The Prime Minister's vision of Britain playing a leading role around the world in punishing and preventing crimes against humanity is an attractive one. It requires a willingness to use military force, which can be dangerous, expensive and morally difficult, and Tony Blair was right to be ready to deploy troops in Afghanistan.
Judging when not to deploy troops can, however, be just as courageous. Yesterday's decision not to send large numbers of British forces to Afghanistan beyond the 100 or so at Bagram airport is welcome for three reasons. One is the presentational constraint in acting against terrorists without appearing to be waging a war against Muslims. While the guiding principle is that those who have the wealth and the military power have a duty to use them for the good of all, the danger is that they may be seen as Westerners seeking to impose their will and their values on Afghanistan (which, to the extent that those values include the belief that terrorism is wrong, they are).
The second is that, with the collapse of the Taliban regime, the need for Western forces on the ground – except to seek and destroy al-Qa'ida in the south and east – has all but vanished. While taking nothing away from the professionalism and experience of British troops, there now seems nothing they can do that cannot be better done by others, preferably Muslims from countries like Turkey and Jordan and preferably under a more explicit United Nations mandate. It is important for the moment that Bagram be secured for UN access to Kabul by non-Afghan forces, but it is clear that the aid agencies can distribute food and supplies without military help.
The third factor is the need to balance the competing claims of other threats to justice elsewhere in the world. In particular, the situation in Macedonia, the tiny chunk of what was once Yugoslavia landlocked between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, presents real dangers of renewed war in the Balkans. Although the Macedonian parliament approved changes to the constitution to improve rights for the ethnic Albanian minority a week ago, the moderate Social Democrats have now pulled out of the government, leaving it in the hands of uncompromising nationalists. If British troops are to be sent anywhere to keep the peace, it should be to Macedonia.