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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.