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Rory Stewart is right about Afghanistan (and David Cameron knows it)

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-02-07 at 22.32.35 Glossy publications tend to linger at home long after newspapers have gone, and so it comes about that I've just caught up with last Saturday's Telegraph magazine, the cover feature of which is a profile of Rory Stewart -  by turn impressive, moving, comical and arresting.  In it, Ian Parker writes -

"An added complication is that his views about Afghanistan are not the Conservative Party's views.  Stewart believes in a long humitarian commitment to the country but in a greatly reduced military presence: only 10 or 20,000 troops, 'so that the Taliban are at least facing a stalemate', as he recently put it.  He summarises his stance in a dense sentence that seems to be looking for a piece as the epigraph in a future biography: 'If we can do less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear'."

Stewart's position is set out at its most magisterial in this essay in the London Review of Books.  It's substantially the same as that expounded by Adam Holloway (who has now disappeared into the Government) for the Centre for Policy Studies.

I want, in turn, briefly to re-state what it is, reiterate why it's right, and explain with references how it's become clear that the Stewart/Holloway "views about Afghanistan are the Conservative Party's views" - or, rather, are the Government's views; or, rather, have become them without anyone really noticing.

The essence of the Stewart/Holloway position is as follows -
  • Afghanistan-based Islamists pose a domestic security threat to Britain, as do those based in many other countries - such as Somalia and the Yemen.
  • We're not attempting to counter that threat in those countries by making major military commitments to them and, in doing so, trying simultaneously to support a strong central state.
  • There's no reason to treat Afghanisan in a different way.  We should therefore concentrate our military operations on counter-terrorism rather than nation-building.

Adam Holloway I've set out before why this view is right, and indicated why the Prime Minister agrees.  He made a major statement on Afghanistan to the Commons on June 14 last year, beginning the main section of it as follows -

"Let me address the first question that people are asking. Why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or on our allies."

He was thereby narrowing the basis of our mission from helping with nation-building - usually accompanied by references to building liberal democracy, providing aid, funding education, improving the position of women and so on - to protecting British citizens.

In doing so, he quietly aligned his position with that of Liam Fox, who had told the Times only a few weeks before that "We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”  Cameron went on to say -

"The next question is how long must we stay. The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary, and the British people are rightly impatient for progress. Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary, and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so...When we have succeeded in enabling the Afghans to take control of their own security, our troops can begin to come home."

Certainly, the Prime Minister gave no timetable for the withdrawal of troops, and stressed the building-up of an Afghan army - an integral part of the conventional strategy, begun under the Bush Presidency and continued under that of Obama, of building up a strong Afghan central state.  However, James Arbuthnot asked -

"Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a risk of conflicting messages? We are saying on the one hand to the Taliban that we will not cut and run and that we will stay for as long as is needed to do the job, but on the other we are saying to the Afghan Government that there is urgency for them to sort out their corruption and their governance. Does my right hon. Friend give priority to leaving as soon as possible or staying for as long as is necessary?"

In short, Arbuthnot, the Defence Select Committee Chairman and a supporter of the conventional strategy, decoded Cameron's statement correctly.  The Prime Minister replied that he did not "think that there is a contradiction" and that "it is right not to set an artificial deadline".

However, he'd previously said, as Leader of the Opposition, that the bulk of British troops should leave Afghanistan by 2015, and within days of his statement he'd returned to that position, saying ahead of the G8 summit when questioned about the 2015 date that -

"I want that to happen, make no mistake about it. We can't be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already...I want us to roll up our sleeves and get on with delivering what will bring the success we want, which is not a perfect Afghanistan, but some stability in Afghanistan and the ability for the Afghans themselves to run their country, so they [British troops] can come home."

This again indicates that Arbuthnot had read Cameron's mind correctly.  If you doubt it, have another look at the Hansard, and note that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Richard Ottoway - the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - and Labour's Denis MacShane concurred.

Still not convinced?  Perhaps, you'll claim, the Prime Minister's remarks before the G8 were a one-off.  But here's another reference to the 2015 timetable in a report of the Prime Minister's visit to Afghanistan in December.  And here's yet another - from only a few days ago.

In short, the course of events looks likely to be as follows -

  • As the 2012 election approaches, Obama will attempt to continue the withdrawal of U.S forces from Afghanistan that's due to begin this July - and claim on the campaign trail that the surge has worked, American troops are beginning to come home, and effective Afghan armed forces are in place to secure the integrity of Afghanistan under its government.
  • Cameron will move at the same pace, hoping that by 2015 he'll be able to announce that "our troops in Afghanistan have completed the job that they were sent to do".  Like Obama, he'll hope that elements of the Tabliban are on board - or, as he put it last June, "we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process".
  • A key question is whether effective Afghan armed forces are in place by either date, and whether there's any meaningful "reconciliation process", to borrow the Prime Minister's phrase.  Both are very doubtful.  The Prime Minister's language - he tends to refer to not having troops "in large number" in Afghanistan - gives him plenty of wriggle room.
  • None the less, it's clear that he's narrowed the terms of the mission, and is looking to withdraw our armed forces as fast as possible.  If Afghanistan's Government collapsed after 2015, and Cameron's still in office, it's hard to imagine him re-committing large numbers of troops to the country.  That would leave government policy looking very similar to Stewart's ideal.

Stewart takes a sceptical view of assertions that the collapse of Afghanistan would have a domino effect, delivering Pakistan (where, let's not forget, Al Qaeda's Britain-related plots have tended to originate to date) into the hands of Islamist fanatics.  It's worth noting his related question to Mike Gapes during a debate last year, and reading the whole of his speech later in the same debate.

In any event, it would surely be more practicable to deal with such circumstances by supporting Pakistan and conducting counter-terror operations within Afghanistan - rather than attempting instead to prop up a corrupt central government in the latter country, with the large-scale military commitment that such a mission necessitates.

It would be wrong to close an article on these matters without honouring the sacrifices that our armed forces are making as it's being written - in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


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