The statement delivered to the Commons by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, was liberally sprinkled with words such as clarity, continuity and progress. None of the upbeat words, however, could disguise the essentially downbeat nature of the statement. British troops, Dr Fox said, faced "many challenges"; "progress has been slower in some areas than others, particularly on the political side". Not even the most ardent and unquestioning supporters of the mission in Afghanistan would have found much in what he said to console them.
There is only one respect in which the news he imparted was positive. British troops are to leave the Sangin area, where they have suffered such heavy losses, and hand responsibility there to the Americans. A small additional British contingent will be dispatched from Cyprus to assist with the transfer. When the reconfiguration is complete, the British will, as Dr Fox stated, be responsible for security in central Helmand, along with troops from Denmark and Estonia. Given that Sangin has accounted for a disproportionate number of British deaths, it must be hoped that the British casualty rate will fall.
If the restructuring of the British deployment bodes well in human and narrowly nationalistic terms, in military and alliance terms the message is quite different. The truth is that British troops are being transferred not because their mission has been successfully accomplished, but because it has not. Granted that it was always going to be exceptionally difficult to clear Sangin of the Taliban and hold it, it was nonetheless a mission that alliance and British commanders must have believed they could do. The transfer to central Helmand amounts to a recognition that only American numbers and firepower are equal to that task. There are uncomfortable echoes here of the withdrawal from Basra in Iraq. The bracketing of British units with those from Denmark and Estonia was, unwittingly perhaps, telling.
Both Dr Fox and the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, stressed yesterday that the move out of Sangin was to be seen as part of an overall reorganisation and rationalisation of troops in Helmand Province, and there is no reason to doubt this. But it also marks the latest stage in the Americanisation of Afghan operations as a whole – a transition which has been evolving for some time, as successive countries have withdrawn their troops and the "challenges", as Dr Fox put it, have proved harder to meet than envisaged.
Nor can the appearance be completely divorced from the substance. Even if the reorganisation of forces in Helmand is a genuine rationalisation and the transfer from Sangin is not, strictly speaking, a British retreat, these are not minor changes in troop configurations; they suggest a major reassessment of operations in that part of Afghanistan. As such, they are likely to be interpreted by the Taliban as a recognition by foreign forces that the insurgency is winning. Recent events in Washington and London – with the dismissal of the US commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and the early date given for the retirement of Sir Jock Stirrup in the UK – have only served to reinforce the impression of political disarray on Afghanistan and a military operation in trouble.
With the change of government in Britain, it is now clear that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are urgently looking for a way out that saves face and saves soldiers' lives without smacking of outright defeat. Increasingly, they also seem to be heeding the time-honoured advice that, if failure threatens, you should redefine success. As Dr Fox said yesterday, it is not a question of victory, but of success, and success, as he presented it, was an Afghanistan that was "stable enough". Coming months will show how elastic the word "enough" is required to be.