Nick Clegg: Tackling the terrorists requires more troops – and a plan

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Today we remember all those brave soldiers, airmen and sailors who have died serving our country. We must also spare a thought for the servicemen and women who are still risking their lives for our sake. We need to ask whether we are providing the support, leadership and direction our troops need today. The answer is no.

This goes deeper than rows about inadequate equipment. It's about where we send the men and women of our armed forces in the first place, and what we ask them to do when they get there. At the moment, we have put them in the worst of all situations.

In Iraq, they are boxed into Basra airport, where they can do little more than protect themselves. And in Afghanistan, the coalition forces are too small in number and too poorly coordinated to achieve sustainable success. Compared with the international deployment in former Yugoslavia, we have sent just one twenty-fifth the number of soldiers.

The failure to plan for these two wars is nothing less than a betrayal of the men and women sent into harm's way.

The election of Barack Obama offers an opportunity. He has the credibility to lead an honourable withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and to reshape the international effort in Afghanistan.

First, Britain should support a troop surge in Afghanistan, one made possible by the urgent withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. Now that Obama has advocated such a switch, isn't it time we took action? We do not need to wait until the US troops are leaving the Gulf in 2010; we can leave Iraq as soon as is safe and practicable. Yet Afghanistan cannot be won on the battlefield, as I saw for myself a few months ago.

The second new element must be engagement and negotiation. The Taliban is a diffuse, disparate band of tribal leaders, conservatives and ideologues. It can and must be split. There are some diehard fundamentalists who cannot be negotiated with. But there are many, leaders and foot-soldiers alike, who can, and must, be approached.

Finally, we need a regional agreement, similar to the Dayton Peace Agreement, involving all countries in the region, especially Iran. Here, Obama's willingness to open talks with old enemies could be the fresh, decisive change that makes this possible. A regional peace conference should be backed by external guarantors who are prepared, as in Dayton, to underpin the agreement. That should include the US, Russia and China. It is simply impossible to pull together a failing state if its neighbours are trying to pull it apart.

Central to this regional approach must be an understanding that the key to security in Afghanistan lies not in Kabul but in Islamabad. A regional agreement might even open the way for Islamic nations to help Pakistan close down the insurgent sanctuaries on the border.

Negotiation with both the Taliban and Iran may be unpalatable, but it is the only route to success, and if it doesn't happen now it will be too late. The only alternative is to withdraw and leave Afghanistan to its fate. The country would instantly revert to a pariah state, feeding the international drugs trade and offering a haven for terrorism that would threaten global security for generations.

We have muddled through with no clear strategy for too long. The bitter winter in Afghanistan will further test the international community's poorly coordinated presence in the country. A new strategy is needed. Now.

Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats