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Aaron Ellis: Cameron must decide how Afghanistan fits into our grand strategy

Aaron Ellis writes the blog Thinking Strategically and often looks at Conservative foreign policy today and historically.

Should Britain withdraw from Afghanistan? The question has always hinged on whether we can win - and has led to a sterile debate in this country and in the United States about the merits and flaws of counterinsurgency.

A better question to ask is whether winning in Afghanistan is worth the effort.  Any answer must examine the war in the context of our future wants and needs. The government has yet to reconcile the two, and this ambiguity limits our options with both.

I have written that since coming to office, David Cameron and William Hague have pursued the grand strategy of a hot air balloon. They sense the turbulent winds heading our way this century, and believe the best way to avoid the gale is to throw overboard weighty commitments to make the balloon soar higher. This way of thinking has manifested itself in cooling the special relationship, pushing out Israel to align closer with Turkey, and resetting our relations with India.

This strategy is not a bad one to adopt given where the world is heading. Unless Britain changes its ways, Hague said two months ago, we are set to decline "with all that that means for our influence in world affairs, for our national security and for our economy". Afghanistan is one commitment that they are unsure about throwing overboard, however.

There are many problems with Afghanistan, but some are especially difficult for the Prime Minister. He supports counterinsurgency, which is correct, but it consumes resources and goes against the "more for less" theme of his government. Is the input worth the uncertain outcome? He inherited support for the policy President Obama laid out in December, but no one in the government seems to have thought what to do if his policy fails.

It is also difficult to reconcile Britain's Afghanistan mission with its grand strategy. The stated goal of the enterpise is to avert terrorism, yet the threat can be overstated - and there is more than this to grand strategy. "[It] is the organisation of large means in pursuit of large uncertain ends over medium to long time frames," Julian Lindley-French has written. " 'Grand' strategy has recently been too narrowly and heavily focused on counter-terrorism and Afghanistan.’ But withdrawal has its difficult questions, too.

Some on the right ask what it will say about Britain if we withdrew from Afghanistan. The Conservative MP Richard Drax warned during a recent debate about the war that we "cannot expect others to guard our interests or police world trouble spots on our behalf".  Withdrawal would impact on our position in the world and undermine our credibility as a military power, especially after Basra. These considerations tap into important narratives for the Conservative Party: that we are the party of national security, and that we win the wars our "nice but weak" opponents start. Any premature withdrawal would seem to go against these narratives, and the Party's leadership will be accused of appeasing its "nice but weak" coalition partners at the expense of Britain’s security.

I support the current strategy, but have become receptive to an alternative policy that David Cameron has less time to take the more time moves on. The dismissal of General McChrystal exposed flaws in the American policy, and if things continue to deteriorate then the Prime Minister can use such change as an opportunity to withdraw.  He has made the point before, so opponents can’t accuse him of hypocrisy. "We should only send more troops if there is a proper political strategy to help deliver security", he said in the House of Commons two years ago. It is a fair argument to make. "Not to excuse European procrastination and ineffectiveness," Etienne du Durand, a French counter-insurgency expert, has said, "but what credibility can the allies give to US leadership when its government is so highly divided?"

The impact of withdrawal on Britain’s credibility as a world power can be offset by good communications operations. First, it is questionable that our presence in Afghanistan sustains us as a world power. Patrick Porter, an academic specialising in defence matters, has written that Britain gains little influence in Washington from fighting by America’s side – if anything, we have lost credibility. "The notion that the war fortifies Britain’s vicarious world status is a dangerous illusion that leads to repeated overstretch and disappointment".

Daryl Press, a Professor of Government, has argued that governments assess the credibility of an adversary not by breaking commitments, but by whether their interests are involved, and if they have the power to back them up. If Britain develops a strategy that identifies its core interests and maintains a strong military, then our performances in Basra or Helmand will not matter. This shift requires a number of things, though - such as a strategy and defence review that prioritises Britain’s interests and re-organises its military to achieve them. There must also be a savvy communication campaign to emphasise that withdrawal is a strategic retreat like Afghanistan in 1841 or even Gallipoli – not a sign of Britain in decline.

It is questionable whether this alternative approach can be carried out. One can see this kind of thinking in the government, but whether Minister would match it with action is improbable. Although he has the political skill to pull it off, I doubt the Prime Minister is that Realpolitik. It is also fraught with risks. Anglo-American relations would damaged, not cooled; a communication strategy can fail (the election suggests the leadership is not good at consistent "big picture" messages). But it is an idea that becomes appealing the more one tries to understand the value of Afghanistan to Britain and its future in the 21st Century. David Cameron must decide whether we need this weighty commitment, preferably before the gales hit.


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