David Cameron wants out of Afghanistan as soon as possible
Not so long ago, when Labour was in government, the presence of British troops in Afghanistan was justified partly on internationalist and interventionist grounds. Ministers explained that they were fighting not just to help keep Britain safe, but to help spread democracy, boost development, promote women's rights, and curb the poppy trade. The Afghanistan war was justified on some of the same grounds as the Iraq war (in the absence of weapons of mass destruction).
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said on Afghanistan that "we cannot be there for another five years", adding that he wants our forces out of the country by the time of the next election. True, he went on to warn against "artificial timetables" for quitting, but the specific thrust of his remarks was as unmistakable as the recent, general shift of policy. In an under-reported Commons statement less than a fortnight ago, he effectively stripped the Afghanistan mission back to its national security essentials - and junked Blair's neo-liberal legacy.
The Conservative leadership has been distancing itself from George Bush's inheritance since Michael Howard tangled with the President over the Hutton Inquiry. Cameron thus has common ground with President Obama, who he meets today at the G20 Summit in Toronto. Obama's clear intention is to surge, help build up a strong Afghan armed forces, and withdraw. The Prime Minister, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue in relation to foreign affairs (as in everything else), is thus singing the same song as the President.
Whether an effective Afghan army and (especially) police force come into being is questionable, to say the least. That depends on whether, in turn, a viable central Government comes into existence. Some well-informed Conservative MPs think it won't. The brilliant Rory Stewart - elected this week to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - is the best-known. He argues that we can't win the war by trying to build up such a centralised state. Adam Holloway is less famous but just as well informed. Read his In blood steeped too far.
On Armed Forces Day, let's honour the courage and commitment of our troops. And agree that as soon as possible their mission should indeed be stripped down to essentials - the practicable task of hunting down terrorist training operations rather than the impracticable one of building a western liberal democracy.
Related link today: The Government is acting quickly to deal with combat stress suffered by our veterans, writes Andrew Murrison MP