Friday, 18 September 2009

Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown fire blanks in Afghanistan

We are at a moment in time, according to the article by Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown in today's Guardian, where we have reached the last chance saloon in Afghanistan. I disagree. That moment in time passed by long ago.
Even so, having recognised this is the case, it may well be that the course of action they suggest is not implemented, and the consequence of that will be that the Liberal Democrats will then support a policy of withdrawing our troops sometime soon, maybe before the next general election.
As a policy change, that will be a big improvement, and another reason to vote Lib Dem.
Dealing with the situation as it is today, we need to consider the main drivers of Lib Dem policy.
Paddy Ashdown is held in very high regard by the party, and fully deserves to be. Not just for being leader of the party, taking over at a very difficult time just after the merger fiasco between the Liberals and the SDP. Much more significant was his remarkable success in Bosnia. What he acheived there was simply astonishing.
On the other hand, he also supported the British participation in the war in Iraq, probably the biggest foreign policy blunder in living memory. At a fringe meeting Ashdown did have the humility to admit that "we were right" and "he was wrong" on this issue. I have tremendous respect for the courage it took him to say that.
But did he learn the right lessons? It is true that at previous fringe meetings on Afghanistan Ashdown was very clear about the need to limit expectations about what can realistically be acheived in Afghanistan.
Yet the hubris is still there. By no means some grand neo-Conservative design, but the ability of Westerners to occupy a country that is culturally as different from us as can be, and yet "win the hearts and minds" of the people who live there is not only highly unlikely, it is not happening either.
The person who is speaking the most sense on Afghanistan is oddly enough a Tory. I would love to see a debate between Rory Stewart and Paddy Ashdown on Afghanistan. Rory makes his case very well in this video;
Paddy Ashdown has always been passionate about foreign policy, and that is entirely how it should be for a Liberal Democrat leader.
Nick Clegg has also been passionate on foreign policy, and made it a major part of his leader's speeches in the past. It is clear he agrees with Paddy Ashdown and it is fair enough that he draws on his advice given that is so. I for one would like to see a much higher profile from the Liberal Democrats on foreign policy than it does at present, although it would help if I agree with them first of course...
The question I would like to ask of course is why is it that Nick and Paddy are so determined that the British should continue to participate in this doomed policy?
Partly it is because with some reservations, the Lib Dems supported the war in Afghanistan in order to destroy Al-Qaeda. "Doing nothing" did not seem an option at the time, just after 911, and there is little to commend being a "fair weather friend". There is also a sense that we have a moral obligation to the Afghani people to marginalise Al-Qaeda, and most importantly of all there is huge concern about the knock on effects in the region, and Pakistan in particular. Finally it is the message that will be sent out to the region, the loss of power of the west to influence the region, a signal that being anti-West no longer has a price attached.
The problem with the first part; our support of the US to invade Afghanistan in the first place, is that we failed then to have our own foreign policy. The foreign policy of the UK was whatever the foreign policy of the US was. In fact this failure continues to this very day, regardless of whether the president of the US is Republican or Democrat. We simply agree with them.
The US does not expect to have to negotiate with it's allies what it's foreign policy should be, in which case we do not have to agree with them. We ought to insist that we have a clear set of objectives, a timeline for acheiving them and a plan B if the policy is doing more harm than good. Plan B might be simply to abandon the policy. There is no point in us being loyal to the US if it means being lumbered with a policy that is not working.
Ashdown and Clegg seem to think that the US/UK occupation is what is holding back the Taliban in Afganistan. Yet at the same time the momentum behind the Taliban is unstoppable. In fact a better explanation is that it is our occupation that is causing the support for the Taliban to increase. As Rory Stewart says, whatever moral obligations we have to the Afghani people, we are not morally obliged to deliver what we cannot acheive.
Likewise Ashdown has claimed that a victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan will mean that the government of Pakistan will inevitably fall. This of course is a nightmarish scenario given Pakistan is a nuclear power. There is a real danger that this could happen, but the question here is what would cause it? Again it is the occupation of Afghanistan that is driving the Taliban into Pakistan making it a more unstable country as a result. In other words the proposed solution is causing the problem to get worse.
Finally the message to the region cannot be avoided. The west is losing it's power in the world, especially after the collapse of the Washington Concensus (WC) economic order. It will be humiliating for the west to send that message, but we have no choice.
The new world order will be multipolar. The anglo-US model of economic development will diminish. Expectations behind foreign policy objectives will have to be reset.
To some extent that has already happened. Prior to the war in Iraq, the US/UK were fighting many wars. Since then, no new wars have been started by the west and noone expects us to get involved in any soon.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, what should we do? Rory Stewart points out that there are some parts that do not want to run by the Taliban. The Shias in the west and the Tajiks in the north are examples of that. Maybe a limited presence can help them, especially when you consider the Taliban never run the whole of the country before when they were in power. Even so, there is a danger of a civil war if we do that.
So we should withdraw from most of the country at least, and adjust of foreign policy objectives accordingly. It may well be the case that democracy in Pakistan will continue for the forseeable future, and it is important that will help them acheive that. At this moment in time it is not clear why a radical take over in that country would be inevitable if the Taliban take over in Afghanistan. There are other factors that might drive this eventuality as well, and we have to mitigate those. A just peace in Israel and a just settlement in Kashmir would be helpful for example, albeit hard to acheive.
It is disappointing the Lib Dems do not have a better policy on Afghanistan, and I would rather wait until after the next general election before I would want to press on this issue. The policy may improve of it's own accord anyway.
Lets hope so.