Afghan 'mission accomplished': Cameron's hostage to fortune
Brave talk cannot hide the risk of Afghanistan being a hub for resurgent al-Qaeda groups
WITHOUT a flicker of irony, David Cameron agreed with a journalist yesterday that British troops could quit Afghanistan next year with a sense of "mission accomplished". This was quickly modified by Downing Street to "job done".
But the fatal phrase was already out. It brought immediate memories of President George W Bush in his National Guard bomber jacket proclaiming from the decks of the aircraft carrier Lincoln "mission accomplished" for the US troops in Iraq.
The Americans had not yet been in the country for two months, and the real fighting of insurgency, civil war and the continuing al-Qaeda campaign had not really begun.
Prime Minister Cameron on a pre-Christmas visit to Camp Bastion, and President Obama are endeavouring to convince their voters and the world at large that the international mission to Afghanistan has brought "enough" security for the Afghans to be able to cope on their own from the end of next year.
Cameron is hoping that things will run reasonably well until the last main British force of two or three thousand flies out of Camp Bastion in the Helmand desert next autumn. He doesn't want awkward questions about the British record in Afghanistan - the achievements, the expenditure in lives and money - when he campaigns for re-election in 2015.
It's a huge leap of faith to believe that he can achieve closure on Afghanistan in a year from now. There have been achievements for sure, but there are strong indications that 2014 is going to be a bumpy ride in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.
Much will depend on the national elections due in April and May, and whether a stable enough government can be formed to strike the deal with the Americans and other allies about stationing around 15,000 international troops for training and counter-terrorism support in the following years.
The last presidential elections of 2009 were chaotic, bloody and corrupt, tarnishing the reputation of Hamid Karzai, who eventually was returned for a second term. Next April the constitution forbids him from running for a third term.
So far, Karzai has failed to choose a successor, though one of his brothers is among the 12 candidates now vying for the presidential slate. Most are the usual suspects, such as the former foreign minister and candidate of the Northern Alliance, Abdullah Abdullah. None looks the obvious man to unite the country as it faces a future without the huge military and aid assistance of the United States.
By postponing until after the elections the Bilateral Security Agreement by which the US leaves behind training and security specialists, Karzai risks Washington losing patience altogether. The Americans could attempt to run their counter-terrorist operations without a presence of their forces in Afghanistan.
This could be disastrous for Karzai's successors who know they need a subsidy of $4 billion a year for the next ten years to keep the present Afghan Security Forces of the army and police at anywhere near their present strength.
This would have to come from the US and the European allies. But no US administration is likely to stump up more than $2 billion - roughly the annual subsidy given to Israel - for whoever claims to hold power in Kabul.
For the British there is the strange story of Helmand - the biggest opium poppy growing province in the world. The latest UN reports say the acreage and yield is going up.
The British arrived in 2006 with a very mixed menu of tasks, which ranged from community and nation-building, education and health, to training women and eradicating drugs - a project close to the heart of Tony Blair.
In May 2006 they tried to do it all with a force of about 2,500 combat troops. It was to take some 30,000 international troops, including 20,000 US Marines, to achieve any semblance of stability in the central agricultural zone.
The British didn't have the resources, manpower, money or time to carry out the tasks the politicians set them. In terms of education and regeneration in the three commercial centres, there has been progress. But the Taliban are still around and the poppy remains the number one cash crop.
There is a need now for some inquiry into how and why the British sent tens of thousands to troops to Helmand from 2006 to 2014, spent nearly £10 billion on the Afghan mission, lost 445 soldiers killed and many more wounded and damaged.
But David Cameron will resist this. He knows he has to publish the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq, however edited and censored, just months before the UK general election. He doesn't want a row about an Afghanistan inquiry at the same time. That is why he was bigging up the British achievement during yesterday's visit.
But the brave talk cannot banish the spectre of Afghanistan returning to be a hub for resurgent al-Qaeda groups, funded by the burgeoning narco economy.
Afghanistan is going to be on the terrorism and security radar of the world, the UK especially, for a good time to come, however the Nato leaders try to spin it. ·