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Dean’s Letter: Politics and Peace

2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. It is the European Year of the Brain, the UN Year of both family farming and crystallography. Latvia will become the eighteenth Eurozone country, the Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, in Russia and, at the very end of the year, US and UK troops will leave Afghanistan. It is the last of those statements that gives you pause for thought. Wars used to end with a surrender, or a peace treaty, but now we are not quite sure if this is a war or not and we are struggling for the words to describe what we are doing. The Ministry of Defence talks about ‘drawdown’ and a ‘security transition’. President Obama, who has suggested that this is indeed a ‘war’, recently spoke about bringing that war to a ‘responsible end’. There is a new vocabulary being used and it leaves some question begging. What does ‘drawdown’ mean when all the indications are that some NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan? How can we judge whether we have made a responsible end and when does that judgement get made – the day after the troops leave, six months after that?

The real difficulty lies in the idea of a ‘security transition’. The phrase suggests something a bit like changing the locks, or employing a different bouncer on the door. The question in Afghanistan is more complicated than that. Exactly who, or what, is it that we are making secure, our bases and troops, the Afghanistan government, the Afghan people? We have watched in horror as the coffins have come home from this war that is not quite a war. At the time of writing, there just under 450 UK troops have been killed. We know that is a grievous loss and we recite the names at war memorials and on the news. We pay less attention to the fact that civilian deaths in Afghanistan have numbered more than 2,000 a year over the last five years. Amnesty International has been asking the US and UK governments what ‘security’ there is for the people of the country in this ‘transition’.

The situation in Afghanistan is staggeringly complex; politicians have hard decisions to make and our armed forces test ideas of service, daily, in extreme conditions. In a few words, in an article like this, there is no sudden wisdom to offer. There is, instead, a question about the scope and scale of our ambition. We use words like ‘drawdown’ and ‘security transition’ deliberately; we use them because it is too difficult to talk about peace. When did political reality strangle our hope? We must not allow plans for ‘drawdown’ to hedge our ambition and put limits on what we think we can achieve. If our politicians want to honour the memory of Mandela they should look to the work that must follow the end of hostilities and they must dare to dream.

Just a few days ago, at Christmas, we celebrated the fact that angels sang about peace, over Bethlehem. Their song was much more political than we usually acknowledge, for they sang over the Roman Empire in the days of the pax augusta – the peace of the Emperor Augustus. Roman armies had secured the borders, Roman swords and spears kept enemies in check and they called that peace. It is an old error and the angels rose in protest. Peace is not the presence or absence of an army. Peace is reconciliation and trust. The peace of God, lying in the manger in Bethlehem, is unarmed and has only the resources of love, grace and forgiveness to offer. In 2014 if we have any more resolutions we can make, we could do worse than to choose our words carefully and to hope for more.

Posted on 10th January 2014

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