Afghanistan: Don’t shoot the messenger

By John Heathershaw
9 Jun 2010

A couple of weeks ago Major-General Gordon Messenger visited my university, Exeter. He came, as one would expect, with a message.

General Messenger is the spokesman for the UK Defence Staff. He was appointed in the summer of 2009, following a period of command in Afghanistan, with the brief to fight the war at home and communicate to the media that Britain’s goals in Afghanistan are achievable.

Dressed in combat fatigues, General Messenger is a distinctly military spin doctor. He is coherent and compelling. Adjectives like “authentic” and “experienced” can easily be attached to him. There were no jokes about not shooting the messenger – although he doubtless has heard and made them many times. Whilst he is a very modern Major-General he is quite different from the kind of educated upper-class twit lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan. He spoke with the authority that he in fact has.

General Messenger refutes some of the myths about Afghanistan (eg we were losing because Gordon Brown wouldn’t pay for the necessary equipment), discussed what the mission is not about (killing terrorists before they get to Britain) and is [about] (closing down the space for these terrorists to plan and organise). He argues that success can be understood in terms of increasing capacity and reducing the insurgency, and defined in terms of some kind of tipping point when governmental capacity exceeds insurgent capacity.

I opposed the US/NATO operation at its launch in 2001 from my vantage point living and working in the nearby country of Kyrgyzstan. I am deeply sceptical about the value and sustainability of the UK mission in Afghanistan as it seems to place far too much faith in the utility of both force and capacity-building.

I remain unconvinced on both principled and pragmatic grounds. I simply do not find credible the idea that either a “strong” or “democratic” state will emerge in Afghanistan as a direct result of the Western mission. The only argument for continued Western military intervention in Afghanistan that I find credible – one that was repeated by General Messenger – is that we are partially responsible for the current mess that the country finds itself in and have a duty not to let it slide back into another civil war.

However, my concern here is not with the message as such, but the messenger. We know that in oral communication the identity of the speaker is at least as important as what is spoken. In this case the impact is so much greater if the messenger is “authentic”, “experienced”, “authoritative” – and military.

Herein is the rub. The subtext to the General’s message was: trust us, we’ll get it done.

Despite increased public opposition to the operation in Afghanistan, this kind of message goes down well amongst a British people whose attention span and knowledge of global politics is extremely limited. This approach to public relations worked really well for Tony Blair for years until the debacle in Iraq.

For such simple messages, the messenger and his/her style of presentation trumps the message itself. It is the impartiality and credibility of the General that makes him a better messenger than the Secretary of Defence.

However, we should question this. The military in a modern democracy are under civilian control and supposedly non-political. Generals should merely carry out orders from civilians rather than take political responsibility for them. So, why are military officers, whose traditional roles are tactical and strategic, defending the foreign policy positions of the government?

Since the war in Afghanistan started to be widely recognised as a war and became less popular about four years ago, we have seen defence secretaries become increasingly reluctant to defend government policy. In some European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, this position in government has become a political graveyard, sure to torpedo any budding ministerial career.

Generals have often entered politics, with American political history furnishing us with many examples. However, for serving or recently retired military officers to engage in political debates, both for and against government policy, in the way they have in recent years is indicative of a new type of politicisation.

My particular concern here is the development of military media managers such as General Messenger. It easy to see their emergence as natural because they have the “real experience” that we hanker after. Whilst understandable, this yearning often has anti-democratic consequences. General Messenger made three claims, each with deeply problematic implications.

Firstly, he suggested that the media haven’t got a clue what’s going on in Afghanistan but we, the military, do. Secondly, he argued that much critical reporting on Afghanistan is politicised, and was particularly so in the run-up to the general election. The implication here is that his own argument for the effectiveness of the mission is not.

Thirdly, he argued that one of the greatest threats to the success of the mission is dissent at home. The implication that opposition to the war is unpatriotic is a familiar one. We are told that if the war is not won on the home front then it won’t be won at all. There are those on the Right in the United States that still feel the Vietnam War would have been won had it not been for the “liberal press”.

All this is extremely unsettling. General Messenger is correct that media reporting of Afghanistan is sometimes inaccurate and often prejudiced. However, that really is not the point. Free societies have free media. Democracies rely on both proponents and opponents of government policy getting a full hearing.

When opponents make arguments against government policy they should be challenged. But they should be challenged by ministers or their political hires, which come and go according to election results, not their non-political military or civilian staff. We do not expect a senior civil servant in the Home Office to defend the government policy on policing. Why should we expect a General to defend the government’s war?

By engaging in this debate, the general is being political. He is not just communicating the message as governmental press officers have traditionally done but crafting his own message and using his own professional authority and authenticity to win over the sceptics.

The argument for the war in Afghanistan should get a full hearing. However, it is the politicians that should be heard.

We now have a new government whose Secretary of Defence, Liam Fox, defends the intervention on security grounds but not on developmental ones. Defeating the insurgents, he argues, is our goal in Afghanistan not statebuilding, something apparently unachievable in what he foolishly describes as “a broken 13th century country”. This argument flies in the face of the government foreign and defence policy as it emerged during and since the previous Conservative government where development and security policies came to be seen as working for the same ends.

If Liam Fox wants to make an argument that the war can be won and future conflict can be avoided in Afghanistan without development and statebuilding, then I’d like to hear it. But I’d like to hear it from him, not one of his generals.

Alternatively, we should at least recognise what is taking place here: the increasing politicisation of the UK armed forces where generals are required not simply to command effectively but also to defend government foreign policy to the public.

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© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. His recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009). It will be released in paperback later in 2010.

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