The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, told reporters in his plane as he flew to Brussels for a Nato meeting on 1 February that US troops in Afghanistan would step back from a fighting role by mid to late 2013, remaining there only in an ‘advise and assist’ and training capacity.
Only a few days earlier, on 28 January, David Cameron, welcoming President Karzai in London, had said:
Between now and 2014 there will be opportunities for different countries to reduce their numbers… I don’t want to see some sort of cliff edge in 2014 when all the remaining troops come out at once but clearly between now and 2014 the rate at which we can reduce our troops will depend on the transition to Afghan control in the different parts of Afghanistan. And that should be the same for all of the members of Nato who are all contributing and helping towards a strong, stable, peaceful Afghanistan which is in all our interests.
There seemed to be an embarrassing possibility that Panetta had forgotten to tell his British allies. President Sarkozy, on the other hand, got his retaliation in first. Welcoming Karzai in Paris on 27 January, a week after four French military trainers were killed by an Afghan soldier, he said:
Continuing the transition and the gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will let us plan for the return of all our fighting forces by the end of 2013.
Naturally these apparently inconsistent positions have been subject to what diplomats call ‘clarification’. It is explained that Panetta was talking about an evolution in the Nato/ISAF mission, probably around mid-2013, from direct counterinsurgency to assisting the Afghan security forces, bringing combat operations to an end in 2014. As an anonymous senior Nato official told Reuters, ‘he [Panetta] said the combat role will come to an end but he also said combat will continue. And that’s exactly what I’m saying.’
The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 with a clear objective: to eliminate the threat of Osama bin Ladin and al-Qaida. That has been largely achieved; as the Number Ten website puts it, ‘since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001, al Qaeda has been denied safe havens in Afghanistan and the terror threat coming from this region has been reduced.’
The objective now is ‘to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs’. The problem with this is that – as the FCO and MI5 have been arguing since about 2005 – by participating in the so-called global war on terror, Britain is damaging, not protecting, its national security. The four men who have pleaded guilty to planning to plant a bomb at the London Stock Exchange have no apparent connection to Afghanistan, but are said to have been inspired by the extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi, who was murdered in a missile strike from a US drone in Yemen in 2011.
In his book Cables from Kabul, the former British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles suggests another reason for Britain’s continuing presence in Afghanistan:
a unilateral withdrawal of British troops from Helmand was not remotely practical politics for any British prime minister who wanted to preserve his relationship with Washington.
There are a number of obvious problems with this. First, one can hardly imagine a British political leader articulating it as a reason for British soldiers to fight and die. Second, as I and 51 other retired ambassadors wrote in an open letter to Tony Blair in 2004, ‘the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the United States… and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally’ but ‘there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.’ Third, the US will decide when to leave Afghanistan for its own reasons, and will not be influenced by concern about Britain. Fourth, the policy appears to assume that loyal support for America will somehow be rewarded, and lack of it penalised. There is very little ground for that idea. Harold Wilson and Ted Heath weren’t penalised for staying out of Vietnam, the French weren’t penalised for staying out of Iraq, and Washington ignored British and French concerns when they backed off from military operations in Libya last year.
A final question: why is opposition to the war in Britain so muted? There was recently a bit of fuss in the media when people realised that the war in Libya had cost about £250 million. The war in Afghanistan has cost around eighty times that, and 397 British servicemen and women have died.