Sunday, July 01, 2007

Does Gordon Brown have a policy on Afghanistan?

Do we actually have a policy with regard to Afghanistan? The question wants asking. After all, we've just had a change of government, and Gordon Brown is apparently willing to appoint people from other political parties or none. But despite this, Des "Swiss Toni" Browne is left in place as secretary of defence, with the added job of being secretary for Scotland. It doesn't seem intuitively obvious that the MOD is a part-time job, nor that Browne is doing a spectacular job (although at least he's not doing a Reid, Hoon, or Portillo).

Supposedly Brown offered the job of Northern Ireland secretary to Paddy Ashdown, who refused. NI Sec is about to become a nonjob, rather similar to the Welsh or Scottish offices post-devolution. How much of a nonjob it is can be measured by the fact it's been given to Shaun Woodward. I can well imagine that there's nothing there to attract Lord Ashdown.

If he really wanted Paddy in the cabinet, he'd have offered him the defence portfolio. I can think of few better choices, in fact there's really only one - Rupert Smith. Brown has sought uniformed advice, in picking the former First Sea Lord, Sir Alan West, for a job in the Home Office. But this is an odd choice - the Home Office? really? an Admiral? And it's probably explained by the fact West was a flexible friend as 1SL, going along to get along with Iraq and putting up with T-45 cuts and the Sea Harrier withdrawal.

So there are no new men. New methods, anyone? New aims?

Whoever is in charge, the need for a clear policy is the same. At the moment, the situation is rather better than it was six months ago, but this is in part because it's consuming dramatically more troops - we've now passed the crossing-point when there are more British soldiers in Afghanistan than Iraq, and the gear deployed has increased hugely with the 12th Mechanised Brigade's arrival. Despite a lot of propaganda, the promised Taliban spring offensive either didn't happen or was pre-empted. They are threatening to attack Kabul, but then, they say this every time the bell strikes.

On the down side, we still don't really know what we are doing. The northern half of Afghanistan is reasonably calm, as is the capital, although there is some terrorism. Down in Helmand, though, there seems to be constant low-level violence. A lot of posts have been established, but the promised reconstruction effort doesn't seem to be making progress. The biggest single job, the restoration of the Kajaki dam, is still awaiting better security on the roads. And, by definition, people are getting killed.

We simply cannot stay in a defensive barracked role forever, occasionally calling in air strikes that kill too many of the wrong people, waiting for something to happen. Hence the Hence the Senlis Council, which points out that there is a risk that we'll just end up like the US forces between 2002-2006, a random destructive force that appears from the sky every so often. What does it mean, however, to put development before military action?

That presumably implies that some places where it is necessary to fight to go should be abandoned. (the policy, roughly, General Richards adopted late last year and got battered by the US for..) To put it another way, you could call it a selective offensive strategy.

Anyway, we urgently need to come up with a policy that can be sustained in the long term, and one that takes account of the Pakistani dimension - which is very close to home indeed for the UK. Note that a NATO air raid was recently called in within Pakistani territory.

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