Wednesday 16 September 2009

In the melting pot

The video (below) records a conference organised by the Cato Institute on the general theme of whether the US should withdraw militarily from Afghanistan. In a number of taut, well-presented speeches, the arguments were powerfully put, giving much food for thought.

Unfortunately, Cato has not produced a transcript, but they do have a blog which adds some interesting comments. And the theme set by Cato is very much mirrored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It argues that the growing influence of fanatical Taleban-style groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan has thrown into doubt the value of an expanding war effort, setting out its stall for a reduced military presence.

There now seems to be emerging a clear divide between the foreign policy establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, and the military, the latter represented by US Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who is arguing for more troops and resources.

He is clearly supported by the British military establishment, with Bob Ainsworth speaking for them, rejecting "the proposition [that] a reduced military presence will lead to less Taleban success." Actually, that is not the issue. The strategic threat – which was used to legitimise out intervention – is al Qaeda and not the Taleban. The latter is regarded as a localised problem and, as the conflict develops, increasingly difficult to separate from Pashtun nationalism.

When it comes to al Qaeda, current strategic appreciations suggest that this is no longer a significant issue in Afghanistan and, when it comes to the use of military force, it was never the case that successes against this shadowy, decentralised group have been achieved by massed military might.

We are devoting our resources to fighting the wrong enemy, so the argument goes. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for those who would conduct external terrorist activity does not require a massive "nation-building" exercise in that country.

The drag of Afghanistan, however, was very much on the mind of Ainsworth, who delivered a long speech yesterday to the Centre for Defence Studies and the War Studies Department at King's College. In it, he referred to the forthcoming defence review, pointing up the need to "consider carefully how to apply military force in pursuit of national security."

Noting the obvious, that there are competing demands on the public purse, he went on to say that we will need to be better at spending the money we have, and more rigorous in prioritising what we spend it on. That much was picked up by The Daily Telegraph which also reported Ainsworth's observation that there did not seem to be much public appetite for increased defence spending.

He was, he said, looking for "a serious and wide-ranging national defence debate," inviting the Conservatives and the Liberals Democrats to take part, arguing that defence of the nation should always come before party politics. "We have to be able to reach beyond our political differences and put the interests of the country first," he said.

That is unlikely to happen though, and nor does it look as if we are going to get a serious debate. After Osborne's intervention yesterday he is now accused in The Times of "posturing" on defence cuts. Even a Tory frontbencher was driven to complain that Osborne had been "amateurish". It is very hard to disagree. With virtually every aspect of defence in the melting pot, we need more serious input than what he had to offer.