Mary Dejevsky: Obama is right. Britain, too, must seize the chance to leave Afghanistan

The announcement of the accelerated American withdrawal highlights the extent to which Britain has been left chasing shifts in US foreign policy

Share
Related Topics

A "responsible end" is about as elegant a formulation for the victory so conspicuously not won in Afghanistan as President Obama could have found. And it is not only military victory that remains elusive, but many of the higher purposes that have studded this near decade-long campaign – women's rights among them. Obama, to his credit, had progressively returned to the mission's original justification – rooting out the al-Qa'ida bases held to harbour the instigators of 9/11 – but he was immeasurably helped when he succeeded where George Bush had failed: in tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

In the minds of Americans, and not just Americans, the elimination of Bin Laden was the single reason why US forces entered Afghanistan at all. Essentially, the whole campaign was a long and often frustrating reprisal raid for the destruction of the World Trade towers, the assault on the Pentagon and the loss of United Airlines flight 93. Of course, Obama was fortunate in that Bin Laden was cornered on his watch; but he made his own luck by weighing the odds and risking the order. His reward is the chance to reverse the 18-month old "surge" – which he authorised against his better judgement – and start an accelerated withdrawal of US troops.

The significance of this moment cannot be over-stated. The death of Bin Laden produced a constellation of circumstances that is unlikely to be repeated: the mood of America which regards a chapter as ended; Obama's own ascendancy over his top brass; the weakness, but not yet collapse, of the Karzai regime in Kabul; the growing power, but not yet domination, of the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistan's embarrassment that Bin Laden was found within its borders. Together, these offered Obama a now-or-never opportunity, and one he has seized with that air of low-key alacrity he has made his own.

Here in London, the scene could not have been more different. The US and British experience of Afghanistan has furnished a salutary study in comparative power, and the 24 hours before Obama announced his "drawdown" found Britain scrambling, as so often, to catch up. Thus the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, suddenly turned up in Kabul; we also learnt that the British had been conducting their own talks with the Taliban – a week after confirmation from President Karzai and the Americans that they had, as long rumoured, begun talks of their own. And now the Ministry of Defence is broaching the possibility that British forces – of whom a mere 400 (of 9,500) are due to be withdrawn this year – could return more quickly.

If they do not, and the US keeps to the timetable Obama has outlined, there is the theoretical prospect of British troops outstaying the Americans. That will not happen, but it is beyond doubt that the US is making all the running. No number of conversations between Obama and David Cameron – such as the one prominently reported in Britain in the hours before Obama's address – will change this.

The announcement of the accelerated US withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the extent to which Britain – which still fancies itself to be US ally Number One – has been left chasing shifts in US foreign policy. The most awkward instance of British lagging behind came shortly after Obama had taken office, when ministers found themselves sharing platforms with their US counterparts at the Munich Security Conference and producing "Bush-speak" on Afghanistan and Iraq, even as US officials, who included the late Richard Holbrooke, were taking the new, and less belligerent, Obama line. In the months that followed British foreign policy was left in limbo, as Obama reviewed Afghan policy and delayed his decision.

The necessity to wait around for directions from across the Atlantic, however, has not been the only unwelcome message to be conveyed to Britain by the experience of Afghanistan. This long drawn-out campaign has brought home two other, equally unwelcome, realities of 21st century British life as a medium-sized power.

One is the gap shown to have opened up between US military capabilities and ours. At the outset, it was the digital and electronic capacity of US operations that impressed; then the superior quality of body-armour and armoured transport. The final humiliation was the failure – though it was not presented as such – of the effort in Helmand, where British troops were replaced by a bigger, and harder, contingent of Americans. The British had long contrasted their derring-do with the risk-aversion of the Germans, supposedly relaxing on their sun-loungers in Herat. The US saw less of a distinction.

The other is the extent to which two British prime ministers appear to defer to the top brass, to the point where the constitutional primacy of an elected government over the military could have been compromised. The memoirs of some senior diplomats, including our former man in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, may enshrine their own institutional perspective, laced with elements of self-justification. But the way in which, as they tell it, the top brass held the politicians over a barrel, on budgets, manning levels and equipment, speaks of the chasm that now exists between the military and civilian worlds, and the formidable lobbying power senior commanders can wield. "Use them or lose them" is no justification for volunteering troops needlessly for other people's operations.

In scornfully dismissing the latest special pleading from commanders over operations in Libya – admitting that there were times when he felt like saying "You do the fighting, I'll do the talking" – Cameron shows that his government may be starting to redress the balance. But Afghanistan will only have the instructive effect it should, if the other experiences – the limits of British military power and the policy liabilities of being a very junior ally – are absorbed, too.

In the meantime, the unique combination of circumstances that permitted Obama to announce a "responsible end" to operations in Afghanistan also applies to Britain's presence there. As was repeated ad nauseum about alliance operations in Kosovo, "We went in together, we'll leave together, too" – with one footnote: the sooner this departure, the better.



m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before