The House voted on the issue of Afghanistan on Thursday. This was the first time there has been a substantive vote on the issue. What it demonstrates is the merit of having a mechanism for the back benches to identify substantive issues to debate. (I speak as a member of the committee that does this).
There are some real difficulties for the government in dealing with this issue. Apart from the fact that it arises as a legacy from the previous government it is also something that has to be resolved through NATO. Although some governments have unilaterally withdrawn I would expect the UK and the US to work jointly on this.
Hence it is not surprising that the government whipped in support of the underlying resolution:"That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan."
I was a teller against this resolution. My concerns fit quite closely with those of Conservative MP and ex-soldier John Baron. Conservative Home
have looked at some of the issues in more details.John Baron's full speech is available here.
John Baron's argument is that the objective of the action in Afghanistan is unclear and keeps changing. Furthermore he is the only person to compare Afghanistan to Malaya. "There can be no doubt in the Chamber that the preparations for our mission in Afghanistan defied all the lessons of history."
"Our involvement ignores the lessons of history on counter-insurgency campaigns. For example, in Malaya and other successful counter-insurgency campaigns, we had control of the borders, a credible Government, the support of the majority of the people and a large number of troops relative to the local population. None of those conditions exist in Afghanistan, but we continue to believe that somehow we will win."
Malaya is important because it is a historical example of success in nation building.
The problem with the NATO strategy in Afghanistan is that we have ended up on one side in what is in essence a civil war. Many of the tribes against NATO are not people who would think of themselves as Taliban. They are simply against the others.
To that extent NATO has created a rod for its own back.
I am pleased that the government has set a deadline although the deadline in itself causes the difficulty in raising the question as to what other tests need to be satisfied before withdrawal. (As in - "If we are going to go by 2015 why not go in 2010").
The problem is that all of the tests that people set such as training the Afghan Army and the like are not established with criteria to define whether the test is passed or fails.
I do not think the current NATO strategy is sustainable. However, I am unsure as to how long it will be before that is recognised. I suppose the current strategy (which is supposed to be slightly different) is going to be given a bit of time to either fail or succeed. I don't think, however, that we can look at Iraq and claim that any particular strategy there was a success.
If you are interested in this issue I suggest at least you read John Baron's speech. The whole debate is also quite a good one. It is also available in video.Video of the debate