Last Friday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a major address on Afghanistan here in London. The speech was to mark a major change in British policy meant to refocus British efforts in this war and bring more resources across government to bear. The media did not favorably review the speech in part because it lacked passion and offered no new or persuasive arguments to convince a skeptical public that the effort in Afghanistan was indeed worth the costs.
Brown is in deep political trouble. His ratings are low and there is every indication he and the Labor Party will lose the next election. The release of the Lockerbie bomber to die in Libyan custody has enraged many on both sides of the Atlantic, and rumors of a deal that would lead to a huge economic agreement between Libya and Britain as well as allegations that British doctors may have been paid off in diagnosing Abdelbaset al-Megrahi as having only three months to live have not helped the PM’s standing.
Worse, the day before the address, Eric Joyce, a Labor MP and adviser to the defense minister, resigned on the grounds that British politicians were threatening generals by airing all sorts of dirty linen. The most outrageous of these charges inferred that ministers were about to invent damaging stories about the daughter of the new army chief in her capacity working for Conservative leader David Cameron and charge him with being a “Tory” general. Number 10 promptly squashed these stories. To a cynical public, however, Joyce’s resignation was further evidence of a government in disarray.
That said, the prime minister’s intent for Afghanistan is critical. With a new American administration now in the process of implementing a new strategy, the allies must be asked to assess their contributions given that conditions in Afghanistan are serious and are deteriorating not only militarily but more significantly in terms of governance and development of Afghan society and its standard of living. That is what Brown was trying to do.
Unfortunately, actual collaboration between the United States and Britain in creating the new strategy has been slim, unlike World War II when Roosevelt and Churchill (and later Stalin) held many robust discussions over strategy and winning the war in the Atlantic and Pacific. The Americans have dominated this process in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Britain has regarded itself very much as the junior partner. Brown should consider changing that perception by offering some stronger advice.
First, not only must the training of the Afghan military and police be rapidly accelerated. That training must be done in Afghan terms and in the Afghan context and not how the West fields its security forces. Certainly, in the longer term, Afghanistan can move to a more advanced, Western-style army. But for now, getting more soldiers on the ground and police on the beat is crucial.
Second, because in many ways Britain has a “special” relationship with India and Pakistan, it along with the United States and other partners can begin to force both those states to begin some sort of negotiation that will lower the tensions and animosities and that ultimately will allow the Pakistanis to worry less about the threat to the east posed by India and concentrate more on the existential threat from the northwest in the form of the insurgencies. Even the start of such discussions will bring positive progress.
Third, Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be pressured or convinced that his government needs stronger leadership and discipline. Whether that would be through a prime minister or chief executive officer, Kabul has been incapable of governing. Unless that changes, no military force will be sufficient to turn the tide.
And if Brown were to throw another recommendation into play, it would be focusing and narrowing the Afghan Development Zones around the major cities to increase trade and create jobs that over time could be expanded outwards to the rest of the country.
No doubt the Labor Party is transfixed with the coming election most likely to take place next May and reversing a large Conservative lead. Brown must also be aware of the need to frame some sort of a legacy as well as make sure Britain does all in its power to contribute to success in Afghanistan. That he has failed to do so in the past does not mean he should not make the attempt now.
And from the U.S. side, Washington needs to know it does not have all of the answers either. Excluding the allies from much or most of the decision-making may be easier. But stimulating a wider ranging debate on the way ahead with the allies is likely to lead to better solutions.