Afghan murders ‘strike heart of UK strategy’

Author: By Gavin Cordon and Andrew Woodcock, Press Association

Kim Howells, who now chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, said the
incident in the Nad-e’Ali district of Helmand province yesterday undermined
the British and US strategy of building up the Afghan security forces.

“There are many people who have argued that there is only one way out of this
for Britain and America and that is to train up the Afghan army and police
force so that they can become responsible for their own security,” he told
the BBC.

“This is a real blow because it strikes right at the heart of that policy.”

Earlier, Dr Howells broke with Government policy by calling for the phased
withdrawal of British troops, arguing that the money would be better spent
on police and security measures to prevent al Qaida terror attacks in the UK.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, however, insisted it was essential that the
country stood firm behind the Afghan mission.

“It continues to be a difficult year in Afghanistan for our brave people who
are operating within the most challenging area of the country,” he said.

“We owe it to them to show the resolve that they exhibit every day in building
security and stability in Afghanistan and protecting the UK from the threat
of terrorism.”

In an article for The Guardian, Dr Howells acknowledged that his Fortress
Britain strategy would inevitably involve “more intrusive surveillance in
certain communities” – thought to be a reference to Britain’s Muslim
population.

But eight years after the invasion which ousted the Taliban government, he
said public support for the war is waning, while even the 40,000-strong
troop surge reportedly being planned by US President Barack Obama would not
be enough to defeat the militias.

The Pontypridd MP, who was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan while
at the Foreign Office from 2005-08, insisted that he was speaking personally
and not on behalf of the ISC, which is appointed by the Prime Minister and
reports directly to him.

But questions will be asked over whether his views reflect concerns within the
intelligence community with which his current post gives him regular contact.

Questioning the focus on the creation of a stable democracy in Afghanistan as
a means of protecting Britain, Dr Howells noted that al Qaida was capable of
establishing terror training camps elsewhere in the world.

And he said the threat it poses – particularly in the run-up to the 2012
Olympics in London – could be better countered by tightening Britain’s
borders and stepping up the work of the police and intelligence services.

He said: “It is time to ask whether the fight against those who are intent on
murdering British citizens might better be served by diverting into the work
of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the
additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining
British forces in Afghanistan.

“It would be better, in other words, to bring home the great majority of our
fighting men and women and concentrate on using the money saved to secure
our own borders, gather intelligence on terrorist activities inside Britain,
expand our intelligence operations abroad, co-operate with foreign
intelligence services, and counter the propaganda of those who encourage
terrorism.”

Dr Howells said the international military involvement in Afghanistan had
“subdued” al Qaida’s activities, but failed to destroy the organisation,
detain its leader Osama bin Laden or eliminate its Taliban protectors.

“There can be no guarantee that the next seven years will bring significantly
greater success and, even if they do, it is salutary to remember that
Afghanistan has never been the sole location of terrorist training camps,”
he said.

His comments come days after Hamid Karzai was confirmed as Afghanistan’s
president, in a move which could clear the way for the deployment of
thousands of additional troops to the country, including 500 from Britain.

But he argued: “I doubt whether the presence, even of another 40,000 American
troops – brave and efficient though they are – will guarantee that the
Taliban and their allies will no longer be able to terrorise and control
significant stretches of countryside, rural communities and key roads.”

And he warned: “Bin Laden, along with his admirers and followers, won’t wait
around for the future of Afghanistan to be resolved. Their preparation and
training for terrorism hasn’t stopped, and Britain has no choice but to
continue to seek out his bombers and those of other terrorist organisations.”

To meet the “mammoth task” of countering al Qaida terror and preventing future
atrocities, Britain’s police, intelligence and border forces will need
larger budgets, which could be funded by scaling back UK involvement in
Afghanistan, argued Dr Howells.

And he concluded: “Sooner rather than later, a properly planned, phased
withdrawal of our forces from Helmand province has to be announced. If it is
an answer that serves, also, to focus the minds of those in the Kabul
government who have shown such a poverty of leadership over the past seven
years, then so much the better.”

Dr Howells acknowledged that withdrawal from Afghanistan would require the UK
to “reinvent ourselves diplomatically and militarily”, renegotiating
international treaties with key allies including the US. And he conceded
that relations with Britain’s Nato partners would be “fundamentally” altered.

Within the UK, citizens would have to accept “more intrusive surveillance in
certain communities, more police officers on the streets, more border
officials at harbours and airports, more inspectors of vehicles and vessels
entering the country, and a re-examination of arrangements that facilitate
the free movement of people and products across our frontiers with the rest
of the EU,” he said.

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