Staying power

Britain needs to stick to its mission in Helmand ? it is the right thing to do

This piece was first published in Progress Magazine on 13 July 2009. 

Popular support for Britain’s
involvement in Afghanistan
is, for the first time, showing signs of fraying. Nick Clegg broke ranks with
the other party leaders last week, and this weekend the total number of British
deaths went beyond the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. In an alliance of
convenience, neo-isolationists, opportunistic opposition leaders and the usual
anti-war crowd have sought to muscle in on the understandable grief of the
parents of fallen soldiers to argue for a full British retreat.

But many of the arguments put forward seem based more on prejudice than fact.
Four misconceptions are particularly problematic. The first is that there is no
strategy. The second is the view that Britain is bound to loose the
Afghan war because it lost in a few wars in the 19th century and the Soviets
lost in the 20th century. The third is that Britain needs to do more to get
European allies engaged. The final misconception is that the war is unwinnable
and anyway a war of choice not necessity (mainly fought to keep the US
administration). Let me deal with each of these in turn.

First of all, claiming there is no strategy is the refuge of the sound-bite
hungry politician. There is a strategy. It has been articulated by Barack Obama
and goes like this: the West needs to defeat al-Qaida affiliated insurgents and
build up the Afghan state and its security apparatus to keep such groups which
threaten our security on the back-foot in the long-term. That, ladies and
gentlemen, is a strategy. As a proposition it is no worse than the strategy of
containment during World War II. The rest is planning and execution.

The second point is that Britain
is not doing enough to get Europeans involved. Let me assure you that HMG has
done all it can to get others involved, including direct lobbying, making
representations and so forth. If the situation changes elsewhere it will
because of internal dynamics, like the German election, not UK prodding. Berlin will change its view as a result of UK diplomacy as quickly as London will change its Middle Eastern policy
following a Spanish demarche. Wishing for German troops in Helmand,
anyway, is wishing for more allied casualties and a large compound with little
outside activity. I’m not sure that will help the war effort.  

What about the history? Was the Soviet Union not defeated in the Hindu Kush and
before it? Let me knock these two on their head(s). Britain won the Great Game. British
forces may have suffered losses that have reverberated through the ages but
they accomplished their strategic objective – to keep Russia out of India. One may disagree with this
aim or believe it was not worth the lives of British soldiers. But to conflate
tactical defeat with strategic intent would have earned poor marks in my
history classes.

What about the Soviet experience? There are some similarities, no doubt. But
the differences are greater. The Soviet invasion and the attempt to impose
communism on a rural and largely illiterate Islamic country with a history of
xenophobia produced the predictable result: a mass national uprising. In
contrast, polls show most Afghans still support the presence of international
forces (though this is declining) while the Taliban are not widely popular. To
put it simply, while the Soviets faced a national uprising, the US-led NATO
forces face a minority insurgency that is segregated from much of the country.

There are other differences too. Though civilian casualties are terrible and
must be avoided at all costs, nothing approaching the level of Soviet horror is
happening on today’s battlefield. Second, the campaign to assist the mujahidin,
enjoyed the backing of regional powers China,
Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. Today’s insurgency is
only backed by elements of the Pakistani state.

Successive Labour governments thought not only that they could fight wars
without tears, but also war without costs. They were wrong on both counts. But
just because Gordon Brown backs an idea does not make it wrong. Helping to
stabilise Afghanistan is the
right thing to do for Britain’s
security. Backing down will not make it easier to defeat home grown terrorism,
or deal with al-Qaida in Pakistan;
it will make it harder. Make no mistake: a withdrawal will boost the extremist
ego, which will have repercussions everywhere al-Qaida and its affiliated
groups seek to recruit supporters. “Look at Afghanistan”, they will say. “We
defeated NATO and can help you defeat the West on your patch too.” In a world
where the “battle of narratives” is as important as the real battles, this will
represent a serious setback for the West. Ceding Afghan territory to the
Taliban will lead to new terrorist training camps as sure as night follows day.

I knew a US
general who said the most important quality in warfare is something he called
“stick-to-it-iveness”. If BBC had been reporting live from the
beaches of Normandy
how long would the D Day invasion have lasted? Think about the experience of
the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, who on 6 June 1944 were dropped behind
enemy lines and encountered the German 716th Infantry Division and were
attacked by the 21st Panzer Division, experiencing heavy causalities. No doubt
their mission would have been called into question and demands for a retreat
grown loud if online, real-time information had been available. But it wasn’t –
and by the next evening the paratroopers had established a defensive perimeter
surrounding the bridgehead and the Normandy
landings could continue.

The general’s motto seems apt today. Britain needs to stick with it.
That said, there will have to be adjustment in both strategy and resources. It
is not Britain’s role to help build a modern Weberian state in Kabul that has a
monopoly on the use of violence across the whole of its territory and a
self-financing, service-providing administrative apparatus; the task is to
midwife a pre-Westphalian state that acts against existential threats, like
al-Qaida, when necessary, but seeks to contain rather than defeat the
insurgency while having to negotiate its power and ability to deliver (limited)
services. That task, however, is both right and in Britain’s interest.

Daniel Korski is senior policy
fellow at the European Council on
Foreign Relations (ECFR)

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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