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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.