"They're not the same!"
Last week I was at a government-sponsored event called Prevent 08: Learning and Working Together to Prevent Violent Extremism. One of the sessions I attended was hosted by the Foreign Office and was about communicating Britain’s foreign policy.
As soon as we had a chance for questions, one person called out the following: “How can you condemn people in Iraq and Afghanistan for killing innocent civilians, when you are doing the same?”
The Foreign Office guys reiterated that this session was about the communication process, not an evaluation of foreign policy itself.
To my shame, I remained silent, but in my mind, a different scenario played out.
“It’s not the same!”
There’s a stunned silence and all eyes in the room turn towards me, including the Foreign Office representatives.
I repeat, more calmly, “It’s not the same.”
With everyone listening, I continue.
“It’s true that British and American forces kill civilians sometimes, but it’s accidental or, at worst, careless. They don’t mean to kill civilians. They don’t want to kill civilians. It just happens sometimes. It’s war.
American forces kill British soldiers sometimes. It’s wrong, it’s incompetent, but it’s not intentional.
It’s true that American soldiers sometimes shoot innocent civilians in cars, because they are afraid that they might be suicide bombers. It’s horrible, it’s regrettable, but it’s not intentional. If they knew for sure that these people were innocent civilians, they would not intend to kill them.
It’s the terrorists themselves who have caused this. It’s their tactics which have made Western soldiers become twitchy in the trigger finger, because that next car approaching the road block just a little too fast might actually be a suicide bomber.
It’s true that a few American soldiers have gone on killing rampages against innocent civilians, typically after a surprise bombing, and this is outrageous. But these individuals are sought out and punished whenever this happens. Again, it’s the intolerable tension they are placed under which causes this savage behaviour. It is not the policy of any Western government to do this.
But when the terrorists/insurgents/murderers blow up a market, a mosque, a funeral, a wedding, a civic building, it is their intention to kill innocent people. They do it deliberately. They want to kill innocent people to cause as much pain and misery and grief and chaos as possible. That is their only logic.
Western forces just want this to stop. To bring peace, order and stability, so that they can leave. Maybe you can assert cynically that this is motivated only by a desire for a flow of oil, but so what? Any sensible country would seek to guard its own economic security. The oil is useless to the Iraqi people if no-one buys it. What’s wrong with wanting a peaceful, stable, prosperous Iraq which exports oil? It’s better than this sectarian hell.
And Afghanistan has no oil. What’s the selfish motivation there?
The kind of people who would manipulate children into conducting suicide bombings (possibly without their knowledge) are unspeakable savages. They deliberately cause the very tension which increases civilian casualties.
How dare you refer to what British forces do as the same?
They're not the same!“
I’m sorry, but I didn’t want to make a scene, so I remained silent. But this played again and again in my head all weekend.
British soldiers are giving their lives in Afghanistan so that people (both men and women) in that country might have a chance at a semblance of a decent, civilised, unoppressed life. The benefit to the West is that Afghanistan, left to its own devices, is a safe haven for terrorists to plan attacks against civilians anywhere in the world. Either way, the moral case in Afghanistan is clear.
Anyone who says that what British forces do, and what the Tailban do, are the same is ignorant.
My deepest sympathies are with the families of those soldiers killed by the child with the wheelbarrow bomb last week, and my thoughts are with their comrades who have to face this kind of situation every single day and not know if it is their last.