One of the first things David Cameron will tell Barack Obama when they meet during the American President’s state visit to Britain next week is that hundreds of British soldiers are going to be withdrawn from Afghanistan this summer. Of the 10,000 British troops currently based in southern Afghanistan, around 450 are to be brought home, with the promise of more to follow, as Mr Cameron cashes in the peace dividend he believes will accrue following the welcome demise of the world’s most infamous terrorist.
Huzzah, I hear you cry. And about time too. Never understood what we were doing there in the first place. What’s the point of our young men and women risking their lives or, more to the point, their limbs in this godforsaken country where the locals quite understandably take great exception to our unwelcome meddling in their affairs? Which, of course, is exactly the response Mr Cameron is anticipating.
There has always been a half-hearted air about the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the Afghan conflict. Like any politician, he is not averse to posing for macho photographs with our boys on the front line in Helmand. But from the outset of his premiership he has appeared far more enthusiastic about discussing our exit strategy for Afghanistan than engaging with the altogether more challenging business of working out how on earth we can actually defeat the Taleban so that the country no longer serves as a safe haven for Islamist terrorists.
To be fair to Mr Cameron, he is aware that, even with the demonic bin Laden out of the way, Britain still faces a considerable threat from Islamist terror cells. He does, after all, see all the latest intelligence reports on what diabolical plots bin Laden’s followers are cooking up next. It is mainly for this reason that, somewhat reluctantly, he has made a commitment that British forces will remain on combat operations until 2014.
But, as one senior officer recently told me, ‘He gets Afghanistan in his head, but not in his heart. Our job is to keep his head engaged.’ One of the reasons for Mr Cameron’s lack of enthusiasm for the Afghan conflict is the constant stream of advice he receives from self-appointed Afghan experts, such as the ubiquitous Tory MP Rory Stewart and the freelance journalist James Fergusson, both of whom have taken it upon themselves to advise the Prime Minister that the military effort is doomed, and that he should head for the exit door at the earliest available opportunity.
Certainly this view will become self-fulfilling if the Afghanistan question is when we leave, rather than how we win. Another factor for Downing Street to consider is that, by advancing the withdrawal timetable, it will ease the pressure on our already overstretched military capabilities, particularly at a time when the government is more interested in overthrowing Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi than defeating the Taleban.
But perhaps the most compelling motivation behind Mr Cameron’s desire to tell the American President about Britain’s forthcoming troop withdrawal is his desire no longer to be associated with a conflict he regards as an American war.
Since taking office both Mr Cameron and William Hague, his Foreign Secretary, have made repeated efforts to move away from the poodle caricature that came to define New Labour’s dealings with the White House. Mr Hague has been especially forthright is articulating what he calls a ‘distinctive foreign policy’, one that seeks to promote British interests above long-standing diplomatic ties such as the transatlantic relationship.
This new approach was very evident in the diplomatic response to the growing conflict in Libya, where Mr Hague’s enthusiastic support for the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Middle East was more pronounced than Washington’s. Mr Obama’s disinclination to become involved in Libya was greeted contemptuously in both Downing Street and the Foreign Office, and while American support was necessary to obtain UN authorisation for military action against Gaddafi, Washington’s decision to withdraw from frontline operations soon after the conflict began was greeted with quiet satisfaction in Downing Street.
Libya is Cameron’s war, and even if our military is struggling to support the Prime Minister’s desire to achieve regime change in Tripoli, there is no doubt that Downing Street is more than happy to be playing the lead role.
If Libya is Cameron’s war, then Afghanistan is Obama’s, which is why the prime minister’s decision to start withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan has more to do with his desire to disassociate himself from a conflict he believes is primarily Washington’s concern.
One of the arguments advanced by the Pentagon to justify their background role in the Libya conflict was that the bulk of American forces were already committed to fighting the Islamist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Britain and France wanted to take on Gaddafi, then it was up to them to provide the military hardware for the job.
On this basis, you can see why Mr Cameron thinks he is quite within his rights to start withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan, particularly as Mr Obama intends to make his own statement of withdrawing American forces in the summer.
But that is certainly not how the American military sees it, which is why there has been such an angry response from the Pentagon over Mr Cameron’s withdrawal plans. General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, is currently locked in a fierce policy battle with the White House over how many US troops should be withdrawn. At a time when the military surge strategy he implemented last year is starting to pay dividends, he wants to see a minimum reduction, about 4,000 troops. The White House, on the other hand, wants ten times that number, which Gen. Petraeus believes will seriously damage the Nato mission.
In his haste to make his own announcement on troops withdrawals, Mr Cameron has totally undermined Gen. Petraeus’s position, an act the American military will neither forgive nor forget the next time Britain asks for their help.