Alex Massie

Does Obama Need Britain in Afghanistan?

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Since I outlined a modest case for dithering on Afghanstan last month, it probably behoves me to admit that, politicaly though perhaps not militarily, the time for consequence-free dithering seems to be running-out. Con Coughlin's story in this week's magazine damns Obama's approach to the Afghan problem, not least because the President, according to Con, has little interest in consulting his allies:

The astonishing disregard with which Mr Obama treats Britain has been made clear by his deliberations over the Afghan issue. As he decides how many more troops to send to Afghanistan — a decision which will fundamentally affect the scope of the mission — Britain is reduced to guesswork. The White House does not even pretend to portray this as a joint decision. It is a diplomatic cold-shouldering that stands in contrast not just to the Blair–Bush era, but to the togetherness of the soldiers on the ground.

...But with Obama there are no regular video-conferences bringing Downing Street up to date on the latest White House thinking. No special envoys making secret visits to London to keep the key players informed. Instead we will have to wait, like everyone else, for the puffs of smoke from the White House — which are now expected around the Thanksgiving holiday — to find out what Obama really intends to do about Afghanistan. He is, in all too many ways, an AWOL ally. Now, you may say that Con would say this, wouldn't he? Nonetheless, there's something to this criticism. Gordon Brown may be a lame duck Prime Minister but the drift on Afghanistan is doing considerable damage to public enthusiasm for the campaign. One imagines that David Cameron would also like a clearer statement of American intent, sooner rather than later.

It's true that we don't have very many troops, in the grans scheme of things, in Afghanistan. That is our total commitment is dwarfed by the Americans'. For every British soldier already in Helmand province, Washington is probably going to send four American troops as the US presence in Afghanistan increases to more than 100,000 men. At that point there'll be ten American sodiers for every British squaddy. So you can see why the Americans might be careless about consulting their closest allies. It's much more their war, their responsibility, than ours.

Which, of course, then raises the question once more: what are we doing there? To what end does Loyal Little Britain send its boys off to fight for Uncle Sam? Con consoles himself with the thought that, when push comes to shove, Washington will eventually be reminded that there are very few countries upon whom it may rely. Plucky Britain, dogged and noble to the end, is one.

Maybe so. But while the British troops may be few in number, they're needed not least because it's not obvious that the Americans would find it easy to step in and replace them were Britain's 10,000 boys to come home. As Spencer Ackerman reports, putting an additional 30-40,000 men into the field will itself place great strains upon the US military.

There are still 120,000 US troops in Iraq and since the Pentagon insists upon a 12 month break between deployments, finding the briagdes needed for an immediate deployment to Afghanistan comes close to exhausting the operational manpower of US forces as matters and regulations currently stand.  As Spencer details, unless heavy brigades are re-fitted and deployed as light brigades, the total number of troops avaialble, as of next month, may be no more than 31,600. Furthermore:

Of the 14 active-duty brigades [NB: five are heavy brigades] that will be available for deployment in December, five have already served three tours abroad since 2002 and four have already served two. If either the 3rd brigade of the 101st Airborne Division or the 1st brigade of the 10th Mountain Division are asked to deploy to Afghanistan, it will be their fifth tour since 2002.

That's asking a lot. In these circumstances, then, the presence of just 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan becomes quite important. And that being the case, it's reasonable to suppose that the President keep his friends and allies abreast of his thinking and, for that matter, be at least mindful of the political damage the delay in making his decision is doing elsewhere. It's not too late to turn these political problems around, but the case for dithering, modest anyway, is becoming weaker.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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