John Baron MP is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. In this week’s foreign affairs column, he writes about Afghanisatan He was the only Conservative to vote against the Government’s Afghan policy in the first and only vote in 2010.
For the West, the Afghan endgame is in sight. After 13 years, NATO combat operations in Afghanistan are winding down, and our troops are coming home. But revelations that President Karzai has been secretly negotiating with the Taliban highlight, yet again, both how badly the West has misread the situation, and the extent to which hard-fought gains may yet unravel.
Let us be clear. Our servicemen and women are due our thanks and praise for their role in this tough terrain. It is the politicians who have got it wrong by losing sight of the original mission.
Our initial operations in Afghanistan were both understandable and well-founded. Dealing with the terrorists and training camps which spawned the terrible attacks of September 2001 was an appropriate, just and necessary response.
Yet, the 2011 report published by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, amongst others, supports the view that these objectives were met within the first few years of our deployment. At this stage, our troops ought to have been withdrawn, save for perhaps a small number of special forces to ensure that al-Qaeda did not return. However, the mission was allowed to develop into one of nation-building, with its related aims of freedom of speech, human rights and democracy. In hindsight, this is where the Afghan intervention began to come off the rails.
Defeating international terrorism required the West to eliminate a relatively small band of extremists – a narrow and focused task which was readily achievable. Forging a new state, with fresh institutions and requiring the introduction of concepts alien to many Afghans, was a different task altogether. In confusing the mission, we confused the enemy. The mission of nation-building, in essence, required the defeat of the Taliban, rather than the comparative handful of al-Qaeda terrorists.
This was a huge unforced error, as it set NATO against large swathes of the Afghan population, who saw in the Taliban a system of governing far more in tune with their instincts than what the West was offering. As time and casualties have mounted, these perceptions have only widened. It was also blind to the fact that many Taliban have no affection for al-Qaeda, seeing them themselves as foreign interlopers who abused Afghan traditions of hospitality by attacking the West and stirring up the fighting which followed.
It also has taken far too long for NATO – and the US Government in particular – to come around to the obvious solution of a negotiated settlement with moderate elements of the Taliban – as it now seems Karzi is attempting to achieve. There is no reason why this should not be possible, but Western intransigence over unlikely preconditions – such as the Taliban accepting the Afghan Constitution – has caused previous attempts to founder. If Obama had directed his energies in this direction, rather than the ‘surge’, the Afghan endgame could now be very different.
As our Afghan commitment runs its course, and following the equally bruising intervention in Iraq, I hope we learn the lessons of our involvements and build them into our future foreign policy. To a large extent, I believe this has already happened – our recent responses to Libya, Mali and Syria are in marked contrast to a decade ago.
When designing future foreign policy, we should be clear in constructing narrow and achievable goals. In retrospect, ‘democratising’ Iraq and Afghanistan was shorthand for a multi-faceted and ambitious – ultimately hubristic – process which proved impossible to implement: few now would argue that either state is a functioning democracy. We must take extreme care not to overpromise what we intend to achieve.
Linked to this, we must ensure that our resources are equal to the challenges we set ourselves. Regardless of the situation now, there is little doubt that our initial deployments to Helmand were under-resourced, and suffered as a consequence. Almost as crucially, our reputation has suffered at the same time. As we move into a world where ‘soft power’ is increasing in importance, this is itself a scarce resource we can ill afford to squander.
I hope the Afghan conflict will mark a watershed in British foreign policy, and one which leads to the restoration of the clear and cogent analysis of our aims and values for which we were once renowned. The mantle slipped over Iraq and Afghanistan, and I remain sceptical of our Libyan intervention. However, I am encouraged by Syria, where the Commons made the right decision not to intervene.
The world is becoming more unstable, with many countries not necessarily friendly to the West increasing their defence spending at a time of Western retrenchment and reduction. There will be other international challenges, other temptations to intervene. Our error in cutting our own Armed Forces must not be compounded by ignoring the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq.