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By Peter Hoskin
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It’s
Osborne-a-rama in the newspapers this morning. When the Chancellor isn’t outlining
the “triple
threats”
that face the global economy, he’s blaming
Germany
for the death of the proposed BAE-EADS merger. When he isn’t writing
letters
to Andrew Tyrie about banking reform, he’s urging
energy companies
to rethink their price rises. And there’s more: the
Financial Times even contains a hatful of articles about Mr Osborne’s “shares
for rights” policy.

But
the most significant Osborne-related story in today’s papers is surely this
in the Daily Telegraph. Apparently, at a recent National Security Council meeting,
he asked defence chiefs why British troops couldn’t just come home from
Afghanistan now. The report quotes sources who suggest that this was merely a “provocation”
on the Chancellor’s part — and that he agrees with the government’s current plan
for withdrawal — but it’s striking nonetheless. Mr Osborne had previously pushed
for more troops than the agreed-upon 500 to be taken out of the country this
year. He certainly appears to be agitating for a faster pace to proceedings.


If
that’s the case, then it’s understandable why he would.  I’m one of those people who find it worrying
that our Afghan strategy has reduced into so many timetables and so much haste
— but, given the great human and fiscal costs associated with this conflict,
the Chancellor might well think differently. As the Telegraph report points
out, “By the end of March this year, Afghan operations had cost taxpayers a
total of £17.3 billion, on top of the core defence budget.” It’s the sort of
money that Mr Osborne might care to stash away in the Exchequer’s vaults
instead, as he struggles to beat the deficit.

So
what chance that Mr Osborne will force a change in policy? Perhaps a faster
reduction in troop numbers next year than was previously envisioned? The
Telegraph suggests that defence chiefs are now considering exactly that, and
that “Mr Osborne’s scepticism is helping to prolong the decision-making process
on how many to withdraw next year.” We can expect to hear the outcome of these contemplations
early next year.

In
the meantime, however, I expect that what’s happening in America will have as
much influence as anything else. The Obama administration views the timeline
for complete withdrawal by 2014 as absolute,
and there are suggestions that not even US trainers and advisers will remain
beyond then. But Mitt Romney, as hazy as his Afghan policy is, seems to warier about
pulling out quickly and definitively. “We do agree with the timeline and the
transition,” is how Paul Ryan put it during
the VP debate
on Thursday, “but what we would do in 2013 is assess the situation to see
how best to complete this timeline.” This
comes on top of Mr Romney saying
that, “I don’t think you set hard
and fast deadlines without recognising that there is the potential for
conditions to change.”

All of which is to ask: if
America speeds up, or slows down, its withdrawal, what chance that we will do
likewise? 

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