Although David Cameron said later that he didn’t mean it, there was no mistaking the sincerity when he told Adam Boulton
that “We cannot be there for another five years having effectively been there for nine years already”. In my News of the World column
today, I say that it’s pretty clear his Afghan strategy is to secure the earliest dignified exit. But I also say that this does not necessarily bode ill for defence more widely. I gather that George Osborne, fresh from the success of his Budget last week, is working on a plan that will freeze defence budget in cash terms (an 11% real terms cut over five years) thereby saving the military from the 25% average cut for non-ring fenced departments. In return, Liam Fox would be asked to offer up asset sales, probably in year three of four (as asset prices are expected to be on an upwards trajectory). This is the best available option for defence, and if Osborne does indeed give a “no cash cuts” policy on the MoD than the Conservative Party and the military will owe him a thank-you. It keeps Britain in the game, globally.
The settlement will nonetheless be very tough, and Liam Fox will have the devil’s own job with the Strategic Defence Review due in the autumn. The Army think he’s too pro-Navy, the RAF think that – as a former Army doctor – Fox is against them. So Fox will be mass producing gossipy enemies within the defence establishment as he wields the scalpel.
Update: In saying that he wanted troops out for the next election, Cameron made a rare slip. It’s particularly unfortunate given the timing of the Afghan mission. Violence is increasing, and the military are on the cusp of two major offensives: the Americans are planning to take Kandahar and the British are planning a major operation in Sangin in the south. Both have been delayed, principally because the Americans are having trouble with their offensive in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand (the now-famous Rolling Stone article had hints of this. Given that UK troops will soon come under American command, this explains the tardiness of our Sangin operation – it was due for May, and given that our Valetine’s Day offensive went pretty well there’s no reason I’ve heard of why there should be a holdup from the British end).
As this is primarily a war of nerves, the Taliban will look at this delay – together with the Stanley McChrystal fiasco, Cameron’s comments – and conclude that Obama and Cameron may not be entirely wedded to the military adventure of their defeated predecessors. Crucially, the Taliban will want to know if the West’s resolve is weakening.
The correct answer to ‘how long will Britain be in Afghanistan’ is simple: ‘as long as it takes’. Cameron, I suspect, will be kicking himself that he did not offer this answer.
I met his old Eton schoolmate, Mark Carleton-Smith, when he was commanding British forces in Afghanistan two years ago and he put it memorably. “This is a task which one measures in decades. Strategic patience is vital.” In his book Colossus, Niall Ferguson wrote that the America may have superior military, but its weakness is its short attention span. Exploiting this weakness is the Taliban’s entire strategy. They seek to erode support for the war in domestic audiences, via a high number of casualties (which serve little strategic purpose). They cannot beat the Western armies, but hope that Western politicians will run out of this “strategic patience” and then withdraw to suit a political timetable.
The Taliban saying – “you have the watches, but we have the time” – is the key to understanding their aim in Afghanistan. For all his exotic background, Obama is a strikingly parochial President who seems to regard Afghanistan only through the perspective of his re-election. That’s why he spoke about a 2011 withdrawal date. Such language encourages the enemy, and makes them think they will win a waiting game.
One final factor: the steady draining of political support in Britain. I chaired a ‘Question Time’ panel for new Tory MPs a fortnight ago, hosted by the CPS. One of the questions was why we’re in Afghanistan. These Tories, by no means to the left of the party, agreed that it is very hard to answer. The Afghanistan bill is on top of the normal military budget, and I suspect it’s one that Cameron and Osborne would like to reduce quite quickly. You won’t hear either of them talk with much passion about how Afghanistan is of great strategic importance to Britain – Cameron likes to focus on the aid, training etc that we can give Karzai’s government. Problem is, that government is now ranked the second most corrupt in the world – real power rests with warlords and drugs barons. It could well be that the Afghanistan campaign will simply serve to transfer power form thugs with beards to clean-shaven thugs. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has rightly said that it will not be a “Central Asian Valhalla”. But to leave it as a Central Asian Somalia is not much of a result either. There is, alas, much reason to be disheartened about what Britain can realistically achieve in Afghanistan. But with our troops about to start a major offensive, now is not the time to go wobbly.