Leading article: An increasingly American war

Related Topics

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of Afghan operations as a whole – a transition which has been evolving for some time, as successive countries have withdrawn their troops and the "challenges", as Dr Fox put it, have proved harder to meet than envisaged.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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower