Afghan murders 'strike heart of UK strategy'

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The fatal shooting of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman has dealt a blow to the heart of the UK's exit strategy from the country, a former foreign office minister warned today.

Kim Howells, who now chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, said the incident in the Nad-e'Ali district of Helmand province yesterday undermined the British and US strategy of building up the Afghan security forces.

"There are many people who have argued that there is only one way out of this for Britain and America and that is to train up the Afghan army and police force so that they can become responsible for their own security," he told the BBC.

"This is a real blow because it strikes right at the heart of that policy."

Earlier, Dr Howells broke with Government policy by calling for the phased withdrawal of British troops, arguing that the money would be better spent on police and security measures to prevent al Qaida terror attacks in the UK.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, however, insisted it was essential that the country stood firm behind the Afghan mission.

"It continues to be a difficult year in Afghanistan for our brave people who are operating within the most challenging area of the country," he said.

"We owe it to them to show the resolve that they exhibit every day in building security and stability in Afghanistan and protecting the UK from the threat of terrorism."

In an article for The Guardian, Dr Howells acknowledged that his Fortress Britain strategy would inevitably involve "more intrusive surveillance in certain communities" - thought to be a reference to Britain's Muslim population.

But eight years after the invasion which ousted the Taliban government, he said public support for the war is waning, while even the 40,000-strong troop surge reportedly being planned by US President Barack Obama would not be enough to defeat the militias.

The Pontypridd MP, who was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan while at the Foreign Office from 2005-08, insisted that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the ISC, which is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports directly to him.

But questions will be asked over whether his views reflect concerns within the intelligence community with which his current post gives him regular contact.

Questioning the focus on the creation of a stable democracy in Afghanistan as a means of protecting Britain, Dr Howells noted that al Qaida was capable of establishing terror training camps elsewhere in the world.

And he said the threat it poses - particularly in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London - could be better countered by tightening Britain's borders and stepping up the work of the police and intelligence services.

He said: "It is time to ask whether the fight against those who are intent on murdering British citizens might better be served by diverting into the work of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining British forces in Afghanistan.

"It would be better, in other words, to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women and concentrate on using the money saved to secure our own borders, gather intelligence on terrorist activities inside Britain, expand our intelligence operations abroad, co-operate with foreign intelligence services, and counter the propaganda of those who encourage terrorism."

Dr Howells said the international military involvement in Afghanistan had "subdued" al Qaida's activities, but failed to destroy the organisation, detain its leader Osama bin Laden or eliminate its Taliban protectors.

"There can be no guarantee that the next seven years will bring significantly greater success and, even if they do, it is salutary to remember that Afghanistan has never been the sole location of terrorist training camps," he said.

His comments come days after Hamid Karzai was confirmed as Afghanistan's president, in a move which could clear the way for the deployment of thousands of additional troops to the country, including 500 from Britain.

But he argued: "I doubt whether the presence, even of another 40,000 American troops - brave and efficient though they are - will guarantee that the Taliban and their allies will no longer be able to terrorise and control significant stretches of countryside, rural communities and key roads."

And he warned: "Bin Laden, along with his admirers and followers, won't wait around for the future of Afghanistan to be resolved. Their preparation and training for terrorism hasn't stopped, and Britain has no choice but to continue to seek out his bombers and those of other terrorist organisations."

To meet the "mammoth task" of countering al Qaida terror and preventing future atrocities, Britain's police, intelligence and border forces will need larger budgets, which could be funded by scaling back UK involvement in Afghanistan, argued Dr Howells.

And he concluded: "Sooner rather than later, a properly planned, phased withdrawal of our forces from Helmand province has to be announced. If it is an answer that serves, also, to focus the minds of those in the Kabul government who have shown such a poverty of leadership over the past seven years, then so much the better."

Dr Howells acknowledged that withdrawal from Afghanistan would require the UK to "reinvent ourselves diplomatically and militarily", renegotiating international treaties with key allies including the US. And he conceded that relations with Britain's Nato partners would be "fundamentally" altered.

Within the UK, citizens would have to accept "more intrusive surveillance in certain communities, more police officers on the streets, more border officials at harbours and airports, more inspectors of vehicles and vessels entering the country, and a re-examination of arrangements that facilitate the free movement of people and products across our frontiers with the rest of the EU," he said.