Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Strings attached to a shaky policy

The Daily Star
October 15 2009
By Michael Glackin

Am I alone in being confused by the UK’s commitment to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan?

On Wednesday UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced to Parliament that he was sending an additional 500 troops to Helmand Province. But rather bizarrely Brown said the increase was conditional on the Afghan government supplying more of its own troops for frontline action, and other NATO countries making an increased contribution – a barely concealed swipe aimed at Germany, France, Spain and Canada to shoulder a bigger share of the fighting as Britain and the US suffer increasing casualties. Brown also said the increase was conditional on the right equipment being available to ensure all additional troops were properly equipped, something that his own government is responsible for.

Does this mean that if none of the above happens the additional troops won’t be sent? The Defense Ministry told me that was “a fair assumption,” but expressed optimism that all the prime minister’s conditions would be met.

Really? While the Afghans are capable of putting more of their own troops in the line of fire and London will ensure, following criticism that it has failed to in the past, that its troops are equipped for the job they are given on the battle field, the odds on Britain and America’s NATO allies answering Brown’s call are slim.

Of the largest troop contributors outside of the US and Britain, only France is likely to offer to send a small number of troops. German leader Angela Merkel is under pressure to set a timetable for a withdrawal, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to pull his country’s troops out by 2011. Meanwhile Spain agreed last month to send an additional 200 soldiers bringing its total force in Afghanistan to around 1,000 and is unlikely to go beyond that number.

When Brown calls for further commitments from NATO he means the US. But there is a degree of uncertainty over the current policy of US President Barack Obama, who is considering a proposal by the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to send in an additional 40,000 troops.

NATO meets next week in Bratislava. It is unclear whether Obama will announce a decision on troop numbers there, but it is extremely doubtful Brown would have chosen to increase UK troops if he wasn’t certain that Obama was going to do the same thing. Though whether Obama commits as many as 40,000 US soldiers remains a moot point.

The decision to deploy more troops comes just days after General Sir Richard Dannatt, who stood down as head of the army in August, accused Brown of overruling his advice to send an additional 2,000 troops to Helmand Province – which would have brought the total number of UK troops to around 9,500 – because it would cost too much money.

When yesterday’s increase is added to the 700 or so troops Brown sent as a temporary force in the run up to the Afghan elections, which has since become a permanent force, British troop forces will be at roughly the level Dannatt wanted.

So why the change? Well, Brown made the announcement just minutes after he read out the names of the 37 British soldiers killed in Helmand over the summer, and less than a week after Dannatt’s exposure of his refusal to send more troops on the grounds of cost. He can now say he is at least doing something.

But the additional troops, and indeed the announcement last week that Dannatt had been appointed by the opposition Conservative Party to be their adviser for defense policy, merely serves to underline the lack of policy and leadership from all political parties in the UK on the Afghan war.

In place of a policy, the Conservatives have come up with a gimmick appointment of a general whose criticism of the government now looks politically motivated rather than out of concern for his soldiers. Meanwhile Brown, who told Parliament that it has been a “particularly difficult summer for our armed forces” once again failed to offer a coherent outline of what the UK’s aspirations and role is in Afghanistan, let alone provide a strategy for winning what is increasingly looking like an unwinnable war.

The great problem with British, and indeed Western, policy in Afghanistan is that it still doesn’t appear to understand what can and cannot be achieved by military power. The army cannot defeat the Taliban and its fellow travelers alone. Defeating the militants and establishing stability in Afghanistan requires a political solution. But the West has had eight years to set about the task of nation-building and so far has failed to create anything resembling a functional and stable state.

The deeply embarrassing debacle of Afghanistan’s presidential election has left what passes for the political process in Kabul in turmoil. While the UN probe into ballot rigging continues there remains the distinct possibility that there may have to be a further round of elections. Indeed it was noticeable during his statement to Parliament that Brown was careful to stress he had received assurances from both the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, that the Afghans would deploy more troops to fight alongside the British in Helmand.

The row over election fraud places more pressure on Brown to justify the British presence in Afghanistan as the death toll rises without any military or political end in sight. This is why Brown was reluctant for so long to commit more troops. He fears putting more soldiers in the line of fire merely gives the Taliban more British troops to shoot at and kill. This is the same dilemma facing Obama and hence his reluctance to immediately accede to General McChrystal’s demands.

While the military insist the war will be lost unless more troops are sent, Both Brown and Obama have belatedly come to realize that the military solution won’t work regardless of how many troops they deploy. How long before a Vietnam-type blame game between politicians and soldiers over who lost the war?
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

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