CONTAINMENT IN AFGHANISTAN – 6 July 2011

Dr Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) has been to Afghanistan on 57 occasions, as he told us. That is 56 occasions more than me. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas about campaigning there. When faced with a deadly insurgency, one has three options: to counter it, to contain it or to quit. We have been trying to counter it and now we are going to quit. It seemed to be the nub of my hon. Friend’s eloquent contribution that those are the only two alternatives.

I believe that NATO’s Afghan strategy has a fatal flaw: the knowledge that however effective our efforts may be, we plan to quit. That signals to the Taliban that they will ultimately win and removes their incentive to negotiate the political deal that we all agree is what must end an insurgency. President Obama and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have set a time limit for the current surge. British troops, as we have heard many times today, will no longer fight after 2014. By then, the Afghans should be self-sufficient. That is the theory, but as we all know, the key question is: ‘What if they are not?’

Is there a third way to be found between full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, which is what the generals have been doing all along, and total withdrawal when the deadlines are reached? In other words, instead of countering or quitting, should we be containing? Some say – and I have heard it said this afternoon – that the long-term use of Special Forces will be enough by itself to underpin a post-surge Afghan Government. That seems to me inherently improbable. As I have argued before, and as I continue to argue – completely unavailingly in the United Kingdom, but perhaps with a degree more resonance on the other side of the Atlantic – what is required when the surge concludes is a Strategic Base and Bridgehead Area, or SBBA, to secure our strategic needs permanently.

There are only two sound reasons for NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan:

The following three objectives, though desirable, are not adequate reasons for our presence in Afghanistan:

Full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, often referred to as ‘war down among the people’, involves micro-management of the threatened society. As such, it enables the pursuit of worthy goals such as those. By contrast, a Strategic Base and Bridgehead Area cannot secure such goals, but it can achieve both of our genuine strategic interests. During the period of grace provided by the surge deployment, an existing base area should be selected, or a new one constructed, in a remote area out of sight and largely out of mind of the Afghan population.

It is often said – in fact, I have lost count of the number of times it has been said – that there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan, and that eventually a political deal must be done. Yet, there is no basis for such a deal under our existing strategy. The deadlines for scaling down and ending our military presence will certainly put pressure on the Afghan Government to compromise with ‘reconcilable’ elements of the Taliban, but they will have the opposite effect on the insurgents. The creation of an impregnable, long-term SBBA would enable pressure to be applied equally on both sides, and would confer many benefits, which I will summarise very briefly.

First, any return of international terrorists could be punished without having to re-invade the country. Secondly, any assistance needed by the Pakistan Government to secure its nuclear arsenal could be provided via the long-term Strategic Base. Thirdly, NATO would be almost completely disengaged from Afghan society, thus removing the constant irritant of a uniformed infidel presence in the towns and countryside.

Fourthly, the ending of micro-management would do away with the need to send Service personnel out on vulnerable patrols, along predictable routes, which can easily be targeted. Fifthly, the balance of political and military forces in Afghanistan would be allowed to find its own level. If the worst happened and the Taliban took over, we would still have the Strategic Base and Bridgehead Area as a safeguard.

Sixthly, the prospect of an SBBA would make it more likely that the Taliban would reach a deal with the Government. If the eventual outcome were nevertheless a more radical regime than NATO would like, that would be a matter for the Afghans alone as long as they offered no support to international terrorists.

Finally, an SBBA could be garrisoned by as many or as few Service personnel as the political and military situation dictated. Too remote to attack, it would be a deterrent to extremism and a bridgehead for easy entry and operations if, regrettably, they become necessary under a policy of containment.

It suits al-Qaeda to embroil us in Muslim states, as it did most calculatedly in Afghanistan in September 2001. That was why, 48 hours before the attacks in America, General Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda. It wanted us to, and knew perfectly well that we would, respond by invading Afghanistan. That was why it removed him.

Costly counter-insurgency cannot be our answer every time our enemies establish a presence in a different country; but there is an alternative to the extremes of micro-management, which is what we have been doing, and total withdrawal, which is what we say we are going to do next. That alternative is containment, and the means of doing it is a Strategic Base and Bridgehead Area.

[For Julian's paper on this subject, INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM – THE CASE FOR CONTAINMENT, in the April 2011 edition of the leading US military journal, JOINT FORCE QUARTERLY, click here.]