Afghanistan represents the most significant British priority outside of the economy. The conflict has seen the greatest costs in both loss of life and finance, with estimates putting the total at £5.7 billion. The current strategy was hard fought for in Washington by the now former ISAF commander, General Stanley McChrystal. That plan is now in jeopardy with a change in command and a further alteration in tactics will now demonstrate a lack of coordination and will-to-win to the enemy.
The recent change in government has brought a new urgency to find a quick and efficient exit in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has said that the Afghan Government controls only 29 of 121 key districts and there are now growing concerns about the country's future, as US and British casualties continue to grow. The NATO-led security mission has suffered considerable costs to date and the situation in the country would appear to be deteriorating.
The removal of McChrystal adds a political dimension to the conflict. A President worries more about his image than continuity of command. Although insubordination and critical discussion of political leadership should always be avoided, McChrystal was too important to remove at such a critical juncture. McChrystal was a popular war leader among his men, US Allies and the Afghan leadership, another reason he was invaluable to most. He proposed a strategy that was warmly embraced by coalition forces in Afghanistan. However, that same strategy has also witnessed casualties unlike those previously witnessed. Al-Qaeda have changed tactics on their front lines, like we have on ours. McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy has led to more direct and unexpected attacks on coalition solders. Sniper attacks and fire-fights on our forces are becoming an ever increasingly popular way of targeting troops. The more 'traditional' roadside bombs, although still used, are being successfully countered.
McChrystal recently referred to Helmand Province – where British troops are based – as a “bleeding ulcer” and according to an article in Time magazine last month, there “is a sign of the growing exhaustion and frustration in U.S. military ranks…after almost 10 years of non-stopping fighting…” There are however some signs of success with McChrystal confirming the capture or death of 121 Taliban leaders over the past few months. During his most recent visit to Afghanistan, David Cameron stated that “this is the vital year” and that “Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security and that is why we are there.” His speech however was littered with indications that a quicker withdrawal is a priority.
Cameron has made his wish to bring the troops home faster clear:
“The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil for any longer than necessary and the British people are rightly impatient for progress. Our Forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary.”
This urgency has also been coupled with critical coverage of the British military leadership. Media coverage of the campaign has made it clear that British operations in Afghanistan were from the outset unsound. According to an article in The Times (£), Major-General Andrew Mackay saw British commanders going “into Helmand with their eyes shut and fingers crossed.” With the recent announcement that the Chief of the Defence Staff and a senior MOD civil servant are to leave their posts early there are indications that a new approach is being taken. But that approach remains unclear.
The Coalition Programme for Government says nothing of the future of military operations in Afghanistan and with a major defence spending review underway, a future timetable of operations is unclear. Withdrawing troops may be popular domestically but will weaken the British presence on the international stage, damage relations further with the United States and further hasten the accelerating destabilisation of the Afghan Government. It begs the question: what kind of presence does Britain want on the world stage?
Retaining our seat on the Security Council, a leading state within NATO and a tough position within Europe are goals for Britain internationally. A scaling back of British military presence globally and a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan would jeopardise serious claims in maintaining these positions. McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus – a war hero in the United States – was installed with what superficially appears to be little coordination with Britain.
If Afghanistan were to fail – and thus an indicative strategic loss – it would cause substantial damage to Britain's international reputation. For a country to support military action against a state and commit such a sustainable force to the goal of defeating terrorism and then lose would be equal to the fallout from Suez. Relations, which under the Obama Presidency have recently come under strain, would further be damaged as their staunchest ally effectively leaves them holding the can. Funding is the key and given the economic crisis and emergency budget, many Brits don’t think we should even be in Afghanistan let alone spending so much in the region. Time will tell what the new coalition Commander and Government's overarching strategy for Afghanistan is.
Two things are important though – Britain cannot abandon the country to the Taleban, and the transfer of command must be flawless. Although committed by a previous government, this Government must not and cannot shirk its obligations to the International Community and people of Afghanistan, nor do I think it will. It is becoming more apparent every day that the mission is becoming difficult and so will the commitment.