Speaking out against a military campaign is always tricky for members of a governing party: the lesson of what happened to the Democratic Party in the late 60s over Vietnam, that ultimately let Richard Milhous Nixon into the White House, reminds us of the potential for disaster.
So it can be taken for granted that any Labour MP that speaks out against the adventure in Afghanistan will have thought long and hard about the consequences beforehand. Pontypridd MP Kim Howells, who has been in the Commons for thirty years, has had that thought, and has spoken out.
Meanwhile, the parallels with Vietnam continue to stand out: the latest estimate for the size of force needed to “turn the tide” is half a million, more than twice the number at present available – and that includes Afghan troops. It was the numbers put forward to “pacify” South Vietnam that convinced the US Government that, as it was not going to put so many in harm’s way, it could not win.
The re-run Afghan election, pushed for by the US, has not happened, so Hamid Karzai – corruption or no – has been confirmed as President. The observations made by J K Galbraith on those similarly confirmed in South Vietnam may be usefully recalled:
“With President Diem, the Nhu family and the politicians that followed as in a revolving door, the impression of villainy was inescapable”
[The Age of Uncertainty, p. 249]
Finally, the comparative size of those resisting is similar: in Vietnam, the size of the South Vietnamese army was several times that of the VietCong, yet they could not match them. In Afghanistan, the number of NATO troops is several times that of the Taliban pitted against them, and, again, the resistance has not been crushed.
The lessons of Vietnam are there for those who are willing to learn. For a Labour Government, avoiding the appearance of weakness at times of conflict seems to make for an especially wilful commitment to carry on: thus those lessons, which have weighed heavily on Kim Howells, may be some time permeating the remainder of that particular body politic.