Kim Howells is wrong on Afghanistan

Former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells is wrong in his analysis of Afghanistan. The withdrawal of UK forces will do more harm than good.

On Tuesday evening, the Guardian carried a piece by Labour MP Kim Howells asserting that the time has come for UK forces to withdraw from Afghanistan and reallocate the resource dedicated to the conflict to an increased security presence in the United Kingdom itself.

Dr Howells’s concern with appropriately focusing the UK’s military and intelligence resources is commendable. His diagnosis, however, is rash, and his prescription is unsupportable.

The essence of his argument is that it would be better to bring home the majority of British soldiers and use the money saved to secure Britain’s borders, gather intelligence on terrorism at home, expand intelligence operations abroad, co-operate with foreign intelligence services and counter terrorist propaganda.

This contention hinges on the argument that “seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan” have failed to destroy Al-Qa’eda, Osama bin Laden or the Taleban, leading him to suggest that the opportunity for success has been “squandered”. He is partially correct in this, given the poor management of a campaign which, were it allowed to continue on the course it has followed for the past eight years, could very easily end in failure.

The problem with his argument is that the United States will almost certainly not follow the course of the past eight years. The Obama administration has for weeks been considering three options: General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to escalate its troop presence, Vice President Joe Biden’s advice to scale-back the Afghan campaign and go after al-Qa’eda in Pakistan, or find a middle ground. More of the same is not an option.

Dr Howells anticipates this by saying he doubts even a US troop increase of 40,000 will have a significant impact. This is not an unreasonable concern, but veers perilously close to similar arguments about the “surge” in Iraq, which many of us thought woefully inadequate. Its success was due not just to the troop increase but to their radically redefined missions, which were shifted from search-and-destroy to population-protection, and to strengthening local security forces – something that must be considered for Afghanistan.

All of which leaves the former Minister in the position of suggesting Britain abandons not an operation that has failed but one about to enter a new phase with a chance of success. He also understates the consequences of his proposals, saying that “relationships with our NATO partners, especially with the Americans – our most trusted and valued allies – would alter fundamentally”.

It would, in effect, announce the UK’s resignation from the diplomatic and military leadership circle of the world. Dr Howells seems perfectly comfortable with this, arguing that the UK should adopt a security posture akin to a kind of isolationism, and a rather authoritarian one at that.

He writes:

“Life inside the UK would have to change. There would be more intrusive surveillance in certain communities, more police officers on the streets, more border officials at harbours and airports, more inspectors of vehicles and vessels entering the country, and a re-examination of arrangements that facilitate the ‘free movement’ of people and products across our frontiers with the rest of the EU.”

This would, he says, be coupled with an increased investment in international intelligence capability – a wholly unrealistic course of action. Dr Howells is essentially arguing that the UK should withdraw from every aspect of international engagement – placing barriers on immigration, trade, and, of course, diplomatic and military engagement abroad – while becoming more engaged in the element of intelligence. This is not impossible. It has been done before – by the KGB. Not only is the comparison unsavory, it is inapt; the KGB’s challenge was to conduct intelligence operations against states, rather than shapeless international networks of non-state actors.

This requires intensive co-operation with other states’ intelligence services, and there is a real question about just how co-operative those agencies would be towards a UK that had decided the best way to fight al-Qa’eda is to abandon Afghanistan on the eve of what could be its last chance of success, to say nothing of adding new restrictions and friction to movement and trade into and out of Britain. It is simply impractical to combat globalised terrorism by rejecting globalisation, which is what Dr Howells’s vision of quasi-isolationism suggests.

He is right to question the future of the UK’s role in Afghanistan, but missing from his discussion is the liability that could reasonably lead to a withdrawal of UK (and US) troops from Afghanistan in a state of failure – the Karzai government. A recent article by a former British officer soundly frames the damage that the corrupt government has done to the NATO mission, concluding that as long as coalition troops are seen as the arm of a Kabul kleptocracy, failure will always be an option.

Any new approach in Afghanistan must include a concerted effort to strengthen Afghani institutions and must address the mess created by the recent fraudulent election. Britain can and should play a role in Afghanistan’s future, predicated on a change of strategy by the United States based on a new mission for NATO troops and a commitment to finding an alternative to the corrupt and weak national government, rather than backing away from the table before the last card has been played.

Our guest writer is Frank Spring, a US-based foreign policy analyst

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