Leading article: An increasingly American war

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of Afghan operations as a whole – a transition which has been evolving for some time, as successive countries have withdrawn their troops and the "challenges", as Dr Fox put it, have proved harder to meet than envisaged.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

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh-£260/day

£230 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh...

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

£25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Residential Property

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Residential Conveyancer - Wiltshire We have a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

John Rentoul
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment