Brown must create Afghanistan war cabinet
- Col. Richard Kemp is a former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and the author of Attack State Red, an account of British military operations in Afghanistan published by Penguin. The opinions expressed are his own. -
Disillusionment with the inability of the Kabul administration to govern fairly or to significantly reduce violence played a role in the reportedly low turnout at the polls in Helmand.
It is critical that this changes if we are to avoid another Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army, well trained and equipped, lost heart once the U.S. withdrew, collapsing at the first push, partly because their corrupt and ineffective administration was not worth fighting for.
That an election was held at all in Afghanistan’s most violent province is an achievement. But despite a major operation to drive out the Taliban, the insurgents deterred large numbers of voters. This illustrates just how steep a mountain NATO has to climb. But it does not mean we cannot prevail against them in Helmand.
As President Obama says: “This isn’t a war of choice; it’s a war of necessity.” Home grown British terrorists have only demonstrated an ability to kill our people when they have attended serious training and had face-to-face direction from war-hardened jihadists.
The Al Qaida leadership and their camps were driven into Pakistan in 2001. U.S. pursuit across the border using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes has been remarkably effective, resulting directly in the recent reduction of the UK terrorist threat level.
Al Qaida is not just a “global franchise” but also a solid organization that needs places to meet, to plan and to train terrorists. It cannot all be done on the internet. Substantially unable to function now in Pakistan, the leadership is actively seeking a new base – perhaps in Yemen, Somalia or North Africa. In any of these they would be much more exposed. Their real desire is to return to Afghanistan. NATO forces are preventing that.
But we cannot do it forever. Success equals reducing the insurgency to a level that can be managed by a viable Afghan government backed by a capable security force which can prevent the country becoming a base for attacks on the West including Britain.
How long will this take? The answer to that is how long do we have? The next U.S. election is at the end of 2012 and the patience of the British electorate will have no greater longevity.
Even as I have defined it, we will not achieve success fully in that time-frame. But we must be very clearly succeeding in a way that we are not now. And certainly in the British forces, we cannot continue with anything like the current rate of casualties over that period.
To counter the Taliban’s present devastatingly effective tactics of mines, roadside bombs and booby traps we need better surveillance and better intelligence, achieved in part through greater active support from the local people. We need to control the night as well as the day. While we build the Afghan army, this can only be done with more of our own troops. A lot more.
Casting aside inter-service rivalries, every sinew of strength of the British armed forces must now go into Afghanistan. Even that will not be enough.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown must take close personal direction of this war through a war cabinet that will drive every relevant government department to achieve real progress in the short time we have left. And crucially to communicate our war aims to the British people with fargreater effect.