The problem with Cameron's plan to raid the aid budget to pay for defence

If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, aid campaigners will feel they have been misled.

Perhaps no position David Cameron has adopted is more unpopular with Conservative MPs than his decision to increase aid spending while cutting defence. The former is rising by 37 per cent in real-terms, while the latter is falling by 7.5 per cent. And the trend is set to continue. Having once assured his party that defence spending would increase from 2015, Cameron now makes it clear that the department will not be protected from cuts in this summer's Spending Review. With the ever-more hawkish Prime Minister talking of a "generational struggle" against African jihadism, Tory MPs and armed forces chiefs understandably ask how he expects to wage this campaign on a shrinking budget. 

But his Cameron now found a way of squaring this circle? Speaking to reporters on the final day of his Indian trip, the PM suggested that aid spending could be used to fund peacekeeping and other defence-related projects. He said: 

We have to demonstrate that the aid budget is being used wisely.

We should be thinking very carefully about how we help states that have been riven by conflict and war. I think it’s obviously true that if you can help deliver security and help provide stability then that is the base from which all development can proceed.

He added: "Can we do more, can we build on this approach? I am very open to ideas like that." Early estimates suggest that around £100m a year could be could be diverted from the Department for International Development to the Ministry of Defence. 

Downing Street is keen to emphasise that the spending would be compliant with international aid rules and would not be used to fund combat missions or equipment. "You can be sure that we are not going to use this money to buy any tanks," one source tells the Guardian.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. The first is that it will free up resources for precisely this kind of combat expenditure. Using the DFID budget to pay for "nice" defence spending leaves the MoD with more for "nasty" defence spending. Those aid campaigners who have applauded the government's plan to meet its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on international development are uncomfortable with the thought that the money could be used to indirectly subsidise armed interventions. The second is that it sets what many view as a negative precedent. What is a £100m now could become far more later. If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, the PM will be seen to have broken the spirit, if not the letter, of that 0.7 per cent pledge. 

David Cameron meets British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.