Adrian Hamilton: Let's hope it really is an 'exit' strategy

All the talk of targets by which withdrawal will be gauged is so much pie in the sky
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The Independent Online

If the object of the Chilcot Inquiry is, as it says, "to identify the lessons that can be learned" from the UK's involvement in Iraq, what, one wonders, are these lessons being learned for? Are they to enable us the better to invade other countries and occupy them when we go into Iran, Burma, or wherever else we decide to send our troops? For, if that is really the intention, it has to be said that we sure haven't learned any lessons in our current venture in Afghanistan.

Just as in Iraq, we have failed in Afghanistan to marry political and social reconstruction to military presence. As in Iraq, American troops are having to be sent to the British area of operations to enable us to hold on to territory. And as in Iraq, we are having to play second fiddle to a US leadership that shows little indication of treating us as an equal partner.

The mere fact that the British Prime Minster deliberately made his announcement on British troop re-inforcements the day before President Obama made his was a sure sign of just how secondary we are and how desperate Gordon Brown is to hide the fact.

Of course both Obama and Brown claim they have learned the lessons of past mistakes. That is the point of the new "strategy" they announced this week. This time, as Barack Obama declared at West Point and Gordon Brown declared in the Commons, a "political surge" is going to follow directly on the "military surge". There will be faster training of Afghan troops to take over, more local police, greater provincial funding and elections, a clamp down on corruption and an endless array of "targets" and "benchmarks" to make sure that we would be leaving a country of stability and growth.

It was like listening to a New Labour announcement on national health reforms. Only it wasn't about a service but about an occupation – careful as Mr Brown was to avoid using the word – and an occupation of a further Muslim country by western forces.

"Over the next nine months," pronounced Brown from on high as if he was a Viceroy talking to a subject Indian princeling, "President Karzai will be expected to implement far reaching reforms to ensure that from now on all 400 provinces and districts have a governor appointed on merit free from corruption with clearly defined roles, skills and resources."

President Obama had at least the good manners to say that "we have no interest in occupying your country" and that the US sought a partnership "grounded in mutual respect". But he too declared that "going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance" and that "we expect those [ministers, governors and local officials] who were ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable." Which is rather more than the American government is able to ensure within its own country, never mind a foreign land that has only rarely been controlled centrally and has never tolerated foreign forces for long.

And therein lies the flaw, the deception in fact, of the Afghan "strategy" as announced in London and Washington. It is couched in the military language of "victory" and "a mission clearly defined". In reality it is a deliberate sleight of hand. The troops are being sent not to achieve a solution in Afghanistan but to create the conditions under which the Nato forces can withdraw while declaring a job well done. Gordon Brown says that the drawdown will start next year, Obama says the year after. President Karzai says he wants all foreign forces out within five years.

All the talk of targets and deadlines by which withdrawal will be gauged is so much pie in the sky. If they're to mean anything then we are locked into an open-ended commitment which could drag on for years. It's simply unrealistic. We might hope that a surge will give us the breathing space to hand over "with honour". We might wish that the Taliban, knowing our purpose, will allow us to do so. But a military heave won't give us either the time or the power to control the civilian conditions on the ground while talking, as some are now, of inserting a western representative to force the pace of political change will only exacerbate the problem.

The surge in Iraq worked – in so far as it did – because the overthrow of Saddam Hussein meant a transfer of power to the Shia majority and the Sunni tribes behind the insurgency saw it in their interests to make peace with the occupier to protect themselves. The politics became reasonably, or at any rate more, peaceful once the Shia had established themselves in power and had a Prime Minister (whom the Americans despised as much as they now have contempt for Karzai) clever enough to manipulate the situation to his advantage.

Even so, no one could call Iraq today a stable state, with the security that we seem to be demanding of Afghanistan, a country with much greater ethnic diversity, in which the insurgency comes not from a minority but the majority Pashtun tribes and in which the mountainous ground makes movement of troops and counter-insurgency operations far more difficult.

Nor does it help throwing in, as both Obama and Brown did this week, the parallel problems of Pakistan. True the Pakistan military has moved against the Taliban in Waziristan, butits president is subject to corruption charges, its politics are deeply factionalised and the balance between military and secular power is unstable. The more the West interferes the worse it may become. We can make a difference, but not with deadlines and demands produced for our own domestic needs.

President Obama did make one dramatic new pronouncement on Tuesday night. For the first time an American President admitted that the US no longer had the money to fight indefinite wars. The surge, he said, would cost $30bn in a full year. On his own logic, that money would be far better spent getting the troops out and concentrating on counter-terrorism and assistance to the countries concerned. There is much that could be done with the right political strategy and the funds to back it.

As for lessons learned, we could save a lot of money here by cancelling Chilcot with a single sentence recommendation on invasion and occupation: "Just don't do it."

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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