By Daryoush Bavar
Britain's incoming Army Chief, General David Richards has stirred controversy by saying that his country's mission in Afghanistan could last for up to 40 years. In an interview with the Times newspaper that was published on August 8, General Richards, who will take up his post as chief of the general staff on August 28 said, "I believe that the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner, development, governance, security sector reform, for the next 30 to 40 years.”
The General's comments came as reports surfaced that three British soldiers had been killed in an ambush in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on August 6.
On August 9, Britain's Ministry of Defense issued another statement confirming the loss of another soldier in Helmand. So far, five UK soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in August, following a record death toll of 22 in July. The fatalities take the UK death toll in Afghanistan to 196 since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban government in October 2001.
Richards, who served as the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan between May 2006 and February 2007, also emphasized that there is absolutely no chance of NATO pulling out from Afghanistan. "Just as in Iraq, it is our route out militarily, but the Afghan people and our opponents need to know that this does not mean our abandoning the region," he told the Times.
His remarks drew criticism from some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Shadow Defense Secretary Liam Fox said 30 to 40 years in Afghanistan were "unaffordable" requiring a "total rethink" of British foreign and security policy. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP, Menzies Campbell, said “political opinion in this country will never support a commitment of that length.”
General Richards' remarks echo those by a number of senior British officials. The UK's ambassador to the US, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, told the Boston Globe on August 2 that foreign forces will be engaged in Afghanistan “for decades”.
“We're going to have a very long-term commitment to Afghanistan's future. This is going to be for decades,” Sheinwald said.
“We're going to help them get to a state in which they can ward off the return of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida,” he noted. “That's our strategic objective. We need to avoid the vacuum returning. And that's what this huge effort is about."
And on January 13th, 2008, Defense Secretary Des Browne told the Sun that Britain could be engaged in Afghanistan for decades. "It is a commitment which could last decades, although it will reduce over time," Browne said.
In July 2008, Browne repeated his mantra to the Washington-based Brookings Institute saying that "It will be a longer haul in Afghanistan.” He also said, “Let us acknowledge that this is a long term and challenging enterprise," adding that "We know that in Afghanistan we are engaged in a generational struggle."
The British ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles had also suggested that Britain would have to retain a presence in Afghanistan for 30 years.
The important point missing from the whole plethora of these comments regarding “long-term” and “decades-old” presence in Afghanistan is the country's sovereignty and the right of its people to make a determination in this effect. The comments by British officials leave no role for the Afghans, as if they are non-existent; the comments ignore the desire and the consent of the Afghan people concerning any possible extension of the UK troops' presence in their country.
The UK war in Afghanistan has already cost British taxpayers about $8.5 billion. Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second largest contingent after the US, its staunch ally. Meanwhile, the scenario of a protracted foreign presence in Afghanistan comes at a time when an influential committee of British lawmakers, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said that the international military mission in Afghanistan has delivered “much less than it promised” due to the lack of a realistic strategy. The report, issued on August 1, said the UK had suffered "significant mission creep" since deploying to Afghanistan in 2001.
But can the idea of a protracted Afghan presence be sold to the public in Britain and in other NATO countries? It is highly unlikely because public backing is fraying on both sides of the Atlantic. A survey published in The Independent newspaper on July 28 found that 58 percent of Britons believed the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable and 52 percent wanted all British forces withdrawn from Afghanistan immediately.
On the other side of the Atlantic, people share the same feeling. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that most Americans, 54 per cent, opposed the US-led war in Afghanistan. Compared to the last CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, taken in May 2009, the opposition to the war in Afghanistan was up by 6 points.
Despite the growing opposition, the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in July that the war in Afghanistan was “worth the effort”.
"In terms of the national interests of Great Britain and the national interests of the United States and Europe, it is worth the effort we are making and the sacrifice that is being felt and more will come," Biden told BBC Radio 4's Today program.
In the Netherlands, a poll by Maurice de Hond found that 74 per cent of the Dutch either want to withdraw all soldiers from Afghanistan (31%) or keeping a limited number of soldiers in Afghanistan (43%), while only 20 per cent want to maintain more or less the current role in Afghanistan.
In Italy, a late July 2009 survey published in La Repubblica newspaper found that more than 56 percent of Italians want a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The survey said 22 percent of people surveyed want an immediate withdrawal of troops, while 34 percent favored a gradual withdrawal. And a March 2009 poll revealed that Australians overwhelmingly oppose sending extra troops to Afghanistan. The poll found that only 28 percent of Australians favored reinforcing Canberra's 1,100 troops in the country.
With less than three months to the ninth anniversary of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Washington and its Nato allies are bogged down in the war-torn country, with little prognosis of how to achieve their goals.
During these years, the so-called “coalition of the willing” has failed to destroy the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The conflict is intensifying and it has partly spilled over into the neighboring Pakistan. The strategy set by NATO now seems to be skirting around weakening, rather than destroying, the groups and causing a rift amongst their ranks by talking to the “moderates” with the aim of isolating the extremist elements.
But with the growing public discontent over the war at home and in Afghanistan and a sense that a resolution remains very much far-fetched, the antiwar sentiments might pose serious problems for the NATO countries, especially the US and Britain, who have tied their domestic security to the security in Afghanistan.
The West's shift in focus from the war in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan is looming large in the eyes of the public and is prompting serious questions about whether it is a war worth fighting.
The failure of the US-led mission to prevail in Afghanistan might have prompted Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, to say that “the American strategy in Afghanistan is doomed to fail,” that NATO reinforcements would be counter-productive, and that it would be better to install "an acceptable dictator" in Kabul in the next few years.