"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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From our own correspondent… with William Hague at the Foreign Office

Aaron Ellis 10.30am

I felt a bit ashamed when I joined Twitter a couple of years ago. It felt like I was Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s 1984, finally giving in to oppressive forces. Yet the social networking site has furnished me with opportunities I would not otherwise have had - such as meeting William Hague.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary asked his Twitter followers to say what they think should be the United Kingdom’s top foreign policy priority. The best five would then meet him to discuss their suggestions.

Last week, the winners of this competition – Katie Jamieson (@kejamieson), Antonia King (@antoniaking), Jack McCann (@Jack_Mc_Cann), James Willby (@JamesWillby), and I – met Mr Hague and enjoyed a long, interesting talk on a wide range of issues, including trade promotion and the war in Afghanistan.

A chunk of the discussion was about British foreign policy and the ‘Pacific Century’, which had been the topic of my winning suggestion. I argued that the United Kingdom had to define its role (or non-role) in a world where power was concentrated in Asia-Pacific, as it would impact on all our other defence and foreign policies. The Foreign Secretary emphasised to me that we had to be in the region, but he didn’t show that he appreciated how big an effort would be needed by the British to become real players there. ‘It would represent the most judicious, and audacious, use of the hard/soft power combination yet seen in contemporary politics,’ one expert has warned.

Mr Hague agreed with me that a potential role for the United Kingdom would be to “fill in” for the Americans as they retrench to the Pacific, which was what I argued in these pages in the summer. He used the Libyan intervention as an example of this “filling in”, ironic perhaps given my opposition to the campaign. I was too polite (as well as awed) to point out that the United States enabled 90 per cent of the military operations there, which implies we don’t yet have the capacity to take up Washington’s mantle in many areas of the world.

The other issue that I raised was British policy in Central and South Asia; as I argued in May, the United Kingdom is pursuing policies in the region that are incompatible with one another. We want a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and a strategic partnership with Pakistan – the problem is that the latter two countries believe stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other.

Mr Hague recognises the dilemma – in contrast to the Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who denied it exists when I put it to him in December – but he thinks that the British are best placed to mediate a solution. As an example, he pointed to the recent meeting in New York between David Cameron and the Afghan and Pakistani leaders.

Though I am often critical of this Government’s foreign policies, I have always believed that Britain needs William Hague as its Foreign Secretary – a belief reinforced after meeting him. His policies are good for the country, even if I think some of them are strategically discontinuous. Mr Hague is also likeable, charismatic, and he has built up good connections with leaders around the world, which aren’t bad things when it comes to diplomacy.

The meeting also showed his enthusiasm for engaging younger people via new technologies, on the issue of the many challenges facing this country in the early twenty-first century.

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Russia’s Syrian hypocrisy

Alexander Pannett 10.38am

Yesterday, diplomats at the UN Security Council were engaged in a concerted attempt to pass a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power, which is a key part of an Arab League plan.

This is a welcome move as bloody government reprisals against the protesters have led to more than 7,000 civilian deaths as Syria slides into civil war.

The text, however, had to be dropped due to Russian objections that it amounted to “regime change”, which was a threat to the principles of national sovereignty as protected under the UN charter.

This is contrary to the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which was recognised as a concept by all countries (Russia and China included) at the UN World Leader’s Summit in 2005.

Responsibility to Protect is a concept for intervention in a state by the international community for the prevention of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass killings and human rights violations taking place, in a country which is unwilling (or unable) to stop it. In the event of any such acts occurring, the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to prevent it.

Both the Russians and the Chinese, whose modern history has been dominated by bloody foreign interventions, are understandably reticent about any development of liberal interventionism that protects a people from the violent abuses of its government.  Considering the poor human rights records in both these countries, it is unsurprising that they will be wary of a liberal doctrine that legitimises external interference along the grounds of human rights.

However, it is callous in the extreme for the Russians to cite the UN charter’s protection of national sovereignty as the rationale for its support for the Assad government.  Or for the Russians to justify their current intransigence with a resolution against Syria by suggesting that the UN resolution that allowed for “all necessary means” to protect the Libyan people went too far in toppling the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi.

The Russians were quite happy to cite the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine with their invasion of Georgia in 2008 or use interventionism with their ongoing suppression of “terrorist” separatist groups in the Northern Caucuses or recent use of energy blackmail to interfere with Ukrainian elections.

The real hypocrisy of Russia lies however with the realpolitik of their global strategic ambitions.

At Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, lies one of only two Russian naval bases outside Russia that Russian capital ships can dock at for re-supply. With the other naval base outside Russia at Sevastopol only on a 25-year lease and subject to the whims of a Ukrainian government with lukewarm relations towards Russia, Tartus is crucial to the Russians’ plans to re-establish themselves as a world military power.

The Syrian government recently agreed to transfer the naval base permanently into Russian hands and the Russians have since been pouring billions into the base to allow it to host a new Mediterranean fleet. To re-affirm Russia’s interests in Syria and its support for the Assad regime, a flotilla of Russian ships, including the Russian flagship, were deployed to the Tartus naval base in November 2011.

Without Tartus, Russia’s plans to project its power around the globe would be severely curtailed, especially in the nearby oil-rich Middle East, an area of vital strategic importance.  It is this concern that is dictating Russia’s morally bankrupt actions at the UN rather than any simulacrum of UN protections of national sovereignty.

As Aaron Ellis has pointed out on these pages, the West is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence about what it stands for in the world. While hard questions are rightly being asked about the Western economic model, we must not forget that our political and liberal values helped shape the present structure of international relations.

Our voice is needed to help prevent the oppression of the weak and dispossessed and to uphold the goals of the UN which sought to prevent massacres such as those that are occurring in Syria.

The West has certainly made terrible foreign policy errors that have resulted in the deaths of innocents. But we should not forget the far worse, dystopian machinations of those to whom our current angst would cede the leadership of the world.

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