John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
It has been abundantly clear for some years now that NATO forces, despite winning individual skirmishes, are nevertheless losing the ‘long game’ in Afghanistan. Opinion-formers on all sides of the debate – not least the Secretary of State for Defence – are recasting the preconditions before our 2014 withdrawal of combat forces.
Writing in The Times yesterday, Lord Ashdown suggested Britain should bring troops home from Afghanistan ‘as soon as decently possible’, noting that staying any longer would only result in further deaths ‘for no purpose’. Lord Ashdown, a former soldier himself, lends his voice to the ever-increasing number of us who have been advocating a change in policy for far too long.
Any success in our intervention in Afghanistan has been undermined by two key early failures: confusion as to the mission, and confusion as to the enemy.
The original motivation for invading Afghanistan was to defeat al-Qaeda and international terrorism. This limited mission was achieved many years ago, as both intelligence reports and the Secretary of State for Defence confirm. Since then, the mission has morphed into one of nation-building, with the accompanying goals of democracy, freedom of speech and universal respect for human rights.
These are all laudable aims, but are quite distinct from our original grounds for sending in our troops. Taken together, they produced mission creep which has kept our soldiers in harm’s way far longer than the original objective necessitated. This incohesion is illustrated by a conditions-based objective having been set against a 2014 deadline.
This loss of mission focus directly led to our second key failure, which was to incorrectly distinguish our real enemies. Little effort was initially put into discerning differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even though these differences can be stark. The Taliban is not an homogenous group, but many elements have not forgotten that it was due to al-Qaeda that they were driven from power, and we now learn that, even before 9/11, some in the Taliban leadership were unhappy with their guests. To many Taliban, both Western troops and al-Qaeda are foreigners on their soil.
Our original mission to eliminate international terrorism in Afghanistan necessitated fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates: our latter attempts at nation-building and promoting human rights necessitated taking on the Taliban. Many of our present difficulties in Afghanistan stem from this unforced error. Moreover, since many terrorists quickly escaped over the border to find sanctuary in Pakistan, we have in many ways been fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong country.
Lord Ashdown is absolutely correct when he calls for our troops to return as soon as decently possible. In order for this to happen, it is imperative that the Government persuades the Americans to engage in non-conditional talks with those elements of the Taliban willing to explore possible common ground. This should be preparatory to a comprehensive political settlement which will allow both sides to disengage to each other’s satisfaction. Clearly, guarantees would be needed relating to the return of al-Qaeda, and forces would remain in the region to ensure compliance.
Up to now, the usual American line has been that any talks with the Taliban will not happen until they lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution. This will never happen – the penny should have dropped long ago in Washington. The Americans need to accept that one can fight and talk at the same time – as we proved in Northern Ireland.
Soldiers can only buy time; the politicians must now step up to the plate. Let us hope that, with the election campaign over, President Obama will have the latitude to make real progress. It can not come soon enough. The window of opportunity is closing fast. If wasted, we may well leave behind a bloodbath in our rush for the door.