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US clarity of strategy required for full explanation on Afghanistan

Posted on 6 November 2009 | 10:11am

Gordon Brown is right today to be setting out – and he should keep setting out – the basic case for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

As Paddy Ashdown said yesterday, this war will not be won or lost militarily, but in the bars, sitting rooms and workplaces of those countries – democracies – who are contributing the soldiers putting their lives at risk.

So the democracies have to be persuaded, again and again, that the sacrifice and bloodshed is worthy of the cause. Not easy against the backdrop of a corrupt and widely discredited Afghan leadership being re-elected. Nor when we know so much of the drugs on our streets comes from there. Nor when an Afghan the British are training turns fire on them and adds to our war dead.

The current situation reminds me of an important moment during the Kosovo crisis when President Clinton and Tony Blair came to the view that however mightier, in military terms, Nato was against Milosevic’s forces, the public opinion battle was being lost, putting the entire strategy at risk.

What’s more, in some ways it was easier to explain Kosovo. Night after night TV was telling the stories of barbarism and butchery as people fled ethnic cleansing in their tens of thousands. Basic human sympathy was also matched by a hard-headed worry among leaders and public alike that today’s refugees would become tomorrow’s additional strain on EU countries like ours.

And even with those factors at play, it was hard enough.

Afghanistan is harder. The memories of 9/11 and 7/7, for many, are not as powerful as they were. The threat to troops on the ground is all too clear. The threat they are seeking to contain – terrorism fostered there then implemented here – is less clear, and when prevented it is invisible, so less easy to explain. The complicated politics of the region, Pakistan’s as well as Afghanistan’s, make it even harder.

But the other recollection I have from Kosovo is that when the explanation is clear, detailed, and co-ordinated across the countries involved, then the public will listen and understand, even when things go wrong.

As in so much else, the US have to take the lead. The decisions President Obama has in his pending tray are about as big as they get for a leader. That explains why he is taking his time.

As I said on a vlog here recently, I think Obama, facing a newly resurgent and pretty vicious Republican Party, is a good man doing a good job, and he deserves continuing support. But it is harder for Britain, and the other countries involved in Afghanistan, properly to explain the situation without the absolute clarity of strategy from the US.

As well as giving leaders space to explain, the public will also give leaders time to reach difficult decisions. But the US strategy needs that real clarity pretty soon. Then, as the military strategy unfolds, there has to be a concerted and internationalised communications strategy alongside it.

Nato v Milosevic, militarily, was like Manchester United against a Conference team. It is the same now, though the Taliban are in some ways an even tougher opponent than the Serbs back then.

But Ashdown is right that public opinion, in the collection of democracies involved, is where the strategy can be derailed.

So GB is right to be out there today, explaining. But it will become a lot easier for him and the other leaders involved when Obama has spoken clearly and definitively on the medium and the long term, and how the objectives for both are to be met.

  • @jlocke13

    the problem is that GB tries to justify the war by saying “it keeps our streets safe” when the electorate knows this is untrue…the real threat comes from inside the UK (all terrorist attacks have been “home grown”) or from places like Pakistan and Somalia…You can protect the UK borders far more cheaply and efficiently by concentrating resources in the UK rather than fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan…The war is unwinnable so it is a matter of when, not if, the troops are pulled out.. what will it take? 500 lives, 1,000 or more? And when will GB go to Wooton Bassett instead of wasting his time making fatuous comments about the X Factor?

  • Malcolm Johnson

    Hope you are right that Obama is deliberating rather than dithering. Of course it is a big call. but making big calls is why the American people put him there. I read today that he will decide within three weeks!! Surely he has had time enough already

  • Patrick McGovern

    You mention three figures from the past – Blair, Clinton and Ashdown. Plus you allude to what you yourself did — I have read The Blair Years — in Kosovo. Could the problem be that in the case of all four of you, with the ‘jury out’ possible exception of Obama, your successors do not have the same skills of leadership and communication?

  • Alison Harvey

    I would not have Obama’s or Gordon’s job for all the poppies in Afghanistan

  • Judith Haire

    Feel completely out of my depth to comment but have one thought: while GB waits for USA to speak, more young lives are going to be lost AND quite needlessly. We all want peace we all knows wars are futile exercises.

  • Em

    It’s been eight years. Eight years. I really don’t think this is about perpetually winning hearts and minds, it IS about the countries themselves and people in bars and restaurant understanding the difference between Kosovo and Afghanistan.

    The communications problem with the public rests not in the way in which the message is being conveyed but in that message not including a time frame for exiting or even a remote precise definition of what needs to be accomplished to call these wars “successful”. Obama has been “dithering”, as Cheney and all the republicans were scripted to say last week, for good reason. Karzai has limited legitimacy and countries should question their involvement when supporting a government that stole the elections.

    Canada is out of Afghanistan in 2011. If we can’t sort this out in ten years, we should move on. Good luck to those who’ll remain behind.

  • Simon Gittins

    If Brown is so adamant that we should remain in Afghanistan then the very least this government should be doing is giving the troops out there their full support. The fact that they aren’t is a disgrace.

  • David

    What an astonishingly blinkered memory some people have. When Afghanistan was run by the Taliban they gave Al Qaeda free range to train and plan their attacks on the the democratic world. Own own home grown terrorists were trained in Pakistan because they had been driven out of Afghanistan. make no mistake, allowing the Taliban to regain control would allow Al Qeada the freedom to plan far more attacks.

  • Jane A

    I know people’s views on this run high, and for every argument for the war there are as many passionately held against. But I agree with the first poster below, who said that it would be better if GB went to Wootten Bassett (or RAF Lyneham) to be present for the consequences of the war, rather than this rubbish X factor commentary, which rings fake, false and insincere. Obama saluting a returning plane of his war dead was a moving moment. Good for him, I wish we did more of the same. And I write as a Labour supporter through and through.