The small hall at Tingwall School was packed to the walls on Saturday to hear pupils from Sandwick Junior High School and Brae High School deliver speeches for and against the motion that “British forces should be removed from Afghanistan now”.
The four excellent speeches were all very well prepared and delivered with some very cerebral content from the secondary two and secondary four pupils.
At the start of the debate chaired by Gordon Dargie, the votes stood at nine for the motion, 28 against and 15 abstaining.
For the first time in many debates the speeches were very concise with no speaker running over time and all four speeches were delivered within half an hour of the opening proceedings.
The first speaker of the evening for the motion was Saibh Finlayson who launched into a well rehearsed speech that left no doubt that Afghanistan has defied invaders for centuries and what would change that now? Afghanistan defeated Britain in the 19th century and has defeated Soviet forces in recent decades. Would the British presence really make any difference to the current situation?
The lessons of history have not really been learned. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair sent forces into Afghanistan to search for Osama Bin Laden, but Bin Laden escaped and eight years on, what has really been achieved?
The cost in blood has been astronomical but the financial cost has also been high, with £4 billion being spent every year on this war. Money that the UK government cannot afford. This money could pay for 23 new hospitals or 60,000 teachers in the UK.
Miss Finlayson went on to say that the presence of British forces in Afghanistan does not uphold any policy for reform or improvement; in fact it runs counter to it. The Afghan people themselves do not want the forces there and they are not seen as liberators but as oppressors trying to impose a different regime on a people by being condescending and patronising them to try to make them adopt western ways that run counter to their culture.
Miss Finlayson said that Hamid Karzai’s government might be seen as rotten but it had to stand on its own merits, that corruption had to be rooted out but that the presence of troops might not be the way to do it.
A very concise but well informed speech that immediately gave the audience plenty to think about.
The first speaker to speak against the motion was Brae High School pupil Drew Manson who did not hesitate in drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that it is just not realistic to ask or expect forces to withdraw from Afghanistan now.
British troops and not only British troops are in Afghanistan to act as a peacekeeping force. To protect the Afghan people and perhaps the whole world at large from a very real terrorist threat that has already been brought home to the public in the carnage of 9/11, the London tube bombings of 2005 and the Madrid train bomb.
A withdrawal of troops would simply be an invitation for terrorists everywhere, not just those from Afghanistan, to carry out more attacks.
The forces are working to try to build up a government and infrastructure in Afghanistan that will provide security for the people living there. The Afghan people want rid of the Taliban and so it would be irresponsible to abandon these poor people now and leave them to their own rather fragile resources when the country does seem to be on the brink of more stability.
Mr Manson reminded the audience that under Taliban rule this debate would have been impossible.
It would be unpatriotic to call a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have said they are not losing and they do not want sympathy. Sympathy is for losers. The death toll of the enemy is far greater than the death toll of forces. The forces want to continue to help these people, help them to rebuild their country and develop their own armed forces so that they can do the job for themselves.
The third speaker of the evening was Ceidiog Saxelby who gave a very in depth speech that expanded on points raised by Saibh Finlayson.
Mr Saxelby said that attempts to change the regime in Afghanistan had proved futile over the past 16 years and that no progress had been made in any war.
British soldiers there were dying alongside the Afghan people and war was not the answer, there were other methods available – what about the work of charities?
After eight years of this war the Afghan people are exhausted, wounded physically and emotionally and they are growing impatient for real change.
Details are often given out of the fallen, but not so many details of progress or success.
If an American plane can spot an egg at 18 kilometres, why can’t it spot the Taliban, Mr Saxelby wanted to know.
Are British forces afraid to stand up to America? The forces have failed to introduce a government or eliminate the opium trade of Afghanistan; in fact opium trade has increased.
Weapons cannot defeat the Taliban and Mr Saxelby talked of the need for more negotiation, quoting Churchill who said: “Better to jaw jaw, than war, war.”
Some would say that the presence of forces in Afghanistan is escalating the problem, not solving it. Can the soldiers sleep soundly thinking that they are making a difference?
Alexander the Great started the trend of defeat for other countries against Afghanistan, but Afghanistan has never been defeated.
The last speaker of the evening was Shaun Alderman who brought the debate opposing the motion right up to date by referring immediately to the attacks in Kabul which happened only last week. These terrorist attacks in the capital left five dead and 71 injured.
To withdraw now would be simply to give in to the Taliban and would signal a huge victory for them. It would also lead to other terrorist groups thinking that they could invade too. This could effectively light a match that would set fire to surrounding countries, notably Pakistan.
Mr Alderman said that progress is being made in Afghanistan. The Afghan forces suffered from a lack of military training, but this is being rectified and morale is improving. Afghan forces are getting better equipment, better body armour and attack helicopters.
Some countries, like Poland for example, have also agreed to increase their troop commitment because they can see that improvements are being made.
Troops are involved in rebuilding the vital infrastructure of Afghanistan too and they cannot walk away now and leave the work half finished.
British forces will not be in Afghanistan forever but they do need to be there now.
After the break there were several relevant points raised by members of the audience, and the speakers did not shy away from responding quite vociferously to some of the points raised.
Audience members stated that no-one wanted to be in Afghanistan in the first place, but we are there now and there is a job to be done.
The country has always been run by fascist war lords, but the regime is changing and the rights and needs of women especially are now being recognised with huge advances being made in terms of education and civil liberties.
Drew Manson pointed out at that for this very reason at least it would be utopian to think that all was now well and that troops could withdraw and leave the country to get on with it.
If forces were to be pulled out of Afghanistan the Taliban would continue to be in league with Al Qaeda and carnage would escalate.
One point raised was that if the forces are not achieving any big goals they are at least stopping the situation from deteriorating.
People will have died in vain if the forces leave now.
The initial votes at the start of the evening went against the motion and while there was a certain swing towards supporting the motion it was defeated, with 18 votes for the motion, 33 votes against and only four still undecided.
Well done to all the pupils who took part in a very entertaining and informative evening, with well prepared speeches that stayed within the time limits!
The next Althing debate will be held on Saturday 20th February.