By Mike Sixsmith
It was May 1968 when I went back to Northern Ireland, for the first time in the Queen's uniform. The first weekend the Catholic youths tested us: rioting, CS gas, chaos ensued. A rioter had been arrested. I asked him all about it. After all, I used to live just up the road.
"If you're wearing that uniform you're a ……… foreigner," he replied derisively.
I had joined the army In Northern Ireland, where I had lived since the death of my father during World War II, hoping to see the world. Instead, I ended up seeing a lot of Ireland.
Going back reminded me how proud my mother had been on first seeing me in my brand-new uniform of a British officer. I had lived in a council house in Belfast; life there was governed by the whistle of the shipyard, carried across Belfast Lough, dictating the lives of the community. The elephant in the room was 'them and us': the two tribes. At a protestant school in Dungannon, across the fence, were the convent children; but never the twain could meet. The working class in England voted Labour; but in Northern Ireland those that had the vote voted Unionist - which meant Conservative. But the majority of Catholics did not vote – because they were disenfranchised.
The British Army was deployed on the streets of the UK in 1968 to protect the Catholic community from the rampages of a paramilitary police; but ended up corralling the Catholics. This enabled the hard men of violence to rule the roost. And so the Provisional IRA was born. An offshoot from the Official IRA, which had been pursing a political strategy, the Provos intended to bomb and shoot their way to an independent Ireland.
The Great Hall in the Royal Hospital Chelsea has a series of carved wooden panels chronicling the wars in which its inmates over the years, the revered Chelsea pensioners, have fought heroically; and where, in so many cases, their comrades were killed. On the left, the first panel remembers the Afghan War of 1839 – 42, in which the British suffered an ignominious defeat. The extreme right hand panel commemorates the preset Afghan conflict, and the penultimate panel the Iraq War.
Now, Britain and its Nato allies have handed over to the Afghans security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. It is too early to close the scorecard for this latest episode of the Great Game. What is not in doubt is the heroism and selfless sacrifice of too many young British men, some of them Muslims, who have shown themselves to be as courageous as their illustrious forebears. But this has not been a war that was won, even though it may not have been lost. Was it a war that we should have fought? And what of Iraq, was that also a war that should not have been fought?
The Taliban government of Afghanistan, by playing host to Al Qaida and Bin Ladin, effectively declared war on America on September 11th. The US, closely supported by Britain, launched an immediate and successful preemptive strike that dislodged the Taliban government and neutralised Al Qaida. This was not an invasion and was fully justified on all reasonable criteria. Should that not have been that? But we then invaded Iraq; and then returned to Afghanistan. It can be argued, correctly I believe, that there will prove to have been lasting achievements in both countries as a result of our intervention. But, that notwithstanding, do these gains justify the unintended consequences, both in terms of real politick and morally?
There can be little doubt that the main beneficiaries of the Iraq war have been the Iranians and Shia Islam on the one hand and political Islam on the other. Iran has an ancient civilisation of which it is justifiably proud. It should be allowed to take its rightful place as a major power in the region. But it was surely a mistake for it to be ostracised and threatened; and then, as a consequence of our invasion, to be presented with the opportunity to extend its sphere of influence, further destabilising the Middle East and enabling the creation of a Shia arc, cutting through the heart of the region linking Iran with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Political Islam's cause has arguably been enhanced immeasurably by the West's interventionist policies. Al Qaida itself may have been effectively neutered and Bin Ladin killed but the rise of Islamic terrorism seems inexorable in many areas throughout the world.
Led by the US and Britain, the West has claimed virtuous justification for its actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But has this justified the enormous toll of human suffering, the deaths, the wounds, the mutilations, the dislocation of the lives of so many? We acted in the name of democracy but did – do – the Iraqis and the Afghans want our type of social and political organisation?
The British government has claimed that we acted as we did in Afghanistan to secure the streets of London and the cities of the UK. But it is a moot point whether this reduced or exacerbated the threat. How many young British Muslims have joined the jihad, like the hero Shahid in my book, just because we were in Afghanistan? How many others have been alienated from our society because of it?
Brought up in the fractured society of Northern Ireland, with family connections in the British army, I joined that same army. As someone inclined to become a soldier, had I been brought up in the hard sectarian areas of the Falls Road or the Shankill Road, I feel that it is inevitable that I would have joined the terrorists of the IRA or the UDA. Many peoples' fate is arguably determined by the accident of birth, which makes them hostage to circumstances over which they have little control.
It is the same for the British Muslim who, despite being brought up in the UK, has conflicting loyalties. Those who become radicalised by political Islam and its agents turn against all that they have hitherto accepted. They become alienated from friends and family. Perhaps in many cases they are like a lot of young people who, for whatever reason, become alienated from society. But in the case of the Islamist, as for the terrorist in Northern Ireland, they have a cause which gives them both succor and, in their eyes, respectability.
It allows, indeed demands, that they should take up arms against the society of which they have hitherto been a member. In extreme situations they turn to violence believing that this is justified. They do jihad in an increasing number of places around the world. They may decide to use their experience to plot atrocities in the UK, now considering the UK to be an enemy state.
Or perhaps, like the Boston bombers in the US, they will remain in their home environment and attempt to carry out lone wolf attacks, thus making it more difficult for the authorities to interdict or disrupt their attacks.
Only time will tell whether our withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to less Islamist activity on the streets of the UK, and whether inter-faith and ethnic relationships throughout Britain will improve.
In the meantime, it is worth reflecting on the stark fact that the number of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan added together is still less than were killed on active service on the streets of the United Kingdom in the latter years of the 20th century.
Mike Sixsmith has enjoyed a varied career in counter terrorism and intelligence in the Special Forces and the commercial world for over forty years. He worked closely with government intelligence agencies throughout this time .His novel, Exit Plan, is available now through Pen & Sword Books.
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