Gordon Brown on Friday sought to regain the initiative in the growing public debate over UK strategy in Afghanistan, insisting that the US-led mission had “realistic and achievable” aims that would help defeat the terrorist threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
At the end of a four-month period which has seen more than 50 British servicemen killed and 64 seriously injured, the prime minister used his first big speech of the new political season to argue that the British presence in Afghanistan was essential to the preservation of international security.
However, Mr Brown also acknowledged that the UK and other forces faced huge challenges, not the least of which was the Taliban’s use of improvised explosive devices, a tactic that he said was “inherently hard to defend against”.
Mr Brown’s speech was preceded by the sudden resignation of Eric Joyce, a ministerial aide, who said late on Thursday night that UK casualties could no longer be justified simply by saying the war prevented terrorism at home.
Mr Joyce’s resignation appears to have had limited impact at Westminster or on the wider national debate on military strategy. But, Mr Brown’s speech was overshadowed by news of a Nato airstrike in the north of Afghanistan that might have killed a large number of civilians. He did not address two of the most pressing issues facing the international community.
First, Mr Brown did not state whether Afghanistan would need to hold a second-round election contest amid widespread claims of electoral fraud perpetrated by President Hamid Karzai’s followers. Mr Brown went no further than to state that “the incidents of voter irregularity and intimidation being reported must be thoroughly investigated”.
Second Mr Brown did not say whether the UK would send more troops to Helmand province later this year to help entrench security. On this, he simply said that Britain would “continue to adapt our counter-insurgency strategy for central Helmand”.
Downing Street officials said this week the question of whether to increase UK troops above the current figure of 9,000 remained open. However, Mr Brown did take the opportunity to argue that European members of Nato needed to do more to help with the fight.
“While it is right that we play our part – so too must others take their fair share of this burden of responsibility,” he said. “Forty-two countries are involved – and all must ask themselves if they are doing enough.”
The core of Mr Brown’s speech was to restate the argument that the international alliance must remain in Afghanistan to ensure that the global terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban was not allowed to re-emerge.
“Preventing terrorism coming to the streets of Britain, America and other countries depends on strengthening the authorities in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda, and also the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban,” he said. “For if in either country, the Taliban are allowed to undermine legitimate government, that would open the way once again for al-Qaeda to have greater freedom from which to launch terrorist attacks across the world.”
He also insisted that the mission was not doomed to fail in the way that the 1979 Soviet invasion had done. He said the current Nato strategy was “radically different from the Russian strategy in Afghanistan and indeed from all previous foreign interventions in Afghanistan – which lacked the support of the population, which stayed in the cities and ignored the country, and did not seek to empower Afghans in maintaining security.”
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