John Baron MP is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, has been critical of policy ever since, and was the only Conservative to vote against Government policy in the first ever vote on Afghanistan in 2010.
No-one can question the professionalism and sacrifice of our troops in Afghanistan. But there comes a defining moment in such campaigns when a political settlement must be negotiated. Up to this point, the politicians have failed. So far, they have confused both the mission and the enemy. Following the Taliban’s withdrawal from talks due to American preconditions, they now risk a disorderly handover. Shades of Vietnam are coming into focus. If allowed to happen, the politicians will have utterly failed our soldiers.
At the end of what has been a terrible few weeks in Afghanistan, we are no closer to the solution to this decade-old war. The shocking loss of six of our soldiers in one incident confirms once again the recently leaked NATO report that the Taliban insurgency remains intact – despite NATO’s public assertions to the contrary. Meanwhile, the politicians talk of progress. They even bring forward their deadline for ceasing military combat operations. But the reality on the ground is very different.
No-one can criticise our troops. As an ex-soldier, I know they have done everything we have asked of them. Instead, criticism should be levied against the US and UK governments for failing to recognise two fundamentally important distinctions.
The first is that the West has confused the mission. The original objective was to deny Afghanistan to al-Qaeda. Intelligence reports confirm this was achieved many years ago. Since then, the mission has morphed into one of nation-building, with all the accompanying goals of human rights and liberal democracy. This loss of focus has produced mission creep.
This confusion was clearly illustrated when, in 2008, the-then Prime Minister said that our troops were there to keep the streets of Britain safe, and yet in almost the same breath he was threatening President Karzai with troop withdrawal if he did not clean up his political act. These two statements do not sit well together. When I pointed this out in PMQs at the time, there was no answer.
The Coalition Government has also displayed confusion. It has set a timetable for withdrawal to a conditions-based mission. No wonder the man in the street is increasingly questioning why we are in Afghanistan when the mission itself lacks coherence.
The second key distinction relates to the enemy. There are fundamental differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but it is only recently that we have begun to explore these.
The Taliban has not forgotten that it was ultimately due to al-Qaeda that they were driven from power. Although there are different shades of Taliban, and the relationship between the two is complex, there is no love lost between it and al-Qaeda. There is certainly no guarantee that the Taliban would allow al-Qaeda to return once Western forces depart. This possible common ground needs to be more thoroughly explored.
These two distinctions clearly point to the importance of holding non-conditional talks with the Taliban. This is where the onus is now firmly on the politicians. It is perfectly possible to remain true to our original mission whilst allowing the Taliban to remain in control of certain regions. Afghanistan has always been, and will continue to be, a patchwork of fiefdoms.
The two elephants in the room are the Americans and the Taliban. Of course there are other parties involved, but everything turns on the actions of the leading protagonists. The American position to date is that they will not talk to the Taliban unless they accept the Afghan constitution and lay down their arms. This will not happen in a month of Sundays. The counter-insurgency operation has clearly failed – none of the essential preconditions were ever in place. For one, Afghans view ISAF as an occupying force. For another, the Taliban will not be beaten, and they will not lay down their arms.
The Americans need to recognise this and not, therefore, set preconditions for talks. They must learn from our experience in Northern Ireland that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time. Soldiers, by their very nature, are stoical beings. Just as we got on with the job in hand whilst politicians were talking to the Provisional IRA, so ISAF forces will do likewise.
By not holding non-conditional talks, the politicians are failing the soldiers. By not talking, we risk a disorderly handover. We risk squandering the very high cost in blood and treasure. The defining moment is now. Soldiers can only buy time; the politicians must now step up to the plate.