In a hard-hitting interview with The Independent yesterday, the top British commander in Afghanistan warned that it would be “unforgivable” if British troop numbers were cut so far and so fast that “the gains of the last three years were lost”.
He said the Afghans had to be provided with the support they needed to carry them through to the planned withdrawal of Western combat forces next year.
Lieutenant-General Nick Carter is not the only senior military figure in Afghanistan to have warned of the dangers of a premature withdrawal of Western forces since President Obama announced that all US combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014. But he was particularly outspoken and his remarks come at a sensitive time.
The fear is threefold. First, that the south of the country, especially, could be plunged back into armed conflict. Second, that the Taliban could make a swift return to power, if not in Kabul, then elsewhere in the country, with all that entails for the place of women and education for girls. And last, but by no means least, that an upsurge in violence would expose the inadequacy of the newly trained Afghan army and turn what was planned as an orderly handover into an undignified Western retreat.
Lt-Gen Carter’s concern is legitimate. No one wants to be reminded how little 12 years of war have achieved. And a degree of stability is needed if the handover of security to the Afghans is to carry conviction. But the moment Mr Obama announced a timetable for US withdrawal, several countries said they were bringing their troops home early. Officially, the British force will be reduced, but will stay for the duration.
The political pressure, though – from ministers and from public opinion – will be for a faster withdrawal, and there is evidence, in the US handover of Bagram prison last week and the start made to removing heavy equipment – that operations are already winding down. Lt-Gen Carter has an entirely justified military perspective, but the politics is fast taking over.