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.