Now we can finally defeat the Taliban: Redeploying troops from Iraq to Afghanistan makes perfect military and political sense
Sunday February 25, 2007
The plan for a phased withdrawal of British troops from Iraq has caused much hand-wringing and questioning whether it is a sensible idea. The answer is that it is, because the Iraqis need to take responsibility for their own security when they are ready for it, and in the Basra area they probably are. There will be a gradual shift in British tactics from close engagement in patrolling to being a reserve and that seems sound now.
True, weapons and perhaps insurgents infiltrating the Iran-Iraq border could become more of a problem, but that is only part of the job, requiring border or desert patrolling. Inevitably, there is an element of uncertainty in all this, but reducing the troop numbers seems to be the way to bet.
A second aspect is whether this withdrawal is disruptive to US strategy in the Baghdad area. While it may not be entirely welcome to our allies, there have been plenty of opportunities for consultation. The surge in US forces and the draw-down of British forces may not, despite appearances, be all that far apart. The US needs to draw-down, too, but they do not yet have security levels in Baghdad that will allow them to do so. In making any kind of comparison between Basra and Baghdad, we must, however, always and rigorously keep in mind the immense differences between the environments in and around the two cities.
For both the British and the US, there is no remorseless inevitability about any of this: if the situation on the ground deteriorates, the withdrawal can be slowed or even reversed; if it improves, then it can be accelerated.
A third aspect is that the numbers of British troops in Afghanistan seem set to increase. There is no inconsistency here, though one could ask whether some of our Nato allies might carry a larger share of the burden in Afghanistan. It is important to remember that the situations in the two countries are different. In Afghanistan, there is a clear military advantage in introducing more troops. The Taliban are being driven, against perhaps their best interests, to increase their activities in the spring. This surge should be resisted and repulsed, preferably decisively.
The fighting between Nato forces and the Taliban in the Kandahar region last autumn, in which British forces took a leading part, was ferocious, persistent and, in the words of General David Richards, the Nato commander, 'a very close run thing'. It was not a skirmish, it was a large, conventional battle. Nato was perhaps denied a decisive victory for the lack of not much more than a battalion of well-trained troops in reserve.
So sending more troops to Afghanistan is a means of changing what was a damaging shortfall into an opportunity to move decisively towards achieving the campaign's aims.
For some time, the Ministry of Defence has been aware that maintaining current troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan for the medium to long term will cause or exacerbate 'overstretch'. But that does not mean that a reinforcement of British forces in Afghanistan and a reduction in Iraq cannot proceed together if it offers the allies more time to bring forward their own additional numbers. In modern operations, for example in Iraq, the military only play a part in achieving campaign aims. They provide the security in which the various agencies, police, engineers and NGOs can make their expert contribution.
Such an environment, though vital and desirable, can be frustrating for front-line soldiers. In Afghanistan, British forces know they still have a substantial military task. There is an enemy which, though elusive, resilient and determined, has to be defeated militarily before much progress can be made towards reconstruction. There are real prospects of winning the 'hearts and minds' of the population. Though the casualties are agonising, they are a reality to troops deployed there. I am repeatedly told that morale is high and durable. The soldiers have a job to do and, provided they are properly resourced and supported out there and back home, they will want to continue to do the job.
One final point. The Secretary of State has described operations in Afghanistan as 'a noble cause' and has attracted some criticism for that. I think he is right. As long as we at home want our forces to continue to put their lives at risk in the plains and hills of Afghanistan, and if we believe that it is for the good of that much-damaged country, then 'a noble cause' is a fitting and vivid title for it.
· Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold is director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, Whitehall, London.