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Will George Osborne stamp his influence across Britain's Afghan policy?

By Peter Hoskin
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It’s Osborne-a-rama in the newspapers this morning. When the Chancellor isn’t outlining the “triple threats” that face the global economy, he’s blaming Germany for the death of the proposed BAE-EADS merger. When he isn’t writing letters to Andrew Tyrie about banking reform, he’s urging energy companies to rethink their price rises. And there’s more: the Financial Times even contains a hatful of articles about Mr Osborne’s “shares for rights” policy.

But the most significant Osborne-related story in today’s papers is surely this in the Daily Telegraph. Apparently, at a recent National Security Council meeting, he asked defence chiefs why British troops couldn’t just come home from Afghanistan now. The report quotes sources who suggest that this was merely a “provocation” on the Chancellor’s part — and that he agrees with the government’s current plan for withdrawal — but it’s striking nonetheless. Mr Osborne had previously pushed for more troops than the agreed-upon 500 to be taken out of the country this year. He certainly appears to be agitating for a faster pace to proceedings.

If that’s the case, then it’s understandable why he would.  I’m one of those people who find it worrying that our Afghan strategy has reduced into so many timetables and so much haste — but, given the great human and fiscal costs associated with this conflict, the Chancellor might well think differently. As the Telegraph report points out, “By the end of March this year, Afghan operations had cost taxpayers a total of £17.3 billion, on top of the core defence budget.” It’s the sort of money that Mr Osborne might care to stash away in the Exchequer’s vaults instead, as he struggles to beat the deficit.

So what chance that Mr Osborne will force a change in policy? Perhaps a faster reduction in troop numbers next year than was previously envisioned? The Telegraph suggests that defence chiefs are now considering exactly that, and that “Mr Osborne’s scepticism is helping to prolong the decision-making process on how many to withdraw next year.” We can expect to hear the outcome of these contemplations early next year.

In the meantime, however, I expect that what’s happening in America will have as much influence as anything else. The Obama administration views the timeline for complete withdrawal by 2014 as absolute, and there are suggestions that not even US trainers and advisers will remain beyond then. But Mitt Romney, as hazy as his Afghan policy is, seems to warier about pulling out quickly and definitively. “We do agree with the timeline and the transition,” is how Paul Ryan put it during the VP debate on Thursday, “but what we would do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline.” This comes on top of Mr Romney saying that, “I don’t think you set hard and fast deadlines without recognising that there is the potential for conditions to change.”

All of which is to ask: if America speeds up, or slows down, its withdrawal, what chance that we will do likewise? 


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