Anti-War echoes from Trafalgar to Downing Street

Citizens call for an end to Britain’s military campaign in Afghanistan

By Ayushman Singh Jamwal

On a grey Saturday morning, Trafalgar square came alive with colours, chants and songs as people from all walks of life and communities came together on the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan War in protest against Britain’s involvement in the conflict. The protest rally was organised by the Stop the War coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the British Muslim initiative, and hosted a diversity of activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to the Free Shaker Ahmed and CloseGuantanamo campaigns. The event showcased short films, comic exhibitions, live music performances and speeches from notable activists, journalists and politicians. It was attended by over 2000 people including students, artists,trade unionists, academics, armed forces veterans, and military families. 

“The majority of British citizens do not support the war and think its unwinnable”,said Josh Fairclough, the head of PR at the Stop the War Coalition. “Our intervention in Afghanistan has not improved the security situation, but made life harder for the Afghans. The country is the most dangerous place to live and raise a family,” he said. 

One of the attendees was Majid Khan, a news producer at Khyber News, the only Pashto language television news channel in Afghanistan. He has been covering the conflict for the past three years and provided me with a unique insight into the war, highlighting the flawed strategy of the coalition military and the adverse security situation it has created.

“Coalition forces in Afghanistan have reached the stage where they are bribing Taliban forces not to attack them,” he said. He argued that Taliban soldiers have a warrior mentality and way of life ignored by western leaders which has made military engagement with them a futile effort to bring stability to the region.“Whenever coalition forces move into a Taliban controlled area of Afghanistan, the militia sends them a letter giving them the options of either paying a Jaziya tax (religious tax levied on non-Muslims) or a fight to the death”, he said. He emphasized that Afghans are determined to subdue any foreign occupiers and have been engaged in that struggle for hundreds of years. 

Majid argued that the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai cannot deliver a political solution to the conflict. “He is a puppet of the Americans who will be killed immediately after the United States exists from Afghanistan.” He explained that political authority in Afghanistan is divided between different warlords and negotiations between them are the first step to peace. According to him, the coalition military has to retreat from Afghanistan because after ten years of violence, the US or the UK can no longer broker peace treaties in the nation. “Afghanistan’s neighbours – Iran, Russia and Pakistan are in the best position to deliver a political solution for the country, not because it is the right thing to do but because it’s in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan,” he said.  

The celebrity speakers at the event were Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North and the head of the Stop The War Coalition, the British writer and activist, Jemima Khan, award winning Australian journalist, John Pilger, the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange and the British MP and vocal anti-war activist, George Galloway. 

John Pilger criticised American and British administrations for sending soldiers to fight the Taliban while pursuing oil interests in Afghanistan by negotiating with and bribing Taliban officials. He praised the anti-war movement as a rallying call to citizens who want to win back democracy from ‘war-mongering political and corporate elites’. “From Egypt, Chile, Wall Street to Trafalgar square, civil disobedience is powerful. Citizens should never underestimate their strength as politicians fear such movements,” he said. 

Julian Assange criticised journalists for misleading citizens through the media blitz which promoted the case for war in the run up to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. “Wars are peddled to the world through lies constructed by those who are close to those they are meant to be policing,” said Assange. He appealed to the people to support the work of Wikileaks. “Get the truth and give it to us, and we will spread it all over the world,” he concluded.

Jemima Khan argued that the Afghanistan war had escalated violence in the region by exporting terrorism to Pakistan and fuelling the ‘Jihadi’ mindset which has painted the conflict as a holy war. “The strategy in Afghanistan is a complete failure where even after a decade the Taliban controls two-thirds of the country, and where the social situation has deteriorated for women with 87% of them being subjected to domestic abuse,” she explained. Jemima Khan appealed to the government to bring British troops back home, asking them, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”                            

George Galloway used his typical dramatic rhetoric to criticise the Tony Blair government. “There is not enough water in the river Jordan for him to wash the blood off his hands,” he said. He criticised the Parliament behind the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, calling it “a rubber stamp Parliament, a Parliament of poodles and pagers who follow their leaders wherever they go”. George Galloway ended his speech lauding the anti-war movement by saying, “While we were unsuccessful in stopping the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we were successful in discrediting them.” 

The final speaker Jeremy Corbyn said that the anti-war movement should not fear the political rhetoric or the media campaigns that discredit the anti-war movement. He stated that it is up to the citizens of Britain to use democracy to put an end to the government’s military adventurism. “Stand together for peace, for justice, and keep up the pressure on the government,” he said concluding his speech.

After the speeches, the activists and rally supporters gathered and marched to 10 Downing Street to deliver a petition calling for the recall of British troops stationed in Afghanistan. People chanted slogans like “1 2 3 4 we don’t want no bloody war.... 5 6 7 8 spend it on the welfare state”, and “You say warfare, we say welfare”. After delivering the petition, the protesters squatted in front of 10 Downing Street blocking traffic as news vans were on site and news helicopters circled overhead. No government minister came out to make any statements and the Metropolitan police slowly began to circle the crowd and close ranks. Protesters standing their ground on the streets were pushed back by the police, to which they shouted,“Shame on you! Shame on you!” The demonstration continued for a couple of hours and was overall a peaceful one. However, the police presence and the traffic hold up later compelled the protesters to slowly move out of the street. 

For one day, thousands of people from all walks of life came together to grant the anti-war movement political legitimacy. Ten years of violence, strategic failure and coffins of dead British servicemen and women regularly passing the streets of Wooden Bassett has only strengthened their resolve to work towards ending the conflict. Even though the rally was short, the presence of hundreds of people engaged in comprehensive discussion and debate and the powerful words of anti-war heavyweights, all sent a powerful message to the government. The rally declared that British citizens were not only committed to ending the nation’s military adventurism, but also committed to use democracy and peaceful tactics to voice their grievances and be the agents of change.        

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