Time to leave Afghanistan: The options & arguments


What does it mean?

British troops would continue trying to secure the central belt of Helmand province, with the aim of fostering development and winning local hearts and minds away from the Taliban. But the rising British toll suggests that the “clear, hold and build” strategy cannot succeed without reinforcements, and President Barack Obama is still weighing the request by Nato’s top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops.

Why should we?

We signed up in 2006 to a comprehensive Nato plan that runs until 2011, and the steady loss of British soldiers obscures the fact that progress is being made, supporters argue. Despite the Taliban’s ability to plant bombs and attack “soft” targets in Kabul, it cannot beat Nato on the battlefield. In many parts of Afghanistan, millions of children are going to school, and drugs destined for British streets are being intercepted.

Why shouldn’t we?

Others say the prime reason for invading Afghanistan was ejecting al-Qa’ida and preventing its Taliban hosts from regaining power, not nation-building. In this respect the recent election has been a disaster: instead of providing the legitimate government essential to a counter-insurgency campaign, it has emphasised that Britain and its allies are yoked to a corrupt and inept president, Hamid Karzai. Mr Brown himself has made clear that we cannot carry on as before.

Will it happen?

The closer we get to Britain’s general election, the greater the pressure on the Prime Minister to get British troops out of harm’s way. His own party will warn him that every death is draining further sympathy and support for a cause few voters sympathise with, let alone understand. Against this will be the urging of Britain’s allies to maintain the stability of Nato, and the desire to preserve our international credibility.

Appeal 1/10

Likelihood 3/10


What does it mean?

No one of any stature is suggesting an immediate “cut and run”. But polls show a growing majority of the British public favouring withdrawal. Pressure could mount for Britain to announce a timetable to quit, rather than waiting for the cumbersome Nato alliance to agree, or for certain conditions to be met. If British forces were to leave Helmand, some replacements – probably US ? would have to be found. There is a precedent for that in southern Iraq.

Why should we?

Many military experts, and serving officers, believe foreign forces are becoming the problem in Afghanistan, rather than the solution. We achieved our primary aim of unseating Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in 2001, they say. Eight years later, shedding ever more blood in pursuit of unachievable goals such as gender equality and full-scale democracy is simply making matters worse. Without even the credible threat of a pullout, they add, there is no pressure on President Karzai to reform.

Why shouldn’t we?

Quitting before the Afghans can defend themselves would betray the people who supported us ? in polls, a majority of Afghans still back the presence of foreign troops ? and give Nato’s enemies a huge propaganda victory, say critics. It would heighten the danger of nuclear-armed Pakistan falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, according to some analysts. Others emphasise that it would cripple Britain’s relationship with its superpower ally, America, before President Obama had completed a year in office. Still others feel the deaths of 260 British men and women so far would have been rendered in vain.

Will it happen?

Mr Brown insisted on Friday that “we cannot, must not and will not walk away”. But he introduced a whisper of uncertainty by saying of the international coalition in Afghanistan: “In the end we will succeed or fail together.” It would take a disaster much worse even than the murder of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman for Britain to pull out unilaterally, but throughout Nato, there is waning enthusiasm for an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan, especially when the government is riddled with factionalism and corruption. That is the main reason Mr Obama’s review of policy is taking so long.

Appeal 7/10

Likelihood 2/10


What does it mean?

We already know that General McChrystal wants to switch the emphasis to protecting the civilian population and reinforcing urban centres, increasing the size of the Afghan army and police, and drastically speeding up their training. It is hard to see that the grim British struggle in Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province but also one of the most thinly populated, plays a central part in this strategy. That could be an opportunity rather than a problem, however.

Why should we?

The Taliban is believed by some experts to be targeting British troops because its leaders know that casualties are politically sensitive in the run-up to an election. If that is true, it could make sense to deprive them of their target, and switch British forces to less dangerous, but equally essential duties ? notably training. Not only would this be more popular at home, but it also would help to secure the long-term presence of British troops in Afghanistan, which is seen as crucial to demonstrate the strength of the Nato alliance. The fight in Helmand could be carried on, to whatever extent is still considered necessary, by US troops, who already face having to replace Dutch and Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan within the next 18 months.

Why shouldn’t we?

Some British commanders might feel that it is “cutting and running” in all but name, and that the Taliban would claim to have driven them out. But those objections were swallowed in southern Iraq. Critics of the Government complain that the military has never been given the resources, such as helicopters, it needs to carry out the tasks it has been assigned. One way of standing that argument on its head, though, would be to give British forces a new mission.

Will it happen?

Reconfiguring the British presence in Afghanistan would be expensive ? not something any government wants to hear before an election, especially one taking place in the midst of an economic storm. But a respite for British troops from the constant stream of fatal explosions, punctuated with horrors like last week’s police killings, could be as welcome among their commanders as it would be in Downing Street. General McChrystal, we are told, is clear that a face-saving repurposing of British forces in Afghanistan should be an essential part of his proposals.

Appeal 2/10

Likelihood 5/10

The experts’ view

The IoS asked these key figures the crucial question at the heart of the debate: does Britain’s presence in Helmand mean our streets are safer?

“There’s no evidence for the streets in Britain being safer now, but things are a lot worse for an awful lot of Afghan people. There’s no option but to withdraw, and the sooner we come to terms with that the better”

Louise Christian; Human rights lawyer

“The public don’t believe the streets are safer. There is a jihadist front that regards Afghanistan as the place to win a strategic victory against the West. We can’t win by winning, but we can lose by losing”

Professor Michael Clarke; Director, Royal United Services Institute

“The streets are safer because at least al-Qa’ida no longer has a fully paid-up base, but it hasn’t solved the problem. Are we going to do any good by staying on there? It’s a great muddle at the moment”

General Sir Hugh Beach; Defence policy adviser

“The idea that it’s about our streets being safer is an insult to our intelligence. The core Taliban leadership is not interested in attacking the West ? it just wants to establish its own utopia”

James Fergusson; Author, A Million Bullets

“The streets are slightly safer because we did initially set al-Qa’ida back and they have been marginalised. I have a feeling that we want one big, last heave so that we can hand over to some indigenous forces”

Lord Bramall; Former Chief of the General Staff

“It’s difficult to quantify whether Britain’s streets are safer. If we pull out and Afghanistan went completely pear-shaped, you would increase the pressure on Pakistan with its terrorist problem”

Major-General Julian Thompson; Former Commander the Royal Marines

“I am not sure any more. The US’s national security adviser said there are fewer than 100 al-Qa’ida operatives in Afghanistan, MI5 has suggested that there are 2,000 people of ‘special interest’ in the UK”

Colonel Bob Stewart; Former UN Commander

“The way that the operations in Afghanistan affect British streets has changed: it’s more complicated now. The threat to the UK is no longer a plot hatched in Afghanistan; it’s more likely to be hatched in Waziristan”

Michael Semple Carr; Center for Human Rights Policy

“Conventional military operations in Afghanistan have a peripheral effect on internal or homeland security. I do believe our streets are safer because of our police and security forces”

Patrick Mercer; MP Chair, counterterrorism sub-committee

“I think the streets of Britain are safer ? largely thanks to the police and MI5. What we will never know is whether our troops being in Afghanistan have encouraged more plots on British soil”

Colonel Clive Fairweather; Former commander SAS

“Britain is probably as safe as it was before. I think we have more enemies than we did at the start of the invasion. We have to live with an intensified security package as a result of al-Qa’ida”

Michael Griffin; Author, Reaping the Whirlwind

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