GOING, GOING, BUT WILL WE EVER TRULY BE GONE FROM AFGHANISTAN?
Winston Churchill famously once said, “This is not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning”
Maybe the same thought could be applied to the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. To start pulling people out is one thing. Yet setting a rigid date for completing it is quite another. The US seems to leading the way with a 33,000 reduction in troop numbers over in the next 18 months. Many nations, including Britain have also publically committed to exit timetables.
But pulling out will be a leisurely process. Just recently the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said 500 personnel – mainly combat troops plus logistics support – will be gone by the end of 2012. That will still leave about 9,000 men and women in country, and while ministers have said fighting personnel will be in ‘Afghan’ until the end of 2014, the exact rate and style of extraction will be “conditions based”.
As a soldier who has spent much of the last six years either in, or preparing to go to, Afghanistan my emotions are extremely mixed. Initially I was struck by the thought this was a politically motivated move, with intense domestic pressure forcing President Obama’s hand. The same view can be held of the decisions being made by other leaders including Prime Minister David Cameron. In fact to think otherwise would be naïve. To slightly misuse Abraham Lincoln’s quote, the ballot is stronger than the bullet.
The thought that I – we all – had done so much to help the people of Afghanistan only to find that as soon as the opportunity arose we could cut and run left a bad taste in the mouth. Morally it seemed reprehensible, a slight to both the troops who had died and to the Afghans who have suffered along the way.
But it is possible to see legitimate reasons for the current rush for the door. Governance has improved in Afghanistan and while many will understandably baulk at attempts to bring the Taliban into the peace process, this is world of realpolitik which has offered hope in other troubled corners of the globe, some of them not very far across the Irish Sea from the British mainland.
On reflection I think it probably is the right time for our drawdown, though it will be a long time before everyone is out. I am surprised ministers haven’t been quizzed further on our commitment to Afghanistan even after handover? We already know that an Afghan Sandhurst is to be established in Kabul, presumably manned by British Officers and SNCOs, but what about force protection, logistics and medical support?
I would estimate that in 2015 the UK force levels might still be at those seen when I first arrived in the country in 2006: perhaps 2,000 people. These men and women will be based in Bastion helping to facilitate the Afghan army and police. They will not be interacting directly with the local nationals but they will be robust enough to give backbone to the Afghan security forces. I would also imagine NATO would retain an over-the-horizon force, ready to be parachuted (not literally) back into the badlands if any particular province or district is having problems.
It is worth looking at parallels with Iraq. Combat missions there ended in July 2009 when the majority of our forces were removed, but a training agreement with the Baghdad government meant others – predominantly Royal Navy personnel – were involved in the country for a long time afterwards.
The major difference between the two conflicts is scope and mission. While not quite ‘a little local difficulty’ the situation in Iraq was predominantly one contained within the country’s borders. It did not involve foreign fighters nor – a bit of oil apart – did it threaten our economic and political stability. Afghanistan does both with the threats coming not just from the local Taliban but also that amorphous and internationally represented group Al Qaeda. Throw in the huge opium poppy crop which forms the basis for some 90 percent of the heroin dealt around the globe and it is clear that whatever progress has been made in Afghanistan, there are several sound reasons for making sure the pressure is kept up by internal organs of law and order long after 2015.
A subsidiary issue, though one important to military chiefs is the experience working in places like Afghanistan actually provides our armed forces. It keeps us on our toes, ready for that yet to be announced war that – if history is anything to go by – will one day surely follow our Afghan ‘departure’.