With the resignation of Eric Joyce as PPS to the Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, the question of why Britain is part of the NATO-led Afghan mission has taken on new force.
No doubt the Prime Minister will explain what he sees as the reasons when he speaks at IISS later today. But just because Gordon Brown supports a policy does not make it wrong. Here are the reasons why we should remain engaged:
1. To deny Al Qaeda a safe-haven from which to train and organise attacks on the West. Though terrorism can be organized in Oldham, Hamburg and Marseilles, Al Qaeda still believes it needs safe-havens in places like Afghanistan.
2. To prevent a new generation of terrorists and insurgencies of getting the mother of all propaganda coups by having routed NATO. Victories in places like Helmand and Swat, even if not technically by Al Qaeda, resonate through jihadist websites and mindsets the world over, and could inspire a myriad of groups to further atrocity.
3. To preserve NATO and maintain US security interests in Europe. Having been belatedly dragged into the conflict in 2003, NATO’s credibility is on the line, as are US commitments to European security. If Europe cannot help where the US needs it, why should the US came about European security concerns?
Sure, you can add auxiliary reasons such as wanting to improve the lot of ordinary Afghans, who are among the planet’s poorest. It is clearly in Britain’s interests – and a reflection of Britain’s values and compassion, to use a concept much in vogue these days – to help establish a democratic, gradually liberalising state in Afghanistan.
But these additional reasons should not be confused as the main reason why British soldiers are fighting. They are fighting to keep us in Britain safe against a new breed of terrorists, who are at their deadliest when they are flush with victories, real or spun, against the West; and have operational links between placemen in the West and operatives in safe-haves elsewhere. That may be hard to understand for those still committed to older notions of territorial defense. However, it is a view supported by most security officials and experts I have spoken to.
That said, our tactics clearly need a review. Britain and its allies should not try to build a modern Weberian state in Kabul that has the monopoly on the use of violence and a self-financing, service-providing administrative apparatus. The task is to midwife a pre-Westphalian state that acts against existential threats like Al Qaeda, but has to negotiate its power, access and ability to deliver (limited) services with local power-brokers.
Even this narrower tactical aim will need more troops, breaking the back of anti-government forces and a better delivery of local services like security and justice. It will also mean separating the local wheat from the insurgent chaff – and offering some kind of inclusion in the political process to the former. But the reasons for staying should be clear. For a string arguments for the engagement from left and right, see here and here.