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

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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor