Having opposed our involvement in Afghanistan and been critical of our policy ever since, my criticism is not levied against the troops. As an ex-soldier, I know they have done everything we have asked of them. Rather, my criticism is levied against the US and UK governments which have failed because they have not recognised two fundamentally important distinctions – which even at this late stage could provide the basis for a solution.
The first is that we fail to distinguish between the ‘key objective’ of keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and the ‘four main goals’ upon which this objective is said to depend. These ‘goals’ include a stable and secure Afghanistan. But there has been a disconnection between the key objective and the attainment of these goals so that they have become ends in themselves. This loss of focus has produced ‘mission creep’ – talk of ‘nation building’ and concern over human rights are two examples.
This confusion of purpose was clearly illustrated by Gordon Brown when, as Prime Minister, he claimed that our troops were in Afghanistan to protect the streets of London from terrorism, and yet in almost the same breath threatened President Karzai with troop withdrawal should corrupt government not come to an end. I suggested to him during PMQs in 2008 that these statements do not sit well together.
Most recently, the Coalition Government has given a deadline of 2015 for troop withdrawal. Again, this is inconsistent. If our commitment is conditions-based (i.e. to defeat al-Qaeda) then logically one cannot put a deadline to that. The Government has made clear that all combat troops will be withdrawn by 2015 whatever the situation on the ground.
Little wonder therefore that FCO Ministers freely admit their communication strategy needs to be reviewed as ‘Joe public’ has still not got the message. Someone should perhaps ask why after ten years the message is still confused. Could it be that the mission itself is incoherent, in which case there is little point in shooting the messenger.
The second distinction the Government fails to explore rigorously is that which exists between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The relationship is complex and not well understood. There is no shortage of evidence, including that submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to suggest that the Taliban would not necessarily let al-Qaeda back in to Afghanistan. Although there are different shades of Taliban, there is very little love lost between them and al-Qaeda. The Taliban know ultimately a-Qaeda was responsible for their downfall. And yet, the threats from al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become conflated and almost synonymous.
These two distinctions are important. If we are trying to build a more ‘stable’ Afghanistan, then the struggle against the Taliban in all likelihood must go on. If, however, we are trying to prevent al-Qaeda returning, then this may not be the case. These distinctions emphasize the need for the Americans and British to open meaningful non-conditional talks with the Taliban, in order to explore possible common ground.
The American view at present is that they will only talk if the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the constitution. This is living in dream world. The Taliban will not be beaten and they will not lay down their arms. History suggests that, unlike Malaya, not one of the pre-conditions for a successful counter-insurgency campaign exists in Afghanistan. Instead, the British must remind the Americans than you can talk and fight at the same time, as we proved in Northern Ireland. Soldiers only buy time. The politicians must now step up to the plate.