The Strategic Defence Review was supposed to underpin a thoughtful and civilised discussion over the future capabilities of Britain’s armed forces. Instead, the Government’s drive to slash budgets as soon as possible has spawned a wave of unseemly bickering as military chiefs scrap over which branch of the services should be gutted.
The Government needs to back off – and it’s not just because compiling a review at breakneck speed and forcing decisions off the back of it is a formula for waste and insecurity. Even if the data is unimpeachable and well considered, the sad truth is our military chiefs are in no frame of mind to decide what kind of wars we will be fighting in future – not when they have yet to come to terms with the one we are fighting right now.
The MoD and our political leaders insist our troops are waging a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. In fact, they are embroiled in an ongoing civil war – one in which Britain, through its participation in NATO, has taken sides. The distinction between civil war and insurgency is not pedantic; it is crucial for gauging the chances of success. A foreign force waging a counter-insurgency can dominate its areas of operations by winning the hearts and minds of civilians. NATO troops fighting in the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern Afghan provinces have no hope of gaining the support of the local population because NATO has allied itself with the former commanders of the Northern Alliance – the mortal enemies of the Pashtun.
The fiction of counter-insurgency not only explains why the most advanced military on the planet has failed to defeat a bunch of rag-tag guerrillas. It lays bare the fundamental weakness that has clouded the MoD’s thinking on Afghanistan for nine years, a weakness likely to taint any decisions it makes about the future of the British armed forces: namely, the failure to forge an independent post-Cold War identity.
As in the First and Second Gulf Wars, Britain did not deploy troops to Afghanistan because sovereign territory was under threat or any sense of morality compelled it. We went to war because the United States did. Terrified by the prospect of global irrelevance, our military and political leaders have clung stubbornly to the notion that wherever America goes, Britain must follow. Hence our tendency to jump into military campaigns without considering the consequences or asking whether we have sufficient resources to fight them. The argument that we are in Afghanistan to defend our shores against terrorists is nothing more than bogus propaganda passed down by the Bush Administration. If anything, our involvement has mid-wifed a generation of home-grown Islamic militancy.
It is time our leaders acknowledged that military involvement in Afghanistan has done more to undermine Britain’s standing in the world than enhance it. Indeed, while we have been draining the public coffers to fund our NATO commitment, China has been striking deals to develop Afghanistan’s considerable mineral and fossil-fuel deposits. Despite having never fired a shot in anger in Afghanistan, China is the one foreign power making a killing there. British soldiers may be dying in Afghanistan to secure China’s future prosperity.
It is time Britain stood on its own two feet. That would entail a holistic approach to the nation’s defences; one that encompasses strategic economic investments in mining and energy projects to secure our economic growth as well as defence systems to protect our assets abroad and at home.
In the meantime, we can easily meet the Government’s cost-cutting targets by withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan right now. Not only would that save billions immediately – it would save British lives.