The Daily Star
Friday 27 November 2009
By Michael Glackin
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He could just as easily have been talking about current Western policy in Afghanistan.
Last week, British Premier Gordon Brown announced plans to host a conference in London next January involving NATO and the Afghan government. The gathering would set out an Afghan exit strategy and establish “a timetable for transfer [of power] starting in 2010.”
But just days after Brown floated his timetable for the United Kingdom’s military exit from Afghanistan, his foreign secretary, David Miliband, warned that “artificial timetables just give succor to your enemy.” Miliband insisted the UK was in Afghanistan for the long haul, because the government in Kabul would collapse within weeks if NATO troops left. Oddly enough, last month the newly installed head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, warned that British troop numbers in Afghanistan couldn’t be reduced until 2014 at the earliest, a date with which Afghan President Hamid Karzai hastily concurred last week.
So, is the UK cutting and running – remember Basra – or digging in? Last week, I spoke to the Foreign Office in a forlorn attempt to clarify British policy. An official insisted that the prime minister was not talking about withdrawal, and bizarrely he added that “no one is putting a timetable” on an exit. The official added that the UK’s strategy remained centered on building up Afghan institutions, the army, police and political system, so that Afghans could run everything themselves “at some point.”
I admit I was still confused, but a later inquiry to the Defense Ministry about how many coalition and Afghan troops were currently in Helmand Province alongside British forces turned confusion to farce. Astonishingly, the Defense Ministry didn’t know, and referred me to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. I duly contacted a very helpful chap at ISAF who informed me there were 15,000 coalition troops in total in Helmand, but that he had no idea how many Afghan soldiers were in the field. Let’s hope someone figures it out before Brown’s 2010 transfer. It’s one hell of a way to run an eight-year-long war.
Karzai has said that he will send 5,000 Afghan trainee troops to help in Helmand, but the Defense Ministry in London confirmed it had no idea when these troops would be dispatched. Based on all this, the chances of Helmand being handed over even in five years are slim to say the least, even if ISAF and the DefenseMinistry finally work out how many Afghan soldiers there are in the province to transfer security to.
Meanwhile, the government of the “re-elected” Karzai was last week declared by Transparency International the second most corrupt in the world, second only to Somalia’s. Brown has warned Karzai that he is not prepared to put the lives of British soldiers “in harm’s way” if the Afghan president fails to stamp out corruption. But as Miliband’s comments made clear, the threat is an empty one. It’s true that Brown has still not made good on his much-touted announcement to boost British troop numbers to 9,500, but that is because he is waiting for US President Barack Obama to decide how many soldiers he will commit to the Afghan conflict, with the announcement expected early next week in Washington.
Therefore, in place of anything resembling a firm policy, the prime minister dangled an ill-conceived and entirely unrealistic prospect of a military withdrawal before the British electorate, in order to fill the void. While Brown studiously avoided using the word withdrawal, his inference was as clear as it was cynical. It was a desperate attempt to shore up crumbling public support for the Afghan war, and for his government, ahead of next year’s elections, which must take place by June at the latest.
Brown wants to be able to tell voters that the process of withdrawing British troops is under way on his watch, even if no troops actually leave Afghanistan before the UK goes to the polls. Weekend leaks from the armed forces suggested the government was putting them under pressure to send a small number of troops home before the end of next year. Thus, British strategy is now subordinated to getting Brown re-elected.
The impression that British policy in Afghanistan now owes more to the Marx Brothers than Churchill was further underlined following a recent military briefing in London.
Those interested in financial markets will have noticed that the price of gold has soared this year. This is good news for the Taliban, who, following an alleged change in tactics by the British Army, are poised to receive “bags of gold” from soldiers in a bid to tempt them to lay down their arms. This “bags of gold policy,” outlined in a Defense Ministry briefing last week, is already being pursued, albeit with cash, not gold, by French and Italian forces in Afghanistan. Such payments could provide the Western powers with enough breathing space to allow international development programs to take root and provide real benefits to Afghans.
Except that according to the Defense Ministry the story is not true. It appears that “bags of gold” is merely a metaphor for stepping up development programs to provide work and benefits enabling “moderate insurgents” to see that there are alternatives to the $10 a day they are paid to take up arms with the Taliban. It appears that the British government believes bribing insurgents is something best left to the continentals.
That’s a shame. The handing of British gold to Afghan insurgents actually has a long and successful history. During the Great Game era of the late 19th century, the emir of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, received large supplies of gold and guns from Lord Dufferin, then viceroy of India, to maintain order in Afghanistan and keep Tsarist Russia at bay.
Mind you, Lord Dufferin probably knew how many Afghan troops he was paying for.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.