
- 27 July 1880: Battle of Maiwand during the second Afghan war: ‘the final result was a rout for the British army that lost more than 950 men on their retreat back to Kandahar.’
- 1919: Third Afghan War: ‘totally forgotten by us too’.
As Cowling comments: ‘History tells the Pashtuns that foreign invaders are vulnerable – something the Russians too learned to their considerable cost. It’s a pity politicians did not read their history before venturing into the hostile, fiercely independent Helmand and blundering into the fourth Afghan war.’ His allusion to the humiliation of the Russians (1979-89) is a reminder that the United States and others were only too willing to arm the mujahidin – discovering later, fatally, that ‘blowback’ doesn’t just apply when a Stinger missile is launched.
David Cameron and others might also remember 1947: the partition of India by the departing British into Muslim Pakistan and secular India left the unresolved sore of Kashmir that lies at the root of much of the conflict in the area. I’m interested to read elsewhere in today’s paper that Peter Preston agrees: ‘Kashmir? The reason why Pakistan’s military stays so strong, so funded, so bent on matching India’s every move. The reason why Pakistan democracy has proved so frail. The reason why Islamabad dabbles in Afghanistan’s shifting alliances. Begin to broker a final Indo-Pakistani peace, try to set stable relations at the core of the subcontinent, and everything else begins to follow.’
Good heavens, as a former resident of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan (glimpsed above), I even told Andrew Bingham, the Conservative candidate (and now MP) all about this on my doorstep back in April. MPs, Prime Ministers: do they ever listen?