The state of the economy and Britain’s huge government deficit were always going to be the main preoccupation of the new prime minister after May’s general election. But ever since he took office, David Cameron has faced another problem, just as intractable: what to do about Britain’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Now his policy is beginning to take shape. But there are still some hard choices ahead.
His first significant remark on the issue was made in Toronto last month after a meeting with President Obama. He said that British troops quite simply could not still be in the country in five years time, the date planned for the next election. Already our soldiers have been there for nine years. 312 of them have been killed with even larger numbers having suffered terrible injuries.
Although part of a wider NATO enterprise, British troops have taken a perhaps disproportionate toll as a result of having been stationed in the most dangerous part of the country where most of the fighting against the Taliban has gone on – Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan. Since 2006 British forces have been deployed in the most deadly part of Helmand, the Sangin district. Although only a tenth of our troops have been stationed there, Sangin has accounted for a third of the deaths among British forces.
Soldiers who have spent time there call it a hellhole. There has been persistent criticism that our forces have been spread far too thinly in the district and have suffered from inadequate kit, notably helicopters. The consequence is that it has been easier for the Taliban to pick them off, usually by means of roadside improvised explosive devices. Some critics say that British forces should never have been deployed in Sangin in this way and that the lives lost were a pointless and avoidable sacrifice.
This week, however, the defence secretary, Liam Fox, announced that British troops would be pulling out of Sangin, to be replaced by part of the 'surge' of 30,000 extra American forces sanctioned by President Obama last year.
Inevitably some will see this as a defeat for the British army, similar (as they would see it) to British forces in Iraq being replaced by the Americans in Basra. The government insists instead that it is nothing of the sort but a sensible reordering of forces now that there are extra American troops to be deployed. Whichever is the case, there will be much relief if the result is fewer military hearses being driven through Wootton Bassett.
But the case of Sangin could be seen as simply a microcosm of the much bigger issue of what we are doing in Afghanistan at all, and whether our continued presence in the country is worth any further British casualties.
The new government makes the same case for our involvement in Afghanistan as the last one. It is that the war is vital for Britain’s own domestic security. Were NATO forces, including the British and of course the biggest contingent of all, that of the United States, to pull out of the country, the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai would fall and the Taliban would take control once more. It was a Taliban government which gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and allowed it to plot 9/11 from its territory. So, of we pull out now, we risk further 9/11s.
The argument against this takes several forms. First of all, it is pointed out that Afghanistan is not the only country from which militant Islamists such as Al-Qaeda either could or, indeed, have plotted against the west. They have operated too out of Yemen and several African countries. Much of the planning for 9/11 was done in Germany.
Secondly, it’s argued that even if the Taliban did take over Afghanistan it is highly unlikely they would want Al-Qaeda back too since it was the connection with Al-Qaeda that caused them to be ousted from power. What the Taliban are fighting for, it’s claimed, is not the opportunity to reinstall Al-Qaeda, but rather simply to rid their country of foreign occupiers.
In any case, say those not persuaded by the case for our still being in Afghanistan, there must be a huge doubt that, simply by continued military occupation, we can ultimately prevent the Taliban from regaining power. In short, they say, the Taliban are winning.
NATO’s military strategy has been to clear areas of the Taliban and then provide security and assistance to give Afghan government forces time to take over control themselves. The trouble has been, however, that areas cleared militarily become infiltrated again. Local people tend to mistrust Afghan government authorities whom they regard as corrupt. They also believe that one day foreign troops are bound to leave so it makes sense not to antagonise the Taliban in the meantime.
In the light of this some influential figures, both military and diplomatic, have argued that now is the time to start talking to the Taliban to see if some accommodation can be found that would allow NATO forces to be pulled down without leaving the country to continued strife and the risk of anti-western militant Islamists taking control. The trouble is, though, that the Taliban have made clear they don’t want to talk, or not at least while foreign troops are still in their country. If they are winning, as they think they are, they see no need to.
Some strategists, therefore, are saying that if we are losing the war, the best thing is to get out quickly. How can we justify the loss of any more soldiers’ lives if it is already clear to us that we cannot 'win'?
Ultimately the decision here will be President Obama’s. The recent sacking of his military chief in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, ostensibly for having given an indiscreet magazine interview, is thought by many really to have been about arguments over strategy and its implementation. The new military boss, General David Petraeus, succeeded in Iraq to lower the temperature in the country and so accommodate the beginning of American military withdrawal. As President Obama intends to begin the pullout from Afghanistan next year, many are hoping General Petraeus can play the same trick there.
But he may not be able to. The problem for David Cameron will arise if President Obama decides to hang on in Afghanistan for the longer term, jeopardising the Prime Minister’s determination to have all British troops out of the country by 2015. In such circumstances, should he pull Britain out unilaterally, as other NATO countries, such as Canada, are doing, or should he stay loyal to the Americans even as British public opinion turns against our involvement and he himself starts being accused of simply cow towing to the Americans? Or does he hope that Sangin might be repeated on a larger scale – that, as a consequence of military ‘reordering’, the Americans agree to fill the gap left by the retiring Brits, and the British troops all come home?
What’s your view? Do you support or not the decision to pull British troops out of Sangin? What do you make of the criticism that they should never have been deployed there in the first place? Do you regard the decision as a defeat for the British army or simply as sensible reordering of military resources? On the bigger issue, do you accept or not the British government’s case for our continuing to fight in Afghanistan? Do you think we can win a military victory or not? Do you think the Taliban are winning? Should we be talking to the Taliban? How long do you think we should stay in Afghanistan, and if President Obama and David Cameron end up taking a different view on this matter, what do you think the Prime Minister should do?