22 August 2009

Identity and Afghanistan

By Lee Marsden

The other day I came across a book on the construction of Japanese identity, which seeks to explain changes in Japan's international role before and after the Second World War. As I considered the changes from a militaristic to a largely pacific nation I was reminded of an old Geography textbook passed down to me as a child. Written in 1913 it described the Germans as a 'hardworking and industrious people', during the Great War someone had scrawled across this description 'naturally warlike and vicious'. In both cases a connection between national identity and worldview is presented but one in which perceptions and identities change over time, resulting in changes in how countries engage with the rest of the world. Although identities are contested, dominant discourses emerge that impact on the foreign policies pursued by countries. Ruling elites present their foreign policy to appeal to these constructed identities.

Why then is it that countries like Japan and Germany are reluctant today to engage in warfare, despite having militaristic pasts, while Britain and the United States enthusiastically embrace war as a means of resolving disputes? Even now is there an Afghan child scribbling in a text book that the British are 'naturally warlike and vicious'? Of course not, you cry, because part of British identity is fair play, support for the underdog, a sense of duty and responsibility to others. When Britain goes to war, unlike other countries, it is always in a noble cause. Indeed, we have been well trained.

Our government appeals to a British identity that eschews naked self-interest to legitimate policies carried out in our name. In order to justify sending British troops to kill people in Afghanistan, for example, citizens need to be prepared and kept on side. The 'enemy' must be demonised and presented as the personification of evil, an existential threat that, unless we act, imperils our own security and way of life. We must be seen to act on behalf of the ordinary people, especially women, and provide them with freedom, democracy and human rights. Our troops must be presented as the best in the world bravely fighting an enemy that simply doesn't fight fair. The sacrifice, in terms of lost lives and limbs, is worthwhile because of the higher goals of bringing peace, stability and freedom to the Afghan people and reducing the terrorist threat to Britain.

Against this there are inconvenient truths which must not be acknowledged and dissident voices which must be silenced. When a government minister says that the campaign in Afghanistan makes absolutely no difference to Britain's internal security, or an incoming army chief warns that Britain's involvement would last for decades, they must be made to recant. Democracy must be seen to be working despite rigged elections, deals made with Taliban warlords, the influence of tribal elders, and the sale of votes. Women’s rights must be seen to be advanced despite only one in six girls in education and laws restricting women’s freedom of movement, attire, and marital rights. We must be seen to be making a difference and defeating the Taliban despite little improvement to the country's infrastructure, and de facto Taliban control of almost half the country. We must not acknowledge that our troops are unable to defeat a poorly equipped but resilient and resourceful enemy. We should not acknowledge that the real bravery and heroism comes from the Afghan people forced to live in a battle zone. Finally, we should not acknowledge that Britain's involvement has everything to do with standing alongside the US in order to enhance our international importance.

Such acknowledgements might after all appeal to a British identity that seeks peaceful solutions, would prefer a foreign policy that serves British rather than US interests, and rejects any more troops dying to prop up the Karzai government.

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