Afghanistan: We have to see it through till 2014

The presence of British troops in Helmand is more controversial than ever, but another question could yet split the coalition – Iran

Share

They share a border, but more than that, Iran and Afghanistan share the ability to provide a severe headache for the coalition government. Afghanistan is an increasingly divisive topic in Parliament. The exchanges last week in the Commons revealed that there are both Conservative and Labour MPs, most notably Paul Flynn, who are publicly prepared to argue that the UK should "bring the troops home before Christmas", forgetting that this expression became firmly discredited when uttered in the summer of 1914.

But to leave the connotation aside, the intention is clear: we should bring an end to our operations in Afghanistan as soon as possible, and certainly before the scheduled and publicly announced date of the end of 2014. Both the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary were quick to restate the 2014 date for withdrawal, and to reiterate that the Government would adhere to its programme of training Afghanistan forces to assume responsibility for security.

So where does this leave the Government? It is naive to suggest that, even if we began today, we could be out by Christmas. Withdrawal of nearly 10,000 troops and their equipment is not achieved by waving a wand. During any withdrawal, forces are at their most vulnerable. What additional protection measures would be required? What equipment would we be able to bring home? What equipment might fall into the hands of the Taliban? Unless you can answer these questions, talk of early withdrawal makes no sense and could be very dangerous. Rightly or wrongly, the Afghan operation has been conducted in close collaboration with the United States, and we have consistently said that we will leave together. What impact would a departure from our agreement have on our alliance with the US?

The longer we train their security forces, the better chance the people of Afghanistan will have. The bald truth is that we cannot eliminate the possibility of more casualties, and no one believes that Afghanistan will become a model European-style liberal democracy. But without the joint presence of UK and US forces, the chances of achieving sufficient stability to allow the people of Afghanistan to make a choice about their future will be reduced. It is painful to say, and to see, but we have to hold the line until 2014.

Iran poses a headache of a different kind. And once again our relationship with the US will be one of the determining factors. It is self-evident that no other relationship will be more significant than that of the US and Israel, and that between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. The deterioration in the latter, and the more cautious expressions of opinion from within the White House and the State Department suggest that unquestioning US support for an Israeli strike can no longer be taken for granted.

Added to which there are increasing signs that some in Israel are questioning the wisdom of such a strike, not least on practical grounds. They have in mind the limited range of Israeli aircraft and the need for tanker support, the difficulty of identifying targets and the prospect of complete success: there is a risk of large-scale Israeli civilian casualties by acts of terrorism in response.

But Obama walks a dangerous electoral tightrope, at least until the presidential election in November. In the US, 75 per cent of Jewish people normally vote Democrat. A large part of the population of the state of Florida is Jewish. Florida is a swing state which, with others, will determine the outcome of the presidential election. Whatever his irritation with Netanyahu, Obama cannot risk alienating the votes of Jewish electors. Hence his equivocal response and refusal to set down "red lines" for Iran at Netanyahu's request.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, says that all options for dealing with Iran remain on the table. Understandably, he declines to accept any questions based on the hypothesis that Iran had a military nuclear capability and what the response should be. It would be by no means easy for the coalition government to obtain parliamentary endorsement for military action against Iran, whether by Israel alone or with US support. Once again, the impact on our relationship with the US would be an issue, as well as the threat of terrorist attacks against UK citizens at home or abroad. Any credible plan to contain and deter a nuclear Iran could be decisive in that debate.

To support or not to support a military strike is a decision that Obama would not like to have to make – and the same will apply to David Cameron and Nick Clegg (and Ed Miliband). Party management for all three leaders could be fraught, since it is not difficult to see different views within Parliament and within the parties themselves. Different views within the coalition would be difficult to accommodate. It is a decision that dare not speak its name. The truth is that neither of the alternatives is palatable, which is why any realistic proposal for containment and deterrent would be hugely influential against support for bombing.

For the coalition, domestic politics are difficult, but foreign affairs prove much more problematic.

Sir Menzies Campbell is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Only a game? Far from it

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking at the Grand Mosque in Mosul  

The al-Baghdadi doctrine: leading British Muslims offer their response

Independent Voices
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil