The era of generals deciding policy in Afghanistan is over

Even trigger-happy MPs are calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The hi-oratory debate on the Murdoch family and their phone-hacking epigones over-shadowed a debate on Afghanistan in the Common yesterday which also repudiated core beliefs of the ruling elites.

One by one loyal Tory MPs got up to say the era of generals deciding policy in Afghaniistan was over. If the debate decided government policy no more British blood would need to shed as Tory MPs urged talks with the Taliban, a retreat to fortress bases, and reaching out to Russia, China, Iran and India to shape an international treaty to make Afghanistan a neutral state.

Economic help for Pakistan was urged along with an appeal to India to end the occupation and oppression of Kashmir - the main cause of Islamist violence in Pakistan.

Both government and opposition front benches were left with prepared speeches and had little idea of how to respond to a game changing mood shift amongst MPs who want an end to soldiers' sacrifice in what MPs kept calling an "unwinnable war."

Rory Stewart was the most scornful of the MPs criticising the dominance of the generals over ministers. "I have been in and out of Afghanistan 57 times since 2001, and consistently every general has said, "It's been a tough situation but we have a new strategic plan requiring new resources, and this year will be the decisive year.

"When a politician meets a general with a row of medals on his chest saying 'Don't drop the troop levels, and we can guarantee that we will reach a situation where the Taliban will never be able to come back,' it is difficult to disagree.

In a striking metaphor Stewart added "We do not honour dead soldiers by piling more corpses on them." This from an Old Etonian ex-army officer close to Cameron's OE ruling clique was remarkable.

Stewart's Tory colleague, John Barron, refused to sign off on a bland, muddled Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on Afghanistan. He argued that "not one of the preconditions for a successful counter-insurgency campaign exists in Afghanistan. The time has come for the British Government to press the Americans to have non-conditional talks with the Taliban."

Julian Lewis MP is no shrinking violet on defence but told the Commons: "It suits al-Qaeda to embroil us in Muslim states, as it did most calculatedly in Afghanistan in September 2001." Lewis criticised the the "micro-management" of the war with its "need to send service personnel out on vulnerable patrols, along predictable routes, which can be easily targeted."

The veteran Tory foreign and defence grandee, Sir Malcolm Rifkindn said "there is no long-term rationale for the presence of combat troops" in Afghanistan.

My own speech was in the same vein as I argued that "stopping a war is, perhaps, as great a military art as starting one."

Long term peacenik MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Paul Flynn rubbed their eyes and ears in disbelief as the Commons echoed arguments they had been long advancing.

There were only junior frontbenchers on duty. Liam Fox was speaking for the Government at the launch in the Victoria and Albert museum of the Polish presidency of the EU. To send the most viscerally Europhobic member of the cabinet to hail the pro-EU Poles is proof that satire is not dead in No 10.

But he and William Hague should read the debate. Tory MPs and the Commons want to bring down the curtain on Afghanistan. It is time for our soldiers come home. It is also time to reinstate at the FCO the great British diplomatist, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles. Hague allowed him to quit after he was Ambassador in Afghanistan and began expressing concern on the Brown-Cameron war strategy. His book "Despatches from Kabul" saying politicians had to win back control of policy from generals is a masterpiece exposing a flawed and now failed political-diplomatic-military strategy.

Cowper Coles is now vindicated. The Commons agrees with him. Policy should change and Cowper Coles' wisdom should not be lost to the state.

 

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was No 2 at the FCO until 2005

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”