Seldom has optimism been as cautious as this

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The MPs who stayed in the Commons Chamber yesterday after so many of their colleagues had poured out at the end of a Prime Minister’s Questions studded with seasonal references, jolly and otherwise, were privy to a sobering moment in the history of the past 11 years.

True, they had already had the headline from David Cameron – that most of the 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan would be coming home over the next two years, 3,800 of them by the end of 2013. But it took Philip Hammond’s statement and the questions he took about a still uncertain future for the full meaning to sink in.

The news that the troops, 438 of whom have lost their lives in this long war, were coming back, was widely welcomed both by MPs who had supported their presence and the minority who hadn’t. Hammond insisted that the security handover to the Afghan government was “well advanced and on track”. But even Hammond, normally one of the Cabinet’s more reassuring figures, was – relatively – cautious in his optimism about the future of the  “proud and hospitable” Afghan people who had “suffered unimaginable brutality and deprivation” over three decades of conflict. Not to mention the troops themselves as the withdrawal gets under way. Many sentences were suggestive: while progress on security had been “real and meaningful”, “partnering is not without risk” – something of an understatement given the number of insider attacks by rogue members of the Afghan forces on Isaf soldiers.

The picture was one “on the whole” of an “insurgency weakened”. Democracy was “taking hold” in Afghanistan, though “not, of course, in the same shape as in Britain”. Corruption remained “rampant”. The Afghan Ministry of Defence was a “weak institution” which was why Isaf was considering “senior level” support for it after the withdrawal of combat troops. He did not disagree with the assessment of Labour’s defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, who backed the decision, that while progress in Afghanistan had been “significant” it was “not irreversible”. 

Nor with the essence of the complaint by the long-term Labour critic of the war Paul Flynn that “£4.5bn has been smuggled out of that country, much of it to Dubai, to tart up the bolt holes that the politicians have prepared to flee to in 2015”

It was left to another left-wing sceptic, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, to elicit the up-to-date cost of the war –an awe-inspiring £17.4bn. Hammond promised Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, concerned about the future of girls and women, especially in education, after the forces leave, the Department for International Development would aim to ensure that the new Afghan officer training academy would seek to “embed” a change of culture among its forces.

But it was the Tory James Gray, while welcoming the “beginning of the end” of “combat involvement”, who said that Afghans would need to know that the UK would not “cut and run”. Hammond declared that Britain’s firm and enduring commitment to £250m a year in aid and development underpinned Britain’s “enduring” commitment to a secure future for Afghanistan.

He well knows that it will be a long time before anyone can guarantee such a future.