The blood sacrifice in Afghanistan must now come to an end

Our decade-long presence in the country has achieved all it can.

British policy in Afghanistan is now a mess. In May 2010, David Cameron, announced that he would take back control of policy from the generals who had told Labour ministers  that as long as they had  more men, more helicopters, or more armoured vehicles the mission would be successful. But since May 2010 146 British soldiers have been killed, more than one for every week the coalition has been in office.

The main strategic objective justifying British presence in Afghanistan – the removal of al-Qaeda (AQ) from the country has been accomplished. AQ and other linked Islamist Jihadi terror groups have bases in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and off-shoots in Libya and Syria. They don’t need Afghanistan.

The main tactical objective of British policy still being defended by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond this week is for British soldiers to train Afghan soldiers and police. On Monday Hammond was forced to come to the Commons after the Speaker granted me an Urgent Question. I assumed after the murder of two Yorkshire soldiers by their Afghan comrades, the government would want to report to MPs on the tragedy. Hammond thought otherwise and only the Speaker’s summons dragged him to the despatch box.

Even as he was speaking it was clear that policy was being changed by the Americans who announced that henceforth close joint patrolling and common forward bases shared between Nato and Afghan troops was to be ditched.

The New York Times headline from Kabul that the “Coalition sharply reduces joint operations with Afghan troops” captures this change in policy. In the view of the paper’s experienced correspondent the new policy is “potentially undercutting the training mission that is the heart of the Western exit strategy.”

Hammond told the Commons that he had read these reports but did not think they were important. He was facing MPs because in an unprecedented move, the Speaker again granted an Urgent Question, this time to the Tory MP John Barron, a former army officer, who challenged the government strategy. Never before has a senior minister been dragged to the Commons on two consecutive days. It is an unprecedented humiliation made worse by William Hague trying to kid the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that policy was continuing unchanged and unperturbed. MoD briefers have been out in force spinning policy is not altered but not even the loyal Spectator is buying that line.

The Conservative and Labour MPs calling for a rethink of Cameron’s Afghanistan policy are not the usual anti-war suspects. They include former army officers like Col Bob Stewart and ex-Labour ministers. (Oddly LibDem MPs whose ministers have been dumped from both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are being ultra-loyalist as they parrot the Hammond-Hague line.) There really can be no more excuses for further blood sacrifice. MPs are under enormous pressure when British soldiers are engaged in action to toe the Whitehall line. The Opposition front bench rightly backs the military when bullets are flying.

But the decade-long presence in Afghanistan has achieved all it can. Fighting and dying for another 12 or 24 months will make as little difference as staying for a further 12 or 14 years. There is no dishonour to the military if Cameron now takes over the leadership of what Britain is doing in Afghanistan. The nation will heave a sigh of relief that the blood sacrifice is now ending. The modalities –a withdrawal to safer terrain and the urgent need to start talks with the Taliban – are for politicians and diplomats to initiate. But Britain has to end its combat life-shedding presence in Afghanistan. No soldier can say that. The Whitehall military-bureaucracy will not. Ministers and their shadows find it hard to break the consensus. When the Commons returns in October, MPs should do their duty and say our soldiers have done theirs. They can come home with heads held high and leave the history to judge whether the 30-year war of Russian and Nato intervention in Afghanistan has been worth the lives lost.

Denis MacShane is a Labour MP and former FCO Minister. Follow on @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com

A British soldier walks near the Pimon military camp in Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province. Photograph: Getty Images
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Getty.
Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.