John Baron MP is the MP for Basildon and Billericay and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee
The contradictory statements on Afghanistan by Justine Greening in the House of Commons on Thursday and those by Philip Hammond whilst visiting our troops suggests Government policy remains confused. Talk of nation-building and women’s rights does not sit well with suggestions that our strategic interest should be the key determinant as to when our soldiers return. But confusion apart, the key stumbling-block remains the American refusal to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban.
For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, it was obvious from early on that the Taliban would not be beaten given available resources, and that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.
The statement by Justine Greening was deeply depressing. It was clear we have learnt nothing from our eleven-year involvement in the country. The concern for human rights and democracy, though laudable, continues to reveal confusion, both as to the mission and as to the enemy.
Our central mission in Afghanistan has been to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent the country being used as a base for international terrorism. This was achieved relatively quickly, with many terrorists taking shelter in neighbouring Pakistan. Since then, however, the mission has morphed into nation-building, and this lack of focus has produced mission creep – talk of women’s rights is one example.
Meanwhile, misguided attempts at nation-building demand victory over the Taliban. Little attempt was made to discern differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even though these differences are real. Many Taliban have not forgotten it was due to al-Qaeda that they were driven from power, and we now learn that even before 9/11 some in the Taliban leadership were unhappy with their guests.
With al-Qaeda a spent force in Afghanistan, and it being clear the insurgency will not be defeated, the logical course of action for our withdrawal is to refocus on our central mission. This has to involve non-conditional talks with the Taliban. This is what made Thursday’s statement so depressing: the Government is sticking to the American line that negotiations will not take place until the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution – this will never happen.
However, the comments made by the Secretary of State for Defence suggest a different line. He stated that now al-Qaeda has been eliminated, it was not right our troops should risk their lives for the sake of nation-building, and stressed the importance of a political settlement which would allow some members of the insurgency to take power as long as international terrorism were not tolerated.
This is a far more realistic assessment, but suggests some disconnect between the MoD and DFID. However, the key stumbling-block remains the American refusal to hold non-conditional talks with the Taliban. The Government needs to do more to get the Americans to shift their position, and learn from the British experience in Northern Ireland that one can talk and fight at the same time. Without this, a successful withdrawal is most unlikely despite the MoD’s belated, but now correct, assessment.