David Davis: Crunch time for a botched mission

It is hardly surprising that support for the war in Afghanistan is slipping away
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The Independent Online

It is not uncommon in British history for the early stages of counter-insurgency campaigns to be littered with mistakes and false starts. Few, however, can have been pursued with the uncomprehending incompetence of this Government in its actions in Afghanistan.

We had barely established our base of operations when we effectively abandoned the strategy for winning these conflicts, a strategy that had been hammered out over the decades, from the successful conclusion of the "Malayan Emergency" on.

The original "ink-blot" strategy, based on the Malayan success, envisaged commanding and dominating areas of land and population. Within those areas the rule of law would apply, and the ordinary citizens would be able to go about their business, farming, trading, and supporting their families unmolested by the insurgents. Like ink-blots, these areas would expand until they joined up.

The concept depended on guaranteeing security and normality to the population inside the inkblots, so that they would be better off than those in the insurgent areas. Instead, within months, and under pressure from President Karzai, this was abandoned in favour of defending a number of far-flung outposts, in locations where our authority did not extend more than a rifle-shot beyond the walls of the compound. This strategy quickly became known as the "tethered goat" strategy, since it turned our soldiers into immobile targets.

Now the generals are talking about retreating from the most far-flung of the outposts, to husband their limited resources in an attempt to dominate the key population centres of Helmand. Four years in, it is simply a return to the strategy that we should have followed from the beginning.

It is hardly surprising that popular support for the war is slipping away in Britain. When we add in the corruption of the Karzai government, the disgraceful travesty of an election, and the betrayal and killing of our soldiers by an Afghan "ally", it would be astonishing if we witnessed anything but a collapse in support.

It will not be helped by both Brown's and Obama's reluctance to put in enough troops, which has had the effect of increasing the risk to those that were in theatre. This is compounded by Gordon Brown's decision to pre-announce a decision to leave Afghanistan, without having any serious plan as to how to do so.

To win back support Gordon Brown must stop the patronisingly simplistic justifications for what we are doing.

He attempts to portray this war as directly protecting the streets of Britain. Well, maybe. There are not many Taliban in our cities. What he is clumsily alluding to is the idea of denying space to al-Qa'ida. This is a fine aim, but to make it effective we would also have to deny them space in every lawless Muslim state in the world – Somalia, Yemen and any number of others. That is not realistically in prospect.

What we have to recognise is that this war has many aims. They include creating a stable state, preferably a democracy, but not necessarily one that looks much like ours. They include curbing the poppy trade, partly to cut drugs on our streets, but mostly to shut off funds for terrorism, crime, and insurrection. Perhaps most important is the prevention of the complete destabilisation of Pakistan, the world's most fragile nuclear power.

Finally, since we have become involved, a further purpose has come to the fore. If we fail in Afghanistan, the whole credibility of the Western Alliance will collapse. We have to do everything possible to win. Unfortunately, having wasted so much time, we only have about a year left to turn this battle around.

Next November there will be the US congressional mid-term elections. If we have not seen signs of progress by then, the pressure on President Obama to reduce the commitment, or even pull out altogether, will become enormous. He is already haunted by the history of LBJ's presidency, whose New Society domestic agenda was overshadowed by the ignominious end to the Vietnam War. If he believes he is not winning, it will look like the smart option to pull out well before his own election campaign.

Which gives us just one year to make it work. Fortunately, General McChrystal understands that, and we should start by strongly supporting his call for 40,000 more troops, and sooner rather than later.

For our own part, we should stop dribbling in resources piecemeal. That is a formula for maximising casualties. We should decide what is the maximum number of troops on the ground we can sustain for the next few years, and commit to it without hesitation.

This military "surge" needs to be backed up with a much simpler civil strategy. Schools and hospitals are important, but Afghan needs are even more basic than this. They need to be able to work, farm, and trade in safety. They need to be able to feed their families and heat their homes. We are failing even at this level.

The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated. We must grip it now.

There is one further consideration that is understandably worrying the Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague. Afghanistan will be an issue in the General Election, as Iraq was in the last one. Indeed, with its daily death toll, it may be even more salient than Iraq was. I would be unsurprised if by May the Liberals had moved their position to one favouring rapid withdrawal.

This will put an incoming Conservative government in a hideous position. Virtually all the decisions that affect the outcome by November will have been made by May, entirely outside the Conservatives' control. If we are not witnessing a change in our military fortunes by November, decisions in Washington may leave the new government with no choice but British withdrawal from the Helmand mission as almost its first act on the international stage.

In all the grim inheritance that he leaves us, this will be Gordon Brown's bitterest legacy of all.

David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden and a former Shadow Home Secretary