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Afghanistan mustn't be left to the generals

By Paul Goodman
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The problems in Afghanistan are familiar.  They include a corrupt Government, electoral fraud, bribed police, over a third of the potential workforce unemployed and of citizens below the poverty line, insurgents who are yet to be defeated and an Afghan army not yet ready to defeat them - the country is the second least well-developed one in the world after thirty years of more or less unceasing devastation.  David Cameron will today confirm to the Commons that Britain's combat operations there will end by the end of 2014, but that although there will be a "modest" reduction of troops this year, combat forces will be unchanged until next autumn - thus allowing commanders two fighting seasons at present strength.

This was reported yesterday as "a concession to his generals".  They presumably recognise that there is no military solution in Afghanistan without a political one (if indeed there is either).  It therefore follows that these generals must believe that military success over the next year - aided by leaving the combat troops in place - will be accompanied by political progress: that, by next autumn, the Government will be on the way to being less corrupt, the police less prone to take bribes, the insurgents more ready to make peace and the Afghan Army much better prepared for war.  One has to ask whether this happy prospect is likely - and, if so, whether it dovetails with Cameron's offer to the Taliban of power-sharing.

Even Dr Pangloss might balk at suggesting that Afghanistan is likely to be on the way to solving the problems of thirty years in less than as many months.  Are the generals simply incurable optimists, then - or is there some other explanation for their view?  The only alternative on offer which I know of was set out in written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, our former Ambassador in Kabul (and special representative of the UK in Afghanistan and Pakistan).  Cowper-Coles said that the Afghanistan venture gave the army a raison d'être it had lacked for years and "resources on an unprecedented scale".

Sir Sherard also claimed that Sir Richard (now Lord) Dannatt, then Chief of the General Staff, told him in 2007 that the army would lose troops that were leaving Iraq in a future defence review if it did not use them in Helmand: “It’s ‘use them, or lose them’,” Sir Sherard quoted Dannatt as saying.  Dannatt denied the allegation and has since claimed that Sir Sherard has apologised to him privately.  Whatever the facts of the matter may be, Dannatt is still making his views known on Afghanistan, claiming yesterday in the Sun that we "must be very careful about reducing troop numbers there too quickly" while also conceding that "all counter-insurgency wars like Afghanistan are fought and concluded within a political solution".

It is hard to believe that the top brass fighting a media war to gain support for present combat troop levels in Afghanistan wouldn't have known about Dannatt's piece in advance.  For senior figures in the armed forces to make their views known on military matters is one thing.  Sir Mark Stanhope and Sir Simon Bryant did so over the Libyan expedition.  But for generals to do so on political ones is quite another.  True, the one sometimes merges into the other, but there's a common sense difference between saying, for example, that troops don't have enough armoured vehicles and suggesting that military progress in Afghanistan will help to deliver political success - which it won't.

It is time to take a step back from the Afghanistan conflict, and ask some very hard questions indeed.  375 British troops have been killed there, and many more wounded, often horribly.  An obvious, emotional argument follows: that it would be a betrayal of their sacrifice to allow the enemy to win.  The passion of the case is unmissable.  But it follows from it that more and more British soldiers should be poured into  Afghanistan despite there being no political solution in sight - or, rather, in which the only one in view, publicly recommended by our politicians, is a negotiation with the very enemy that our troops are fighting.  If our national security was thus compromised, this would be a betrayal.

But it isn't.  The Taliban are not going to scale the white cliffs of Dover to impose the hudud punishments or end education for women in Britain any time soon.  Yes, Al Qaeda remains a threat to public safety.  However, its operatives are as likely to be training on the other side of the Durand line in Pakistan's badlands (or in the Yemen or Somalia) as in Afghanistan itself.  And countering their activities does not require trying to transform a nation "quartered by the hands of war" into a liberal democratic society - least of all by propping up a government that is irredeemably corrupt.  Read Rory Stewart on Afghanistan.  Read Adam Holloway on the same country.  We could deal with any Al Qaeda training camps using a fraction of our present force.

Our generals are doubtless better men than our politicians.  It is none the less the case that no-one has voted for them.  If they want to keep us permanently in Afghanistan, they should stand for election on that basis.  Until or unless they do, David Cameron should, on this matter, give them short shrift.  He is right to want to end the present venture as soon as possible.


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