Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Withdrawl From Afghanistan Needs Nato Collective Decision
Corriere della Sera - September 19 2009

In Britain, we have become accustomed to the deaths of our soldiers, in Afghanistan like in Iraq. Even so, the death of six in a suicide attack in Kabul would still be a very big and shocking story, just as in Italy, and rightly so. But the reaction to it would, I think, be a little different.

            One reason, of course, is the British military tradition. Alongside France, Britain is the European country that is most comfortable, even proud, with the idea of sending its military abroad to fight and sometimes to die. The public accepts that the purpose of an army is to fight, and that fighting is dangerous. Nevertheless, although casualties do not cause big political arguments they are taken seriously. Tony Blair introduced the practice, when he was prime minister, of having the names of every dead soldier read out in Parliament. And when the soldiers’ bodies are flown home, the small town near the air base that is used, Wootton Bassett, holds a parade for every dead soldier that is driven through the town, with the street packed with ordinary people paying their respects.

            The second reason for Britain’s different reaction lies in politics. As we have two big political parties, and as each expects to form a government soon, leading politicians are reluctant to make a big fuss about military casualties in case they will be responsible next month or next year. So the attitude is bipartisan. Moreover, because the military forces are highly respected, it is considered bad political practice to criticise their deployment while other soldiers are still in danger.

            The war in Afghanistan has never actually been popular in Britain, but it was always more widely accepted than the war in Iraq. More than 200 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. Opinion polls show an increasing number of people are sceptical about whether Britain should keep on sending troops there, and an increasing proportion who favour a withdrawal. With every further death, that sentiment rises even more.

            Still, a British withdrawal is extremely unlikely, and is not yet a subject of serious political discussion. Britain will have a general election sometime before June 2010, but Afghanistan is not expected to play a major role in the vote. Partly, this is because of the political bipartisanship I mentioned earlier, and because the expected winners are the Conservative Party, which is traditionally close to the armed forces. Mainly, however, it is because both politicians and the public realise that Britain’s deployment of troops in Afghanistan is not a national decision but forms part of an alliance. And not just an alliance with the United States but within NATO.

            The essence of NATO is collective security: the promise to come to each others’ defence when any member is in danger. That collective principle should also encompass decisions to send NATO missions to other countries, such as former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or Afghanistan now. A country such as Britain, Italy or Germany should not just decide on its own whether or not to withdraw: it should and must be a collective decision. In Afghanistan, that essentially means that the key question is not whether too many Italian or British soldiers are dying, it is whether or not the overall NATO strategy, led by the United States, makes sense and is sustainable.

            That is a real question, as President Barack Obama and his commander in the field, General Stanley McChrystal, know very well. The war in Afghanistan has not been going well. The Taliban (which really means a wide range of insurgents and warlords, sometimes acting for religious motives but often just for power and money) has been gaining strength in the past two years. The NATO forces have had some success this year in regaining control of southern Afghanistan, though often with too many civilian casualties and without bringing real stability to the people and the promise of prosperity.

Allies must and should play their part in answering the question of how long and in what numbers to remain in Afghanistan, just as they have played a pretty full part in planning and directing the deployments that have occurred during the past eight years—not always harmoniously, not always smoothly (given arguments over failures to supply enough equipment, especially helicopters, and over which countries’ soldiers should go to fight in the most dangerous parts of the country. But just to react to adversity by withdrawing soldiers unilaterally would be an insult to the alliance itself. In fact, it would be a deliberate attempt to try to destroy NATO.  It might even succeed.


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