Army chief admits failure to convince Muslims over Afghan policy
By Ahmed J Versi
The Chief of General Staff has welcomed Muslim support for Britain’s Armed Forces but feels much more needs to be done to convince Muslims about the deployment of 9,000 troops in Afghanistan.
General Sir David Richards said that as the patron of Armed Forces Muslim Association (Afma), he was the “biggest advocate” of publicising the role Muslims play and have played in the Armed Forces. “Everyone is viewed as an individual who sacrificed his life for our country,” he said.
The Head of the Army was speaking in an exclusive interview with The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, after Muslims joined other faith groups to commemorate the sacrifices made by all soldiers on Remembrance Sunday. A pamphlet published by for the Remembrance Sunday by the Muslim Council of Britain highlighting the long standing and continued support for the Armed Forces and the long history of Muslim contributions to the army dispels myths that there is widespread antipathy towards the military among the country’s two million community.
Rather than being distinct, Richards agreed that the Muslim view “very closely reflects the British community and the nation as a whole” on the UK’s role in such controversial operations as in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We need to make the point and not make it be seen as some particular community’s problem,” he said.
But the Chief of General Staff did not accept that he had inherited a ‘poison chalice’ by taking over as head of the armed forces at a time there is so much concern and controversy over the Afghan mission. “This is a war that needs to be fought and can be won,” he stressed, while acknowledging that the war could be presented better. “We haven’t sold this very well and we’ve debated it before and we need to do better. It is very important for the Muslim community to be exposed to an alternative view as it is for the rest of the nation. The Taliban kill many more Muslims than we do.”
Richards referred back to the initial success in helping to overthrow the Taliban regime that needed to be regained. “Look at the huge popularity of the NATO intervention in 2001. What we’ve done is lost our way a bit and need to find it again and have the moral and physical conviction that we can do these things,” he said. By way of explanation, he also insisted the Britain and NATO were “not there as occupiers” in Afghanistan. “If the Afghan people asked us to go tomorrow, we would have to go. We are there under a United Nations mandate.”
One of the successes of the operations, he suggested, was that the Taliban were having to look over their shoulder all the time and did not have time to do other things. “If we gave up Afghanistan tomorrow, I absolutely guarantee that if you are an AQ [Al Qa’ida] member or Taliban they will pour back into southern Afghanistan and they will have the freedom to then plan and train and conduct operations which now they don’t have.”
During his interview, which was held at his Ministry of Defence offices on November 12, Richards clarified his earlier remarks about the likelihood of Britain being involved in Afghanistan for another 30 or 40 years, saying that it had often been “misrepresented.” He said firstly he wanted to send out the message that Britain would remain in the country for “the long haul.” His belief was that the military would be committed to its current role for between 3 to 5 years, while the strength of the Afghan forces were built up to take over. “At around the five year point, you’ll see those and all that training coming out in fruition in much larger numbers and that should breed much greater confidence in a government by then.” But he added that “a lot of civilian work will go on and it might well be another 30 to 40 years.” He referred to Britain still doing work and giving money to India nearly 60 years after independence, as well as aid to a lot of African countries some 30 to 40 years on.
“We have promised the people of Afghanistan we would help them and bring them out of the impasse and horrors of the two generations worth of war. So if we are going to renege on our promises and let the Taliban and AQ back,” the Army Chief said, ordinary Afghans “are going to be extremely anti west at that point and will probably have no option but to welcome AQ back into their midst.”
Britain, Richards said, had a “commitment to Afghanistan and the region and all those Muslims with whom we have a natural identity, given our own core values reflect very strongly to those of Muslim faith.” The army should not be “perceived as the enemy force,” he said. Although there is a “very small number” of Muslims who are doing as much damage to Muslims as anybody else, “we have got together to fight that and we can succeed.”