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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness