The generals and the politicians are at odds with each other. This much has been clear
since the run-up to last year’s Defence Review, but it finds a particularly clear expression in the Telegraph’s interview with Lt Gen James Bucknall today.
Britain’s most senior commander in Afghanistan may not say, in terms, that we should avoid a timetable for withdrawal from the country — but he skirts awfully close to it. "It is of
utmost importance that we stay the course, that we stay as long as it takes to finish our job," he says, only a fortnight after David Cameron announced that 450 troops will be pulled out of the country this year.
More specifically, Bucknall wants at least "two winters and two fighting seasons" without a diminished combat capacity. "This is not the time to send conflicting signals on
commitment to the campaign," he finishes.
The MoD response has been instructive, and given a foretaste of how difficult this matter could be in 2015, around the time of the next election. "UK forces will no longer be in a combat role
or in the present numbers by 2015 but may remain to train and mentor the Afghan forces after that," it begins — a statement that makes some sort of internal sense. But then it continues:
"what we cannot do is to see a reduction in our combat troops until we are sure that we’ve got sufficient and lasting security." Which leaves a question hanging awkwardly in the air: will
we have achieved "sufficient and lasting security" in Afghanistan by 2015? The answer, surely, is that we cannot tell.
This could leave Cameron open to either of two criticisms come election time, even more so than now. If our troops are withdrawn from an Afghanistan that is still mired in conflict and disarray,
then he might be attacked for prematurity. If they are left in the country to preserve a "lasting security," then he might be attacked for going back on a promise. Timetables may look
neat on paper, but there’s always the prospect of entanglement and confusion further down the line. Anything other than a clean withdrawal from a stable country, and Labour will make play.