The Daily Star
Friday 26 November 2010
By Michael Glackin
Next year Britain will remind the world of what it does better than anyone. The nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton, announced last week, will allow the United Kingdom to display its unmatched talent for pomp and pageantry to a global audience.
Unfortunately, last week also saw a pair of other announcements that relate to something the UK is no longer does quite as well as it used to. Being a global military power.
General Sir David Richards, the head of the British armed forces, finally broke ranks and revealed what many of his military colleagues and a number of politicians have been saying for some time: It is impossible to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban with military force. Of course, neither the Taliban or Al-Qaeda can defeat the West’s military forces either, but they don’t have to.
The military has long believed that the Afghan war is unwinnable, just as it eventually did in Iraq, but Richards is the first to say it openly. And the reason the general felt confident enough to voice his opinion openly was because, as last week’s NATO summit in Lisbon made plain, the West’s political appetite for this war is now at an end.
US President Barack Obama used the Lisbon summit to insist that full responsibility for security in the country will pass to the Afghan army and police “by 2014,” as he reiterated his plan to start withdrawing American soldiers from Afghanistan within the next eight months.
NATO officials were at pains to downplay the increasingly indecent haste to beat a retreat from Afghanistan by insisting “events, not calendars” would dictate the withdrawal timetable. But it is obvious that the West’s focus in Afghanistan is to cut a deal and clear out.
In mid-November, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, stated that his government’s 2015 deadline for a British withdrawal was set in stone, regardless of whether large tracts of the country remained violent or the Afghan government remained corrupt. He said Britain’s presence in Afghanistan was to make sure the country did not pose a threat to “Britain’s security,” before adding: “This does not mean we will necessarily arrive at a situation where every valley of Afghanistan is entirely peaceful, where there are no difficulties in the governance of Afghanistan, where it has reached a point where it’s not 190th on the corruption league.”
Well, that last point is good news at least for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But Hague’s comments underline how much British ambitions for Afghanistan have shrunk. From lofty plans to establish democracy, the UK and the West narrowed their ambitions to achieving “stability” in the country. Now it appears even that isn’t important. The West wants to clear out in five years at the latest and leave Afghanistan to its own devices, protected by what passes for a national army.
The elephant in the room is the fact that no one in NATO’s military command, indeed no one at all other than perhaps Karzai, believes the Afghan army will be capable of maintaining order by 2015. Earlier this year a US government report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction revealed that just 23 percent of Afghan soldiers and 12 percent of police were capable of working unsupervised, and that there was widespread absenteeism, corruption and drug abuse among Afghan forces.
It is against this backdrop that both Richards and the American commander, General David Petraeus, have spoken of the need for many thousands of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan to support the Afghan army as a back-up force until 2030 at least. However, there is a political imperative at work thousands of miles away from the dusty battlefields of Helmand and Kandahar and the moth-eaten government in Kabul. Obama faces an election in 2012, while the British prime minister, David Cameron, faces one in 2015. Both want to be able to wave significant troop withdrawals at their respective electorates at those crucial dates, while everyone still remembers that they inherited the Afghan war from their predecessors.
At the same time there is recognition within the British security establishment that none of the terror plots aimed against the UK have been hatched in Afghanistan. Indeed neither was the Madrid or Bali bombings. These days Al-Qaeda hangs its shingle in Pakistan.
Moreover, there is now an increasing emphasis within the British government on the need to direct attention to other potential centers of terror, most notably Yemen. The government has confirmed it is looking to “substantially increase” the amount of aid it gives to Yemen in a bid to prevent it from becoming what one official described as “a second Afghanistan.”
And lest we forget, these days Karzai is second only to Taliban in the frequency of his condemnation of NATO strategy. Some of his criticisms are justified, particularly concerning the large number of civilian casualties, but it also serves as another reason why the West is keen to wash its hands of Afghanistan.
The Afghan war is entering its 10th year for the United States and its allies in NATO. But for Afghans it has been going on for more than 30 years. There was never going to be a clear-cut military victory in Afghanistan. But the last week shows we are getting closer to the messy, inconclusive, endgame that was always going to mark the end of this phase of Western involvement.
Whether it finally ends decades of misery for Afghans no longer appears to matter. But at least we have a royal wedding to look forward to in the UK. When Britain last staged a military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1842 it was at the height of its global influence. Then British forces were effectively run out of Kabul by Muhammad Akbar Khan and around 16,000 British soldiers and civilians were massacred in the mountain pass of Khurd Kabul. There were no royal weddings that year. Rule Britannia.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.