In an epic week of cack-handed decisions, tin-eared judgment and political misery for the government of Gordon Brown, by no means the least damaging move – for the country rather than the Labour party – was choosing to duck out of sending more UK troops to Afghanistan.
Let us be clear. There are huge problems with strategy towards Afghanistan. Local political development is warped by corruption and warlordism, but also by most economic development being in the hands of NGOs and foreign aid agencies. It is hard to see how the fight against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies can be combined successfully with a losing war on drugs. In geo-strategic terms, Pakistan’s soldiers and spies will not cease supporting jihadis as proxy warriors in Afghanistan (and Kashmir) until détente with archrival India is resumed. Clearly, there are also well-rehearsed differences between Nato allies about what fighting an insurgency means.
Nonetheless, if the UK is committed to the war in Afghanistan – and it is – it must will the means. Grand strategy aside, if the British government sends an expeditionary force to perform a difficult and dangerous job, it is an elementary political obligation to provide it with adequate resources. Unlike Iraq, this was not a war of choice.
The task set British troops in southern Iraq – brought formally to an end– was probably beyond reach. But their position was undermined by lack of political support at home and, over the past three years, the search for an exit.
British forces in Helmand province, by contrast, are well stuck in but, with a smallish force amid a huge area and population, struggling to hold territory they are clearing of insurgents. The ministry of defence and army commanders were expecting to be able to provide reinforcements of 2,000 troops, especially following the withdrawal of some 4,000 soldiers from Basra. Mr Brown appears to have sided with the Treasury on cost grounds, and assented only to a temporary boost of 700 troops to help police the forthcoming elections in Afghanistan, to be scaled back afterwards to the present strength of 8,300.
The arrival of 21,000 extra US troops sent by Barack Obama will help to hold the line in Helmand and the country as a whole. But President Obama had the right to expect more from one of the US’s closest allies, which, along with the rest of Europe and the Nato alliance, has a vital interest in his success. Britain’s army also has the right to expect more from its political masters, who seem to believe they can do war on the cheap.
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