We are leaving, and that is a very difficult and painful fact. We are not leaving entirely, but we are leaving combat operations, as the Prime Minister has made clear. It is the correct decision, but it has troubling implications, because the underlying logic is that we will cease combat operations by the end of 2014 even if human rights are not established, even if al-Qaeda is not defeated and even if the Taliban are not defeated. Why is this difficult? It is difficult because the military, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, fundamentally do not agree.
I have calculated that I have been in and out of Afghanistan 57 times since 2001, and consistently every general has said, “It’s been a tough situation but we have a new strategic plan requiring new resources, and this year will be the decisive year.” It was said in 2003 by General McNeill; General Barno said in 2004 said that that would be the decisive year; General Abizaid also said 2004 would be the decisive year; 2005 was described by General Richards, now Chief of the Defence Staff, as the crunch year for the Taliban; 2006 was described by General McNeill, returning, as the decisive year; 2007 was described by General McKiernan as the decisive year; at the end of 2008, General Stanley McChrystal said that they were knee-deep into the decisive year, and this was echoed by General Petraeus in 2009; our former Foreign Secretary described 2010 as the decisive year; and 2011 was described by Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, as the decisive year.
Why is it difficult to challenge the military orthodoxy? It is difficult for real and moving reasons. It is difficult because we have lost a lot of people—we have lost a lot of lives and spent a lot of money; it is difficult because we have made promises to the Afghan people; and it is difficult because we have developed great fears about Afghanistan, fears about our own national security, fears about Pakistan and fears about our credibility and reputation in the world.
Therefore, when a politician meets a general with a row of medals on his chest, coming in and saying, “Just give me another two years”—exactly what General Petraeus is saying at the moment—“don’t drop the troop levels, and we can guarantee that we will reach a situation where the Taliban will never be able to come back,” it is very difficult to disagree.
Withdrawing is the most difficult thing. In Vietnam, and in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, more troops were lost after the decision to withdraw than in the entire period leading up to the decision. By 1968, the United States had come out of an election determined to withdraw from Vietnam, and Henry Kissinger was obsessed, as we are now, with a political settlement with the enemy. He begged the North Vietnamese to give him the political terms that would allow him to withdraw with honour.
After Gorbachev made the decision to leave Afghanistan in 1986, more Soviet troops were committed to a surge and more Soviet troops were killed, because of the real problems of fear, credibility and loss. So the Prime Minister is absolutely right to set a firm date for withdrawal.
Let us hope that by the end of 2014 we have achieved the things that we are looking for. Let us hope—I, too, join in this hope—that the Taliban have been defeated, that al-Qaeda can never again come back, that human rights have been established, that the Afghan Government are credible, effective and legitimate, that the Afghan national army and police are able to look after themselves, and that there is no risk from Pakistan.
Let us hope. I fear that those things may not be achievable, but we need to have the courage to go ahead regardless at the end of 2014. We need to have the courage to say that we must leave at the end of 2014 regardless because—this is the very difficult thing to say—we no longer believe that we are likely to achieve those objectives. If we have not achieved those objectives by the end of 2014 and the general comes back, as Thomas Docherty suggests, and says, “Just give me another two weeks,” or, “Just give me another two months, it’s all going to be fine,” in the end we have to say no.
Why do we not say no? We do not say no because it is horrible—because if I were to stand up in this House, for example, and say, “Afghanistan matters, but there are other countries that matter more,” that, “If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important,” and that, “If we are worried about regional stability, Egypt is more important,” there would immediately be a headline, perhaps in The Sun, declaring “MP says Afghanistan doesn’t matter.” A flag-draped coffin would be produced, and the mother of a veteran would step forward and say, “The suggestion is that they died in vain.”
I met the same situation last week, talking to Afghanistan veterans. A man sitting in the front row was missing both his legs, and somebody in the audience said, “Are you suggesting that we have made no progress? Have you not acknowledged what we have done in Helmand? Have you not seen that the bazaar is now open? Are you suggesting that people died in vain?” We have to learn to say that no single soldier dies in vain, regardless. The courage, commitment and honour of our soldiers is connected to their unit and their regiment, not to the fantasies of politicians. We must pay them every form of honour and respect, but we do not honour dead soldiers by piling more corpses on top of them.
To conclude, it is difficult for Britain to lead a withdrawal from Afghanistan. We need to make it something that acknowledges that Britain’s pride and reputation has never been connected with extreme ideological projects.
We are not a nation of crusades or great ideological wars, but a nation characterised by scepticism, pragmatism and deep country knowledge. If we get the withdrawal right, it will not go down in history as a symbol of ignorance or cowardice, but will represent our wisdom and our courage in sticking to the decision. There should be a realisation that our motto should be and must remain, “Passionate moderation”.