By Swapan Dasgupta
One of the heartening features of London is that entrance to the big, public museums is free. Last week, while killing time between appointments, I strolled into the National Portrait Gallery for a quick browse. Three weeks ago I had stumbled into an amazing exhibition of old Mughal portraits that included a gigantic contemporary painting of Emperor Jehangir. This week, there was an interesting exhibition of contemporary styles of portraiture sponsored by the much-reviled BP. But far more telling was the Queen and Country exhibition by the Turner Prize winner, Steve McQueen. The piece of installation art consisted of a cabinet with pull-out panels, each one containing a series of facsimile postage stamps bearing the portrait of British soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
On the face of it, there is nothing remotely subversive about McQueen’s evocative creation. Sponsored by the Art Fund and the Imperial War Museum, it could well be viewed as a simple tribute to the soldiers who did their duty and gave their lives for Queen and Country — a contemporary version to the stone plaques and marble statues honouring past military heroes that have been so lovingly preserved in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Every piece of art has a context. On the fifth anniversary of the London tube bombings that led to the death of 53 Londoners the mood in the exhibition hall did not, however, resonate with robust patriotism and gritty determination. Unlike the bronze statues of the British heroes of the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ that grace the four corners of Trafalgar Square, McQueen’s tribute spoke the language of tragedy. The subtext was the story of a war that didn’t yield the anticipated results and which, in hindsight, is increasingly being perceived as a military misadventure.
Actually, the war in Iraq doesn’t entirely fit the bill. What is agitating British public opinion is the apparently hopeless war in Afghanistan. It is important to recognise that the war which has already cost Britain the lives of more than 312 soldiers is proving to be deeply unpopular. From the Generals to the politicians of all shades, it is acknowledged that the goals of war — a Taliban-free, peaceful Afghanistan — are unrealisable. The priority is to manage the inevitable withdrawal from that country in such a way as to ensure that there is minimum loss of face.
Last week, it was announced that British forces would be departing from troubled Sangin in southern Afghanistan and handing over charge of the ‘peace-keeping’ operations to the US Army. The exit was a tacit admission that British lives had been sacrificed in vain and that the Army that had once stood alone against a triumphant Hitler was now incapable of holding its own against a fanatical but rag-tag guerrilla army of Islamists. Most Britons know that the retreat from Sangin symbolises defeat but there is an understandable reluctance to face up to the fact. Speaking in the House of Commons, Defence Secretary Liam Fox rejected any suggestion that the retreat from Sangin implied defeat. The troops, he asserted, would leave “proudly and with their heads held high… Any attempt by anyone to describe this as a retreat is in my view quite contemptible.”
Fox may not succeed in his attempt to talk up a sagging military campaign which has lost public backing on both sides of the Atlantic. Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, a favourite to win the race for the leadership of the opposition Labour Party, has publicly stated the need to negotiate with the Taliban because peace can come about by including the excluded. Unfortunately for the British establishment, the Taliban leadership has spurned all peace overtures. “What is the point of negotiating,” their spokesman told the BBC, “when we know we are winning anyway?”
The Taliban’s unwillingness to engage in hypocritical niceties is reassuring. It has driven a point that India has always been mindful of: The West’s defeat in Afghanistan is certain to have grave consequences for the entire region. What we don’t say openly is that the catastrophe isn’t going to be confined to the people of Afghanistan who may have to endure another spell of medievalism. The images of a triumphant Taliban chasing out the mightiest armies of the Western world are certain to bolster the self-image of Islamist invincibility. It is a different matter that this so-called invincibility didn’t happen solely because of the fearless idealism of the Taliban but because the medievalists were assisted by a Pakistan that used the West’s money and arms to subvert the donors. What matters is that as the ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan approaches, it is both Pakistan and its pet Islamists who are exultant. It is possible that the Islamists may turn on their Pakistani Army benefactors at a subsequent date. For the moment, there is an expectation of imminent victory in the Islamist world.
The psychological impact of the elation at having defeated two superpowers is already being felt on the streets of Kashmir — billed, along with Palestine and Afghanistan, as worthwhile jihadi causes. It is time for India to factor this religious triumphalism in its counter-insurgency strategies. New Delhi can no longer remain content that the West is going to do its dirty work in Afghanistan. Either India has to engage more purposefully in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from re-acquiring its ‘strategic depth’ or it must be prepared to be permanently beleaguered in Kashmir (not to mention the second front opened by Maoists in central India).
For too long, India has been inclined to remain in denial about the ideological winds blowing through the Khyber Pass. There were good, pragmatic reasons to do so. Unfortunately, that time has passed. As the West confronts defeat in Afghanistan, India has to refashion the priorities of its own self-preservation. There is defeatism in the West and this mood mustn’t infect India.
Source: Sunday Pioneer, New Delhi