Equipment row must not divert growing opposition to the war

Jim Moody sees a danger of opposition to the war in Afghanistan merging with the way that war is waged

More British service personnel have now died in Afghanistan than during the war in Iraq: 184 compared to 179. And the death rate has clearly accelerated. Between Thursday and Friday last week eight were killed. Fighting the Taliban has cost the lives of 15 British soldiers so far this month.

While there appears to have been some hardening of support for a continued British presence in Afghanistan over recent years, a near majority is still opposed. An ICM poll of 1,000 adults within the last week reported that 46% backed British involvement in Afghanistan, with 47% against; three years ago, polls showed 31% backing and 53% opposing. As many as 42% want British forces out of Afghanistan now, while 56% want all troops withdrawn by the end of this year.

In the face of these frankly unsupportive poll results, foreign secretary David Miliband could only lamely reiterate the UK government�s complete commitment to support the US in Afghanistan; an additional 700 troops are shortly to take the number of British forces to 9,100.

Under its umbrella, Operation Enduring Freedom, the USA has more than 28,000 troops, together with some junior coalition forces operating mainly in the east and south of Afghanistan adjacent to the border with Pakistan. Over 23,000 more US troops are marshalled within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under Nato control (ie, led by the USA). British forces in Afghanistan constitute nearly as many as those provided to ISAF by France, Italy and Germany combined, so it is clear who is the USA�s most dependable ally.

The vague �grand strategy� is often asserted by British ministers to be on track, partly comprising as it does the normalisation of Afghanistan before elections to the puppet regime due to be held on August 20. Afghan army strength has now reached 90,000, but with little sign on the ground that they are other than quite secondary actors in operations of any consequence. But what the overall strategy of the occupation of Afghanistan actually is never gets clearly specified.

The Russian empire in the 19th century managed to conquer the mountainous Caucasus and bring it within its control. In the same century, the �great game� was played out between Russia and Britain over a geographically comparable Afghanistan. While it is, of course, possible to subdue Afghanistan, as the several Afghan wars attest, the question that arises presently is whether the ostensible or full benefits to the USA and the UK are worth the cost in material and humans. What social system is likely to be the end result of this current war and occupation?

Afghanistan offers no agricultural or mineral resources of any note. Getting rid of the opium poppy trade is a nonsense militarily. What we are left with are purely political reasons for war in Afghanistan.

While the British government acts as the Obama administration�s lapdog, Brown spouts the line that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan prevents terrorism in the UK. He and his fellow apologists point to the Taliban�s influence in Pakistan, whose northernmost parts have been colonised by them.

And so the slogan of defeating the Taliban on the streets of London becomes the justification for another imperialist adventure. After all, as everyone knows, bin Laden found refuge in Afghanistan after 9/11. Western governments� stated fear is that he and his al-Qa�eda will once more use Afghanistan as a base if there is any let-up in the �cleansing� operation that imperialist forces are engaged in.

So Obama is no pacifist on Afghanistan, despite his dovish noises over Iraq. In fact, as US troop levels fall in Iraq, they are being increased in Afghanistan. Obama is intent on a Bush-like surge there, to which Britain adds its contingent of extra forces. On this at least Brown and Cameron have no significant differences: both will without doubt continue to back up the USA�s war effort in Afghanistan following the next election.

Opposition in Britain to the war and occupation of Afghanistan is nowhere near as divisive as was opposition to the attack on Iraq. While Iraq ranked as the top political issue, Afghanistan is a long way down the list. Recent polls bear this out. But there is considerable opposition nonetheless, with its main organisational focus being Stop the War Coalition.

Much is being made in the bourgeois media of the use of snatch Landrovers and the lack of air transport for troops and the way that this limits the versatility of those on the ground. Ground transport, even if armoured, takes fairly predictable routes and thus becomes vulnerable to attack by the Taliban. Were troops to be whisked in and out of conflict zones by helicopter on a regular basis, their commanders would be able to second-guess the enemy and score victories with many fewer casualties - or at least that is the argument. Not that this would in any way win �hearts and minds�. The troops are, after all, supposed to be securing Afghanistan�s countryside, so allow-ing the occupation to end.

Former chief of the general staff Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, has been vocal in claiming that a shortage of helicopters has meant UK forces are in greater danger through ground, rather than air, travel. However, it is not the job of those who are opposed to UK forces, as well as US and other allied forces, being in Afghanistan at all to devise what can only amount to more effective ways of killing Afghans, be they Taliban or whatever.

Under the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, Stop the War has a policy of �broadness at all costs�. This clearly runs the risk of opposition to the war itself merging with opposition to the way the war is being waged. People like Rose Gentle - mother of Gordon Gentle, a soldier killed in Iraq in 2003 - have been doing an excellent job campaigning against the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, however, other speakers from Military Families Against the War will express worries about deficiencies in the equipment supplied to fighting units. This is perfectly understandable. After all, they have either lost loved ones or have them operating in Afghanistan. But there is the danger that such concerns feed directly into the Tory and top brass clamour for more helicopters and strike aircraft. The best way of protecting troops is, after all, by wiping out the enemy.

This is, of course, not the intention of the STWC leadership, which staged a demonstration in London on July 13 to mark the death toll for British troops in Afghanistan exceeding that in Iraq. Such initiatives are certainly to be commended, as is STWC�s petition calling for an end to the British presence. It is unfortunate, however, that the petition demands that �the government commence the withdrawal of all British military forces from Afghanistan� (my emphasis) rather than insisting they be pulled out immediately. Similarly the phrasing, �only the Afghan people themselves can generate a political solution to their country�s problems�, can reinforce the notion that the occupation has been basically well-meaning rather than multiplying those �problems�.