19 September, 2006

The Defence Secretary on Afghanistan

The game, as Holmes would say, is afoot. When the "game" involves a senior minister coming close to admitting a major policy failure, the problem is often identifying precisely what game he is playing at. Such is the conundrum with the Defence Secretary's speech to the Royal United Serviceman's Institute in which Des Browne came close to admitting that NATO's ISAF is facing serious, perhaps insurmountable, problems in Afghanistan. In a remarkable passage, interestingly fixed on by both the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, Browne said,

Let’s be clear – success won’t be what we understand by security and prosperity and proper governance, but it will be progress and it will be massively worth achieving, both for them, the Afghans, and for us. I accept that this looks some way off, against a background of intense fighting, and to be frank, currently relatively little direct progress on governance and reconstruction in the South.
I smell defeatism. Browne seems to ruling out a final victory over the Taliban and settling for some unspecified degree of "progress" towards an equally unspecified "security and prosperity and proper governance". If, by this, Browne means, rather than defeat of the Taliban, a continuation of the present conflict into the foreseeable future then it marks a significant redefinition of war aims, one which is bound to have an adverse effect on the morale of troops at the sharp end of the fighting. The long term scenario is not inconceivable, especially with the an under-manned and under-equipped ISAF struggling to gain sufficient resources from NATO's recalcitrant member states.

In a later, perhaps even more remarkable passsage, Browne seems to take off on a flight of fancy:
...across the border in Pakistan, a new approach to security in the border areas may hold hope for the future, but might even see an increase in Taliban activity in the shorter term.
Pakistan's new approach to security? That would be the surrender of Waziristan to the Taliban, providing them with a secure base on Afghanistan's border.

Defeatism and unrealism in the same package, How economical. I agree with Browne that the cause in Afghanistan is both noble and very much in our national interest but it is insufficient for the government to offer our troops only the prospect of more of the same hard fighting without defining clear goals. I am, therefore, driven to the inescapable conclusion that ministers should either give our troops both a clearly defined role and the resources to do the job or bring them home immediately.

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