British forces could be committed to a risky role in Afghanistan for years, the Shadow Defence Secretary warns.
By Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Defence Secretary, Telegraph
As the world’s attention focuses on events in Mali, where Britain is rightly making a contribution to an international effort to tackle Islamic militancy, it is also necessary to reflect on Britain’s long-term military commitment to Afghanistan, a country that has hosted a conflict for over a decade.
The UK’s post 2014 effort in Afghanistan could be significant and lasting, and yet we hear little from the Government. In politics it can be the case that focus and energy are directed in inverse proportion to the importance of an issue. This seems true today about Afghanistan, and we need more detail and candour from Ministers to retain the public’s long-term trust and support.
After so many British fatalities and injuries military progress on the ground is significant but not irreversible. The pace of withdrawal, tackling insider attacks, building Afghan Forces and, most importantly, facilitating political reconciliation are amongst essential factors which demand progress but remain characterised by uncertainty.
What will the UK’s military role post 2014 be? The country has been told that UK personnel ‘will not be involved in a combat role’, but detail is lacking. UK Forces may still be embedded with Afghan Forces post 2014, continuing to put themselves in harm’s way. Our Forces will have the task of defending trainers at the Afghan officer training Academy or UK diplomatic and developmental teams. There is an impression that ‘non combat’ means ‘free of danger’, but in fact those who remain post-2014 will continue to be exposed to risk, and risk that has the potential to escalate as transition gathers pace. We must know who will be responsible for our residual Forces’ protection – more important in light of insider attacks – and their rules of engagement.
The size, structure and scope of the post 2014 Force are as yet undefined, but when you take in to account potential logistical support, trainers, mentors and force protection it could be significant. Some uncertainty may be unavoidable at this stage, but we know that the UK will be making an active military contribution for a number of years. Ministers need to start being more frank about what this entails.
With regard to military hardware beyond 2014, we support the Government’s efforts to extract and transfer equipment back home and its integration in to our domestic equipment programme. Armoured vehicles may be left behind, as they were in Iraq, but to date there are very few answers on the overall future contingent capability required by Afghan Forces, who will provide it and at what cost.
For example, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) is one of the most important capabilities in warfare, especially in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. Equally, Afghan Forces will require an airbridge to move around the country’s 250,000 square miles. Afghan Forces do not have the equipment or skills, however, to retain the tactical advantages NATO forces currently enjoy. The Defence Secretary has ruled out drone strikes, a potentially effective way of giving Afghan Forces strategic advantage while protecting UK personnel, but could there be fast jet or helicopter support provided by NATO or other coalitions of the capable?
We have had no word on what will be provided by the NATO or regional partners, but the UK role in such a contribution must be detailed, with implications for taxpayers and service personnel outlined.
Labour supports a commitment to Afghanistan which encompasses defence, development and diplomatic efforts to secure lasting stability, but we must take the country with us. Amidst all the talk of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan there is another country where then public must also be continually persuaded – the UK. It may be an unusual thing for an Opposition politician to say, but the Government must now articulate its plans with conviction and clarity: it’s in two countries’ interests for them to do so.