Andrew Gilligan

Have the bombs scared the government?

Andrew Gilligan says that some Whitehall officials fear that sending more troops to Afghanistan might be an unnecessary provocation

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Watching the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw this week, as he denied any link whatever between the London bombings and the war in Iraq, I must confess that I felt the tiniest prickle of sympathy. How undignified it must be, endlessly having to pretend that black is white, the sun sets in the east and the Pope’s religion is really not quite as simple an issue as some irresponsible commentators make out.

It is of course true, as Mr Straw says, that al-Qa’eda wanted to attack us long before the Iraq war, and did attack several of our allies. But London was something quite new: the first al-Qa’eda attack against a Western country carried out by its own citizens. As the intelligence services predicted before the war, and as the government’s own research reported after it, Iraq has radicalised a significant cadre of British Muslims, a few of whom are prepared to become foot soldiers of terror. The war may not have increased al-Qa’eda’s desire to harm us; but it probably did increase its capacity to harm us. And although Mr Straw is officially permitted to blame the attacks on the ‘evil ideology’ of al-Qa’eda, he neglects to mention that this ideology encompasses, as one of its most important elements, an explicit call for the withdrawal of infidel troops from Islamic soil.

It would be wrong in principle, and perhaps even dangerous, to make policy at the behest of terrorists, so some at least of Her Majesty’s boys in Iraq are likely to stay there for the time being. But in some reaches of Whitehall, a rather more interesting discussion is now taking place as to how far Britain should proceed with its plans to send huge numbers of infidel troops to another troubled Islamic country, Afghanistan.

Tony Blair announced more than a year ago that Britain would take over the leadership of Afghanistan’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), involving the dispatch of about 400 extra British soldiers in a new British-led headquarters. About ten months ago reports started to appear in the papers that as many as 4,000 front-line British troops in the field would join them, taking control of the entire southern half of the country, and mounting anti-Taleban, anti-bin Laden and anti-drugs operations.

The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, spoke of an entire brigade being dispatched, if the commitment to Iraq could be scaled down. Only six weeks ago, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel James Denny, told reporters that Britain’s commitment to what he described as ‘peace-enforcing rather than peace-keeping’ would be announced within the month. ‘We are looking at a series of options, moving into Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul provinces.’

Such an operation would place Britain at the forefront of both the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’; Mullah Omar is believed to be in the area, Osama bin Laden and his supporters are thought to be just over the border in Pakistan, and 90 per cent of Europe’s heroin comes from Afghanistan.

Lately, however, much more mixed signals have been coming from the British camp. Although, as a leaked MoD report showed last week, there is still likely to be a substantial scaling-down of Britain’s presence in Iraq, there now seems much less certainty about just how large a deployment will be made to Afghanistan. The headquarters will definitely still go. But for the rest, the expeditionary force appears to have been, at best, substantially reduced from earlier glories.

Some MoD officials are now talking about a force of as few as a thousand, and some, privately, of next to no new troops at all, aside from the headquarters staff. The Defence Secretary, John Reid, says he still hasn’t decided, but spoke recently of moving down to ‘Helmand province’ — just one, in other words, of the four provinces envisaged by Colonel Denny. Any thought of an announcement in the near future appears to have gone away; MoD sources say that even the first capability commitment conference at Nato will not be until the end of this month, and no actual decisions are expected until the autumn.

There are many factors in this apparent change of atmosphere. The army’s new Bowman-digitised radio system — replacing those famous radios that could be overheard by the Serbs in Kosovo, if they chose to function at all — is not yet working properly, and could not equip an entire brigade. The Treasury, as ever, is cavilling about money. Some in Nato are worried about the scope of the mission: going after drugs, they say, is ‘mission creep’ which will distract from the central security aim and draw the force far more directly into confrontation with powerful local warlords for whom the poppy is the economic mainstay.

Two weeks ago, however, another factor entered the mix. Whatever Mr Straw may say publicly, many in his own department, just like the think-tank Chatham House, have no doubt at all that there is a link between the London bombs and the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a point being gently but firmly made in the current discussions. ‘There is a difference between standing firm on an existing policy and doing something which could be construed as a provocation,’ says one official.

The Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, who is visiting London this week, appears at the time of writing to have secured no concrete public commitment to extra troops, even though this would have been a logical time to announce them. Mr Karzai, who lacks real control over most of his country, is keen on the deployment and stresses that the West is starting to ‘lose’ in Afghanistan.

Britain needs to decide. Do we share the American neocon view, which is that al-Qa’eda’s demand for Western troop withdrawal and disengagement from the Muslim world is essentially a tactical one to demonstrate Islamist strength and Western weakness; and that conceding it would be a fatal defeat in the ‘existential struggle’ now taking place between the rival ideologies of Islamism and Westernism?

Or do we take the view that, though the Islamists may indeed want to create an existential struggle, it is not for us to oblige them by engaging them on ground of their own choosing; that Islamism has no hope of conquering the West; that the best way to strengthen Islamism is to proceed as we have been doing, and the best way to turn down the gas under this poisonous ideology is to change our ways?

Military action against al-Qa’eda in south Asia enjoyed significant early success, but the growing evidence that a resilient, Pakistan-based al-Qa’eda leadership played some part in the London bombings suggests that the military approach to destroying the terrorists is no longer succeeding. That al-Qa’eda has — for the first time — been able to recruit Western citizens to attack their own country suggests that the military approach has actually been counterproductive.

The bombings are probably not the main factor in the new air of uncertainty that has come over Mr Blair’s latest foreign adventure. They may even, in the end, firm up a decision to send a substantial force — on the basis that the outrage in London makes a show of resolution more important than ever. But they are a factor. And the way the decision on Afghanistan goes will be the most important indicator of how Britain sees the future of the ‘war on terror’.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator, and is on the staff of the London Evening Standard.