Last month, our armed forces reached two unlikely milestones. On 12th June, after 2,074 days, the war in Afghanistan overtook World War Two in length. On 27th June, after 1,560 days, the war in Iraq overtook World War One in length.
Only seven years into the new century, the only two conflicts for our forces have overtaken the two longest wars of the entire last century, itself possibly the bloodiest ever.
I write this not because these conflicts are in any way similar, but to give some kind of historical perspective on just how long these military operations have been. We can be thankful that the casualty rates have been in no way comparable. Every Wednesday at noon, when the Prime Minister reads out the names of the fallen over the previous week, I am in the Commons Chamber and I am sure I am not alone in feeling anguish at the deaths of young men in foreign fields, far away from the UK. If the same practice had prevailed in the House of Commons during World War One, however, the 19,240 dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme would have taken the Prime Minister until around 9pm on Thursday night to read out.
The casualty rates and the domestic impact of the wars could not be much more different, but the time span alone should lead us to ask when it will all end.
In the next days, the Party’s Security Challenge policy group will be
reporting, and I believe it will be focusing mainly on the terror
threat and defence policy. The timing could hardly be better.
Whilst, it is important that we focus on the end-game in both these
conflicts, we also desperately need to re-assess and re-focus our
overall counter-terrorism efforts.
I remember 9/11 well. I was born in New York, I lived there for much of
the 1990s and I lost friends and former colleagues in that tragedy. I
was a staunch defender of US policy in the time that followed 9/11. I
still am now, to a large extent. If you had asked me in the days after
9/11 to imagine how the “War on Terror” would be in 2007, I wouldn’t
have been the least surprised to find out it was still in full swing. I
agree with the Government that it will last a generation or more. But I
would have been amazed to discover that the conflict was being fought
out through bloody infantry battles in somewhere called Helmand
Province in Afghanistan, or that most of the casualties to the UK were
coming in the deaths of regular servicemen in roadside bombings in and
around Basra in Iraq.
I would not have been surprised, however, if you had said to me on
9/12/2001, that in years to come, the struggle against Al-Qaida would
take the form of intelligence led efforts to deny and disrupt terror
networks; that our front-line troops would be Pashto-, Arabic- or
Urdu-speaking intelligence operatives, that the leading Government
department would be the FCO, not the MoD and so on. In short, it
surprises me greatly that the “War on Terror” is a real war, not a
The truth is that we are less safe today than we were on 9/10/2001. The
Government tells us there are 219 active terror plots in Britain at
present. The US can argue – with some justification, as there have been
no terror incidents since 9/11 – that its government policy has made
the country safer. Britain cannot do the same.
Both the Government and the Liberal Democrats are wrong on the terror
threat. The Government believes it is doing a good job defending us.
Manifestly, the opposite is the case. The most remarkable feature of
the 7/7 and 21/7 attacks were that they were exactly as predicted –
multiple and simultaneous suicide-bombings on the tube. Yet the
Government did nothing effective to prevent them, although some other
terror plots have been successfully disrupted. The LibDems, meanwhile,
link the defence issues with the terror issues in a way which is wholly
misleading – that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are causing
terrorism. As we know, Islamist terrorism predates both conflicts by
We have a chance to have a distinctive Conservative view. Our view must
be that we need a new but more robust approach to Islamist terrorism.
The operational front line should not be British forces in Afghanistan
or Iraq, but be driven by the activities of the intelligence agencies
at home and abroad. Gordon Brown is too close to the failed policies of
the past six years to provide the change we need. Let us hope that next
week’s report gives David Cameron the materials and arguments to take
this country forward in this vital challenge.