Is David Cameron’s Exit Strategy in Afghanistan Destined for Failure?

Afghanistan has once again been the focus of international headlines this week. The country is showing signs of a security and political system deteriorating beyond its already weakened state. On Tuesday the Taliban attacked a hotel in Kabul in a daring night-time raid killing 12 people. Earlier, on the same day, the Kabul authorities issued an arrest warrant for the former Afghanistan Central Bank governor in what is developing into a deeply worrying corruption scandal. Around thirty people also died last weekend in a deadly car bomb attack on a hospital in Logar province. This deterioration raises serious questions about David Cameron’s decision to unconditionally withdraw all UK soldiers from Afghanistan by 2015.

British Troops in Afghanistan

Should David Cameron be so committed to a 2015 troop withdrawal? Photograph: Guardian: Omar Sobhani /Reuters

Soon after he became Prime Minister in May 2010, David Cameron signalled at a G8 summit in Toronto that he wanted all British troops to “come home” from Afghanistan before 2015. Later in the same year NATO members agreed at a summit in Lisbon for a withdrawal date of 2014 to be set. The Afghanistan government under Hamid Karzai also signed up to the plan which was also supported by the Obama administration in the United States. Questions, however, still remained about whether the deadline was subject to change when the situation on the ground was assessed nearer the deadline. While the Secretary General of NATO emphasised conditionality, David Cameron remained adamant in Parliament that it was a “set deadline”.

This approach has seen severe criticism in Whitehall especially amongst defence chiefs and analysts. In March of this year the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a critical report of the Afghanistan campaign. The committee stated that;

“There were no easy choices available to the Government when it came to deciding upon whether to announce a combat withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan. There are undoubtedly risks in pursuing such a strategy, not least that they may embolden the insurgency or encourage a more general perception among the West’s enemies that its foreign policy commitments are wholly at the mercy of domestic public opinion.”

Last week the former Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Stirrup, criticised the timing of Barack Obama’s announcement of a reduction in troop numbers. This was echoed also by another former defence chief General Lord Dannatt who called the strategy “bold but risky”. The announcement is viewed as a political choice rather than strategic with the reduction in troop levels seen as a key platform for Obama’s re-election campaign next year. Dannatt has said that Mr. Cameron should not fall into the same trap and “risk the investment in blood and treasure just for a domestic political agenda”. It is thought that the upcoming Defence Select Committee inquiry into the operations in Afghanistan will also be highly critical of Cameron’s exit strategy.

The deadly attacks in Logar province and in Kabul this week have highlighted that the security situation in and around the capital remains fragile. Logar province, where 30 people died in the hospital bombing, is only a few miles from the capital. Before the surge of US troops it was an area that was infiltrated by Taliban fighters making it extremely unstable. Earlier this month in Wardack Province, to the south of Kabul and another area for the US surge, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the provincial Governor’s office.

In a report this week, The International Crisis Group (ICG) stated that the Taliban is “bolstering its influence in the central-eastern provinces” and security in these regions has steadily declined. This decline is attributed to a burgeoning criminal network of corrupt Afghan officials and insurgency figures. The news that the Afghan Central Bank governor is now wanted for arrest will frustrate western officials who are pumping money into the country. Last year it was discovered that almost $900 million (£565m) had been given in dubious loans that were most likely given as payouts or gifts. The investigation into the fraud by Afghan authorities is seen as a litmus test for Mr. Karzai’s ability to rid the system of corruption. Many US politicians see this episode as proof that the withdrawal strategy is the correct action. The Afghan system is gradually being perceived as beyond reform especially among US Democrats and even some Republicans.

Mr. Cameron and the UK exit strategy may be influenced by the ICG’s gloomy prediction that stabilisation of the country will not be achieved by the deadline set for transition. A key part of the UK and US exit strategy is that Afghan security forces will be able to take effective control of the country. This is vital if the country is to avoid spiralling into another civil-war between different tribal factions. Many who have experience in the country have called an early withdrawal a “folly” that will have severe consequences for Afghanistan and for the UK. The attack on the Intercontinental hotel on Tuesday, which was only resolved by NATO intervention, calls into question whether the Afghan forces can really takeover responsibility for security.

Historically, leaving a country without proper stabilisation has meant an escalation of violence and problems for the future. This was the case when the British withdrew from Aden (now part of Yemen), the US left Vietnam, the French withdrew from Algeria and the Soviets left Afghanistan. Those critical of an unconditional withdrawal are concerned about this more than anything. If we do leave and Afghanistan, again, becomes ravaged by civil-war and instability then what exactly did 374 brave men and women die for? Only time will tell, the events this week will add strength to those who are opposed to leaving the country in 2015. Questions remain about Cameron’s strategy and the debate about potential successes and failures will carry on. One thing is for certain, the UK still has responsibility to the Afghan people to continue its role effectively and wholeheartedly for another four years.

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Posted on July 2, 2011, in Coalition Government, Foreign Affairs, Looking Forward and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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