A fundamental shift has quietly taken place in Britain’s approach to Afghanistan: the focus is now on leaving, not winning. Con Coughlin asks if we are seeing the return of the politics of appeasement
It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that David Cameron gave up on the war in Afghanistan. But the Prime Minister’s indisputable position today is that the Nato campaign is unwinnable, and that the sooner Britain withdraws its 10,000-strong combat contingent the better.
Mr Cameron reached this depressing conclusion before the current furore over the leaking of 90,000 pages of low-grade intelligence and situation logs by the Australian anti-war campaigner Julian Assange through his website WikiLeaks, which nevertheless provides a valuable insight into the complexities and challenges of the military campaign. And in turning his back on Afghanistan, Cameron appears blithely unconcerned about the impact that such an abject act of capitulation will have on Britain’s standing as a world power, as well as the implications the defeat will have for future defence of the entire Western alliance.
Mr Cameron’s visit to India this week tells you all you need to know about the radical change of direction that is taking place at the heart of the new coalition government. There is nothing wrong per se with the British government seeking to embrace the myriad commercial opportunities on offer in one of the world’s emerging economic powerhouses, which also, by happy coincidence, happens to have a rich and long-standing relationship with Britain.
But if one lesson is to be drawn from the WikiLeaks documents it is the pressing need for Britain and its allies to improve our relationship with neighbouring Pakistan, which is clearly experiencing considerable difficulty in fulfilling its obligations as a crucial ally to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan. Pakistan is paranoid about India at the best of times — when I last visited Islamabad in the spring a senior ISI officer insisted in all seriousness that it was the Indians, not the Pakistanis, who were arming the Taleban. If Mr Cameron were really serious about achieving success in Afghanistan, he would be concentrating his energies on improving relations with Islamabad, not Delhi.
The sobering truth, though, is that, since taking office, Mr Cameron has quietly steered the entire narrative on Afghanistan from how we can best win the war to how we can most conveniently abandon it. He began his premiership in promising enough fashion, telling the Commons in his first statement on Afghanistan in May that he fully supported the surge strategy devised by General Stanley McChrystal. But since then he has undertaken a gradual retreat from a position of supporting the military effort to withdrawing from it.
This sentiment was clearly evident when Mr Cameron made his first visit to Afghanistan as Prime Minister in June, and declared that he did not want British soldiers to remain in Afghanistan a day longer than was necessary. There then followed an unseemly squabble between senior Conservative ministers (the Liberal Democrats have no interest in our forces remaining there in the first place) over when that withdrawal might actually take place. Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Minister who is the only government member of rank who displays a genuine commitment to the Afghan cause, voiced his support for the assessment of his senior military commanders that it will take until at least 2014 before the Afghans are in a position to take care of their own security concerns. But Downing Street has had its guns trained on Dr Fox since his ill-advised remarks on Afghanistan’s primitive culture earned him the nickname ‘13th-Century Fox’, and Mr Cameron set out his own, more ambitious timetable during his meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, when he said he hoped to order the withdrawal of British forces next year.
It was, of course, Mr Obama who launched the scramble to leave Afghanistan when he announced that he intended to start withdrawing US forces next July as he unveiled America’s new counterinsurgency strategy at the end of last year. But while the new British government’s approach has undoubtedly been informed by Washington’s wildly overoptimistic time-frame, Downing Street also sees the conflict as an opportunity to assert its own, distinctive foreign policy agenda.
Like Tony Blair, Mr Cameron is a political opportunist, and the fact that the war in Afghanistan is now held to be widely unpopular with the British public, with the seemingly endless procession of dead British soldiers through Wootton Bassett dominating the 24-hour news cycle, is the foremost consideration in his calculations.
There is now a practical manifestation to Mr Cameron’s growing disenchantment with the Afghan mission. When he was still in opposition, Mr Cameron scored many political points at the expense of the Labour government by his repeated claims that the British military operation was undermanned and under-resourced. There was consequently an expectation in Whitehall that if the Conservatives won power, there would be a ‘mini-surge’ in manpower and equipment. Instead, Mr Cameron has insisted that not another single British soldier will be deployed to Afghanistan on his watch.
The decision to sideline the highly voluble Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, one of Whitehall’s most effective cheerleaders for the Afghan mission, is yet another sign of the government’s disinclination to invest any political capital in a successful outcome of the Nato mission. Sir Sherard has been a staunch advocate of persuading the more moderate Taleban tribal leaders, the majority of whom come from the dominant Pashtuns, to engage in a process of political reconciliation, which would both strengthen the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai while at the same time taking the sting out of the Taleban’s violent insurgency.
Sir Sherard would be the first to concede that there is little chance of any Taleban leaders being coaxed to the negotiating table if, as now seems abundantly clear, the principal Nato military players — namely Britain and America — are desperate to pack up and go home. This is a country, remember, that already has painful memories of being abandoned by the West twice in the past 20 years — in 1989, after the Mujahideen had helped the CIA to bring the Soviet occupation to an ignominious end, and again in 2001, when former President George W. Bush had thought that the mission was accomplished by deposing the Taleban — and turned his attention to settling an old family score. As Mr Obama and Mr Cameron seem more interested in discussing when they will leave Afghanistan, rather than how they will resolve its many problems, it is little wonder that the vast majority of Afghans now expect the West to abandon them yet again. Consequently, while Sir Sherard spends a convivial summer on gardening leave in Devon, the Taleban show no inclination to involve themselves in any form of political rapprochement.
The other factor that must not be discounted in any analysis of Mr Cameron’s attempts to reposition Britain’s international profile is the government’s growing disenchantment with the transatlantic partnership with the US. For all the stage-managed bonhomie of Mr Cameron’s summit with Mr Obama, there is unease with Mr Obama’s ability to demonstrate effective leadership on the world stage. ‘There is a growing awareness that we are dealing with a weak American president who is failing to demonstrate effective leadership on a whole range of issues,’ one of Mr Cameron’s senior security advisors recently confided to me. ‘On Iran, on Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinians, the perception is growing that there is a dangerous lack of leadership coming from the White House.’
Add to this the government’s desire not to involve itself in the overseas military int
erventionism that defined the Blair era and it is not difficult to see the position Mr Cameron intends to adopt when it comes to confronting whatever threats to our national security the future might pose. ‘The era when we dispatch a large military presence overseas as part of some ill-defined, nation-building exercise is over,’ a senior minister told me. ‘We will deal with future security concerns in a precise, practical and focused manner, without getting ourselves bogged down in missions that are beyond our control.’
It is sincerely to be hoped that this does not mean a return to the appeasement policy adopted by Douglas Hurd, the Conservative foreign secretary in the 1990s, who allowed British troops to be sent to Bosnia without a mandate to intervene when innocent civilians were slaughtered in front of their eyes. Even Mr Cameron must accept that indulging in such moral cowardice does nothing to enhance Britain’s international stature. Winning lucrative contracts from India and the other emerging markets may well be the primary focus of this government’s international engagement. But it will be judged, in the end, by what we leave behind in Afghanistan.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s executive foreign editor.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 31, 2010