Diplomacy has achieved more in Syria than bombing would have done

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Aaron Ellis

Pundits across the political spectrum have claimed recently that had MPs supported military action in Syria last summer, the world might just have been a better place today. Yet there is no reason why those who opposed intervention should regret their stance, as there’s no reason to believe that it would have made a difference to the conflict. The truth is that diplomacy has achieved far more than punitive airstrikes would probably have done – at least as far as chemical weapons are concerned.

Last week, Syria enjoyed its longest period of media coverage since the August crisis. On Tuesday, thousands of documents and photographs were published which strongly suggest that the al-Assad regime ‘systemically’ murdered around 11,000 detainees. At the Geneva II summit the next day, negotiations between the regime and the opposition started acrimoniously. And at PMQs, Ed Miliband pushed David Cameron on whether or not Britain would accept more Syrian refugees. Perhaps because of the lack of exciting political news, these were given relatively wide coverage, and some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Commons vote. If we had gone in, journalists might have been reporting much better stories from this devastated country.

On Wednesday, both Matthew D’Ancona on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left argued that non-intervention has caused more suffering than intervention would have done. D’Ancona wondered ‘how many detainees have been maimed and killed’ since the vote. Hundal implied that due to a lack of Western military presence, al-Qa’ida and other militant Islamists have taken over the rebellion. The next day, Dan Hodges (wherever he is on the political spectrum now) basically claimed that only those who supported intervention really care about the Syrians. Presumably, we can only show our sympathy for the millions caught up in the appalling humanitarian crisis by bombing stuff.

These arguments suffer from the same flaws as those put forward by Mr. Cameron last summer. All of them are vague about the military action that was being proposed, and none of them explain why that particular use of force would have generated the desired outcome.

Shortly after the Libya campaign began, the Prime Minister argued that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people…in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” Over a hundred thousand deaths later, we can safely assume that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why would he have gotten the one about chemical weapons? Or murdering detainees? As Mr. Cameron once remarked, “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.”

It is easier to think about the potentialities of bombing someone than it is about the potentialities of negotiating with them, yet the Kerry-Lavrov deal has achieved far more than a few airstrikes would have done. Whereas the regime would still have possessed chemical weapons after the attack, they are now actually being removed from Syria. Last September, the regime became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The diplomatic outcome of the crisis is the only bright spot in the civil war, the Foreign Secretary said last week, which is why those who opposed intervention shouldn’t regret their stance. It helped make the world a marginally better place.

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"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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Hague is right to restore relations with Iran

Aaron Ellis

It was reported yesterday that in a telephone conversation with the Iranian foreign minister, William Hague said that he is open to improving ties between his country and the United Kingdom. Relations were severed nearly two years ago when mobs attacked the British Embassy in Tehran. Frankly, it’s about time.

Both David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary imagine themselves to be ‘grand strategists’, yet they have shown little strategic nous as far as Tehran is concerned. We want to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan, end the conflict in Syria, and stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability. Achieving all of these goals depends on having a better relationship with Iran.

If we want the Tehran regime to stop its nuclear programme, then we need to convince them that the West is not a threat to them. Toppling Bashar al-Assad in Syria would isolate them in the region, as some predict, but isolation is likely to make them more committed to possessing a nuclear capability. We need to negotiate a settlement between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, and we need Iran to help us.

We also need its help to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan. As I wrote in these pages last year, there is no rational reason why the Iranians would want either continuing instability in the country or a Taliban victory, yet they view things through the prism of Western-Iranian enmity. If the West is tied down in Afghanistan, then it cannot attack them. By persuading them to ‘help, not hinder the allies in ending the war [there], it may be easier to negotiate a solution to their nuclear programme, as there will be an element of trust between the parties.’

In politics, working relationships are always fluid; if Britain wants to achieve its numerous goals in the Middle East and Central Asia, then Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hague must strike up a working relationship with Iran. 

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Britain ‘pivots’ to Asia on a Japanese-made hinge

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Louis Reynolds

At first glance the twin trade and cooperation agreements signed by William Hague and His Excellency Keiichi Hayashi in London last week were a positive yet unremarkable contribution to the Coalition’s ambitions regarding the expansion of Britain’s international trade relations and the promotion of Britain’s defence industry. In actual fact, the new pact represents a broader fulfilment of the Government’s strategic vision.

The basic substance of these agreements in itself, while ground-breaking, is rather reserved. The UK-Japan Defence Equipment Coordination Framework will facilitate joint research projects within the defence industry, while the Information Security Agreement outlines the rules regarding the sharing of classified information necessitated by the cooperation effort. Initial collaboration efforts will centre on chemical, biological and radiological protective equipment, with engagement expanding to anti-air defences and similar projects at a later date.  

While this Anglo-Japanese agreement is important in simple economic terms, in the manner of previous large-scale Coalition trade agreements such as those arranged with China, or India, it crucially also has specific value in and of itself. The collaborative potential for two nations with such exceptional high-tech industrial bases and pioneering technological expertise is extensive, and the pact has the added attraction of relative exclusivity; the United Kingdom is now Japan’s only defence research and development partner with the exception of the United States.

Furthermore, the agreements fulfil a significant part of Hague’s vision, as set out in his July 2010 speech Britain’s Prosperity in a Networked World,of an increased focus on new, tailored partnerships with a broader range of global powers. This is in turn part of the Coalition’s divergence from Britain’s previous (perhaps antiquated) foreign policy set around traditional alliances. Cameron and Hague are seeking to establish Britain as an innovative power capable of diplomatic flexibility in a multi-polar world.

Considered in the context of the UK’s recent activities in the Far East - her opposition to the removal of the EU arms embargo on China, Cameron’s tour of other Asian states, her expressed desire to see an augmentation of the military capabilities of China’s neighbours and finally the ‘Vietnam-UK Plan of Action - it would require little imagination to view these latest agreements with Japan as part of a broad attempt to increase Britain’s profile as a power-player in Asia.

Yet while these agreements are indicative of important cultural shifts in British foreign policy – shifts away from traditional alliances, away from Imperial baggage and away from a Eurocentric understanding of foreign policy – it is important to maintain perspective. Britain is not in a position to directly influence trends and events in Asia. Reduced military power, economic ailments and the continued decline of comparative European power in general limits Britain’s capability to act independently in such a critical region so far from home, in terms of hard or soft power. Yet Britain has unique strengths and capabilities and remains a powerful international actor as well as a highly desirable ally. For Britain to make best use of the opportunities of Asia in the twenty-first century, it is necessary that she applies her distinctive skills within the context of cooperation with other powers.

Earlier this year I attended the last foreign speech given by Leon Panetta, then United States Secretary of Defence. The address largely focused on the necessity of an American ‘pivot towards Asia’, and framed the European Union as a potential senior partner in such a strategy. Panetta’s argument was greeted with a degree of scepticism – the EU and foreign policy can occasionally seem to be incompatible concepts – but his logic seems clearer today than it did in January. The lack of reference to the United Kingdom as an independent power was prominent in Panetta’s speech, as was the firm focus on Britain’s role within the EU - perhaps more a reflection of changes in the international order than any significant British decline. This Government seems to understand the new reality too; Hague mentioned the European Union twelve times in his Britain in Asia speech last week.

These latest Anglo-Japanese agreements therefore represent much more than an innovative response to economic concerns, though Britain’s economic motivations are prominent in her foreign policy. For the United Kingdom they represent a positive reaction to broader shifts in international political dynamics. For the Coalition these developments demonstrate a positive and proactive attitude to changes which Britain must embrace, and which, if handled correctly, could stand to make Britain stronger.



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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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Can democracy save us from Pakistan?

Aaron Ellis 7.30am

British foreign policy in Central and South Asia is in a bit of a bind.

The goals we pursue are incompatible due to the geopolitical rivalry of India and Pakistan.

Rather than recognise this and make tough choices about our regional priorities, ministers either deny a problem exists or offer democratic politics as a solution to geopolitics.

David Cameron and William Hague believe they can achieve their goals in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan if the cause of the enmity between the three – Pakistan – becomes a genuine democracy. She should end her support for the Taliban, as well as her decades-old conflict with India. Thus Britain, the former colonial power, would not have to make tough choices and pick sides in Central and South Asia, as everyone would inevitably be on the same side.

If they really want Pakistan to become a genuine democracy, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary must resolve Pakistan’s disputes with her neighbours, as these have often been a catalyst for her lurches from democracy to military rule and back again.

This is especially important for regional and global security, as both civilian and military governments in Islamabad have traditionally used insurgents and terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir as legitimate means of resolving these disputes in their favour.

Yet it is unlikely that Mr Cameron and Mr Hague will try to resolve them because it would mean doing what they specifically do not want to do: make tough choices and pick sides. This reluctance stems from their lack of a grand strategic vision for Britain’s role in Central and South Asia. Unless they come up with one soon, they will not achieve any of their goals in the region, as its geopolitical rivalries will continue to undermine them.

Britain wants a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and has signed up to a strategic partnership with Pakistan. Individually these goals make sense, but it is hard to fit them together into a single regional policy, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. Both Islamabad and New Delhi believe that stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other and that the price of their cooperation is helping to restrict their rivals’ presence in the country.

Just a few months before Afghanistan and India signed a strategic partnership last October, a survey of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite showed many worry that India’s involvement in the country goes beyond economic development, and has become a real security concern.

“Pakistan wants the international community to set certain limits on India’s involvement”, regional expert Farzana Shaikh has said. It is the “minimum that [it] might be prepared to settle for to ensure its co-operation” in ending the war in Afghanistan.

Yet acquiescing to India’s involvement may be necessary for a “special relationship” with New Delhi.

In an email exchange with a former Indian intelligence chief, I asked what the UK would need to do for India vis-à-vis Afghanistan to help build the kind of relationship that David Cameron envisages between our two countries. “Accept India has a role [there], encourage this and not let Pakistan have a veto”.

Thus British policy in Central and South Asia is in a bit of a bind.

Ministers are denying a problem exists. When I put it to Philip Hammond in December that India and Pakistan regard stability in Afghanistan as coming at the expense of either one or the other, the Defence Secretary rejected my assertion.

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, believes that democracy can save us from Pakistan. If the civilians truly directed national security policy, not the military, they would not support the Taliban or terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), because democracies just don’t do that sort of thing.

Mr Cameron has always drawn this contrast between a democratic Pakistan that is a peaceful actor in the region and an authoritarian, terrorist-supporting Pakistan. “We have to make sure that [they] are not looking two ways” about exporting terrorism to their neighbours, he once said. “They should only look one way, and that is to a democratic and stable Pakistan.”

His faith in the power of democracy to resolve great power rivalry is a manifestation of the Liberal half of his self-described “Liberal Conservative” approach to foreign policy. Speaking in Pakistan just weeks after the country’s dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced from office, Mr Cameron stated that democracies “tend not to go to war with each other” - an old Liberal belief.

This faith is misplaced as far as Pakistan is concerned, as successive civilian governments have used insurgents and terrorists to further their goals in Central and South Asia.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of the late Benazir Bhutto, waged a proxy war against Afghanistan in 1975 using Afghan exiles. Ms Bhutto herself helped the Taliban to take over the country in the mid-1990s. Her successor as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, shielded them from American pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden because of the al-Qa’ida leader’s help in fighting the Indians in Kashmir.

In the spring of 2010 the current president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, allegedly told senior Taliban prisoners: “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.” A few months later, his government angrily rejected Mr Cameron’s claim that their country “looked both ways” on terrorism in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

It is not the constitutional make-up of the Pakistani government that determines its use of terrorism therefore, but its geopolitical rivalries, and it is only by resolving them can we hope to bring about a true change in the country’s behaviour. Yet the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are unlikely to do this, as they are reluctant to pick sides and have no grand strategic vision to guide them.

Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary, William Hague ruled out involving Britain in Indian-Pakistani disputes. “It will not be our approach to lecture other countries on how they should conduct their bilateral relations,” unlike his Labour predecessor David Miliband, who upset the Indians by bringing up the Kashmir dispute the year before.

Mr Hague’s approach may help build a special relationship with New Delhi, but at the expense of our relations with Islamabad, which he also regards highly. In September, the Foreign Secretary said:

We will stand by Pakistan as it addresses the challenges it faces and build a durable relationship that we know will stand the test of time. We can be confident of doing so because ours is not a new relationship founded on a narrow set of interests.

Britain wants to have her cake in Central and South Asia and to eat it too, yet this policy is unsustainable in the current geopolitical climate.

David Cameron and William Hague must decide which of their goals are important and which of them must be discarded. If they do not do so, they will not achieve anything in the region.

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Better relations with Iran could be key to solving Afghanistan

Aaron Ellis 10.42am

You can’t govern properly by just reacting to events. But that is what the Government’s lauded National Security Council (NSC) does, putting day-to-day crises into a larger context and shaping a strategic response to them.

Speaking in Washington, D.C. several months after its creation, William Hague boasted that the NSC had already made Britain’s policy in Afghanistan strategically “coherent”.

Yet our handling of Iran suggests otherwise. The Iranians ought to be our allies in Afghanistan but Western sabre-rattling towards the Iranian nuclear programme undermines our efforts there. If the Government truly wants to resolve these crises, it must adopt a truly strategic approach. It cannot just react.

It was reported this week that Iran may have tried to exacerbate anti-American riots in Afghanistan in February, after careless US soldiers burned copies of the Qur’an.

The typical reaction of hawks to these stories is to see Tehran’s mischievousness as a sinister bid for global mastery - rather than defensive measures to deter Western military action against them. When Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Taliban were seized in Afghanistan last April, the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said:

"This confirms my often repeated view of the dangers that Iran poses not only through its nuclear programme, but its continuing policy of destabilising its neighbours. Supplying weapons to help the Taliban kill [ISAF] soldiers is a clear example of the threat they pose."

The hawk-talk about Iran in Afghanistan adds another stroke to the war drums beaten over Iran of late, but it also undermines the Government’s goals in both countries. It is unlikely that Iran will participate in a regional settlement if we persist in branding it a malign actor. Any solution to the nuclear impasse also grows more difficult to find.

Instead of reacting to these crises separately, the Government must adopt a combined approach. Sound strategic thinking involves reappraising Iran’s role in Afghanistan, recognising that our actions towards one impact the other, and taking various diplomatic steps to achieve the various goals stated above.

Though some actions suggest different, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan coincide with Western objectives. The Government has to be mindful of this. One former senior diplomat has noted, correctly, that Tehran has no “rational interest in continuing instability in [the country], or in a Taliban victory.” This point was covered in great detail in a RAND paper last year.

Given this, why the Iranian mischief-making? The RAND paper’s authors, Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, point out that Iran’s enmity towards the US determines its interests in Afghanistan.

Iranian leaders view the US and coalition presence in Afghanistan with great anxiety, especially in light of the US military threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As it has reportedly been employed in Iraq, Iran’s asymmetric strategy would use proxy insurgent forces to tie down and distract the United States from focusing on Iran and its nuclear program, and provides a retaliatory capability in the event of US military action.

The Government has to rethink its rhetoric about Iran, and recognise that country’s involvement in Afghanistan is defensive rather than offensive. We can forget any regional settlement post-2015 if we exclude one of the region’s biggest stakeholders. We must also restart diplomatic dialogue between Tehran and London.

This means first reopening the embassy in Iran. As former diplomat Mark Malloch-Brown has written, “Without embassies the basic function of diplomacy - keeping some kind of dialogue going even when views are diametrically opposed - is essentially suspended.”

Then Britain must begin talks with Iran about how we can co-operate over Afghanistan. If we persuade the Iranians to help, not hinder, the winding down of the war there, it might be easier to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse.

Mr Hague once said that the National Security Council would not only minimise the risks we face but also “look for the positive trends in the world, since our security requires seizing opportunity as well as mitigating risk.”

Yet with Iran and Afghanistan, the Government has emphasised risk over opportunity. If we want to achieve our goals, this emphasis must change.

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We must leave the Gordian Knot of Afghanistan

Aaron Ellis 7.30am

A blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another like it could be borne’.

This is how it feels any time a great tragedy is reported from Afghanistan.

One often asks, warily, “Why the hell are we there?”

The deaths of six British servicemen in Helmand last week prompted David Cameron to answer,

We are there to prevent that country from being a safe haven for al-Qaeda, from where they might plan attacks on the UK or our allies.

Our troops are not only securing the future of the United Kingdom, but also “the future of the world”.

It became difficult to take seriously such grandiloquent rhetoric by the Prime Minister when, nearly two years ago, he placed an arbitrary deadline on securing the future of the world.

The contradiction is typical of an Afghan policy that Mr. Cameron and the Foreign Secretary William Hague have tied up in knots since the summer of 2010. They should cut themselves free from their bonds as this war is not worth the loss of another British life.

David Cameron and William Hague like to think that they are grand strategists who will reverse the drift of the Labour years and prepare the country for the challenges of the 21st Century.

Perversely, I think one of the tightest knots binding us to Afghanistan was tied by Mr. Cameron trying to pursue this ambition. The myopia of his actions prompted a U-turn that over-committed the UK to a country of only marginal importance. It has put the Tory leaders in an embarrassing position vis-à-vis withdrawal.

On 25th June 2010, the Prime Minister announced that our combat troops would be out of the war by 2015.

We cannot be there for another five years having effectively been there for nine years already.

Many pundits saw this deadline and other foreign policy decisions that summer as repeated gaffes. I took a different view; these “gaffes” were part of a deliberate strategy that he and Mr. Hague were pursuing at the time, one which I likened to flying a hot air balloon.

They sensed the turbulent winds heading our way this century and believed that the best way to avoid them was to chuck overboard weighty foreign policy commitments in order to make Britain’s balloon soar higher.

It was for this reason that Mr. Cameron tried to cool the Special Relationship, push away Israel to align closer with Turkey, and reset our relations with India at the expense of Pakistan.

Unless we changed our ways, the Foreign Secretary warned in July, we were set to decline “with all that that means for our influence in world affairs”.

Afghanistan was a commitment that David Cameron and William Hague were unsure about chucking overboard that summer, though the 2015 deadline suggested that they had put it on the edge of the basket.

By that time we will have been applying ourselves to this [conflict] for 50% longer than we applied ourselves to the Second World War”, Mr. Hague once remarked, in exasperation.

The deadline was also typical of the caution with which the Tory leaders have sometimes viewed the handling of the war. It came just two days after President Obama dismissed General McChrystal as the head of allied forces in Afghanistan, reopening a debate about U.S. strategy that many thought had been settled by the President’s West Point speech several months before. Mr. Cameron may have felt that this was the last straw.

We cannot be here for another eight years”, he said during a trip to Helmand in December 2009; the strategy that Obama had laid out that month was “our last big chance for success”.

Had the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stuck to this cautious approach, they would have anticipated the Americans’ sudden desire to “rush to the exit”, allowing them to drop the Afghan commitment.

Yet they quickly restored Afghanistan to its original place in the balloon basket and added to its weight in order to play down the strategic significance of the 2015 announcement. In January, David Cameron signed an agreement with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan which commits us to furnishing his regime with significant financial and military aid for years to come.

At the press conference, Mr. Cameron also made it clear that British combat troops would not leave before 2015, unlike the less dependable French.

The United Kingdom wants “a strong, safe, stable, democratic Afghanistan living in peace and stability with its neighbours”.

Just a few days later, however, the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that America will transition away from a combat role in 2013 and leave in 2014.

The partial U-turn that David Cameron and William Hague made on Afghanistan has now put them in an embarrassing position. If the “primary determinant” of their withdrawal timetable is U.S. policy and if that policy is to “rush to the exit” despite claims to the contrary, Mr. Hague and Mr. Cameron must join that rush just when they have increased our commitment to the country and raised the world-saving stakes of our presence there.

There are many other contradictions in the government’s policy – al-Qaeda is a grave threat to our security, yet we will leave Afghanistan in three years’ time whether or not the group is defeated. We are not there to build a perfect society, yet ministers often emphasise the progress we have made on development and human rights.

If they truly wish to be great, grand strategists, David Cameron and William Hague should not spend their time in office fiddling with the knots binding them to Afghanistan, but cut them altogether. A famous conqueror of that land took a similar approach to knots and he didn’t do too badly…

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis