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
Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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