So what do we learn from the Times’s interview with David Richards, the man who is set to replace Richard Dannatt as the head of the British Army? Both a little and a lot. Most of the piece is made up of nice anecdotes and flatering quotes about the general, and he deflects a lot of the weightier questions with utterly uncontroversial answers – i.e. declining to say whether the army is properly resourced, and adding that "our own tactics must reflect the equipment and troop numbers we have."
But some of his responses are much more eyecatching; as when he claims the "whole process [in Afghanistan] might take as long as 30 to 40 years." Sure, that’s hardly a new contention; but it’s important – encouraging, even – that the incoming head of the army is making it. Encouraging, too, that he namechecks the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, one of the prime architects behind the surge in Iraq.
Perhaps the key passage comes when Richard sets out the conditions for victory or defeat in Afghanistan:
"I believe strongly that [the Afghanistan conflict] is winnable. Demanding, certainly, but winnable. And when people say, ‘How can you use the term “win”?’ I retort, ‘Well, I will certainly know if we have lost.’ Can you imagine the intoxicating effect on militants if we were defeated? Can you be certain there would not be an export of terrorism to the streets of London? It’s a risk we should be very wary of taking.
But, of course, the end will be difficult to define; it won’t be neat and clear-cut like the end of some old-fashioned inter-state war might have been. And, as I have said many times, everyone involved needs to realise it will take a long time and considerable investment. We must remember, though, that we are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland."
It’s crucial that the goals that guide us in Afghanistan are realistic. As Richards says, there is certainly a developmental aspect to our presence over there – but that will be a long slog, and the end result may not be a textbook democracy. But a failure to see the job through could have serious security rammifications closer to home.