We live in a revolutionary age and dangers the international community face consist of subversive social movements and technological trends, as well as the re-emergence of great power diplomacy. The forces that propel this revolution are channelled into Central Asia and the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation permeates a region destabilised by ethnic nationalism weaving its way from Palestine to the Himalayas and extremist groups whose absolutist goals would disintegrate the global order. Afghanistan captures all these dangers which characterize the early 21st Century.
In Britain, however, any discussion about either the war in the Hindu Kush or our wider confrontation has been puerile compared to the intellectual heights achieved in the United States. It reflects the inadequacy of our political institutions and the media to debate foreign affairs and the result is that Britain has no foreign policy and none is being offered. Unless the Conservatives address the problem seriously then this country will slide into gradual insignificance, beginning with failure in Afghanistan.
We first need to ask ourselves what we are doing in Afghanistan. Too often, commentators and politicians reply with talk about values but this is not to answer the question. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then ‘values’ are a refuge for the uninformed. What is our strategy in Afghanistan? What is its goal? How many troops do we need and with what equipment and how much can we send? How many flag-draped coffins are we prepared to stomach? As Rory Stewart said some months ago, ‘We need to take a serious look at the limits of our power, the limits of our knowledge, and most importantly of all the limits of our legitimacy.’
The national debate America had on their purpose in Afghanistan led to the restructuring of government and a transformation in how its armed forces fight, all concentrated on a comprehensive strategy. It was a debate that involved some of the greatest minds of our time and facilitated by newspapers, magazines and television programmes that dealt with international affairs in the seriousness they require. The strategy is being overseen by men and women of outstanding calibre and what every war needs to succeed, the ‘heroic leader’, which people like President Obama and General Petraeus can be portrayed as. Since 2006, the United States has grasped how the world is in the 21st Century and is using this new world to their advantage.
For those familiar with the American debate, our Defence Secretary’s Chatham House speech and Nick Clegg’s Telegraph article seem pedestrian. Anyone watching Charlie Rose interviewing, say, David Kilcullen, will have the edge on either. In the British context, however, their arguments were significant and the indifference with which they were treated was typical. As noted above, our media and political institutions are incapable of copying the debate across the Atlantic – the parochialism of our politics has been most evident in the last few months.
Our foreign policy is wherever the Foreign Secretary happens to be visiting; foreign affairs arouse the interest of backbenchers if a crisis offends those who eat their dinner watching the Six O’Clock News. International coverage offered by The Times or The Guardian is superficial compared to that offered by The New York Times and opinion pieces are filled with value-statements, not intelligent ones. Television interviewers prefer shouting, to quote The Thick of It, ‘Where’s the Nazi gold, you bastard!’ than having a serious discussion. And those who would be able to offer a profound and substantive debate, such as Rory Stewart or Lord Ashdown, either scare our political and media elites or confuse them. The real tragedy in Afghanistan, Lord Ashdown argued last month, is that our soldiers are paying with their lives because journalists and politicians ‘cannot or will not get their act together.’
The Conservative Party is more than likely to win the next General Election and yet offers no foreign policy, only foreign policy flavours: ‘A Conservative Government’s approach to foreign affairs will be based on liberal Conservative principles’. Liberal values such as civil rights, democracy and pluralism tempered by ‘hard-headed’ pragmatism. The attitude or tone with which you approach international relations is beside-the-point, however, when you don’t have policies to pursue. ‘What is needed in Afghanistan,’ David Cameron has said, ‘is a clear expression of our strategy that the public can understand’. No strategy has been offered, however, only value-statements.
To recover from the damage our drift in Afghanistan has done to Britain’s credibility as a serious world power, a national debate is needed that goes beyond abstract clichés and blindingly obvious statements. It must focus on the realities of the conflict and not become entangled by sentimentality. We need to ask:
- What is our goal in the conflict?
- How practical is it?
- What are the benchmarks?
- Will it require more money and troops or less?
- Will the emphasis be on the conventional army or Special Forces and intelligence operatives?
- Will we employ force or simply deploy it?
- To extent will the rules-of-engagement allow our forces to establish a ‘monopoly of violence’ in the area?
- Will there be a synthesis of the political and military spheres and how effective will it be?
- Should we provide mandatory lessons in the history, culture and language of the region?
- To what extent are we cooperating with the local population and do they have a viable framework we can devolve municipal responsibility to?
- How often should commanders, diplomats and politicians at all decision-levels have reviews on policies so far?
- What is success and how different will it look from failure?
- What do the public think success will look like and how much failure can they stomach?
The hard-faced men who talk well about the war need to answer these questions for us to win it.