Nov 26, 2008

World - Will Afghanistan spoil the Brown-Obama party

Hasan Suroor

Even before the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election has fully subsided, Afghanistan is already being flagged up by analysts as a potential diplomatic flashpoint in Britain’s relations with the incoming American administration.

There are fears that Mr. Obama’s planned “surge” of American forces in Afghanistan could increase pressure on Britain to commit more troops as he seeks to bolster the faltering Nato mission there. This is something that Britain has been resisting on grounds that its military is already “over-stretched” and struggling to fight on two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan) simultaneously.

Britain’s military top brass is dead against sending more troops and the Ministry of Defence has made clear that, for now, it has no plans to top up the existing 8,000-strong force there.

The Pentagon is reported to have suggested that the 4,000 troops that Britain is expected to withdraw from Iraq next year could be diverted to Afghanistan but it has met with fierce opposition from Britain’s military leadership. And both the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and the head of the army Sir Richard Dannatt have come out strongly against moving troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Sir Jock has warned that he would oppose any such request from the Obama administration saying that Britain is already shouldering more than its fair share of the burden and it is time for other Nato allies to pitch in.

“In the context of what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are shouldering a burden which is more than we are able to shoulder in the long term, so we expect the others to take up their share of that burden,” he told the BBC.

Almost paraphrasing the same argument, Sir Richard said in an interview to The Telegraph that the army was not in a position to take on more responsibility.

“The reason the army has been under such pressure for the past three years is that we are committed to fighting two wars when we are only structured to fight one. If we were to move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, we would simply replicate the problems,” he argued.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband too agrees that it would be asking Britain too much to commit more troops in Afghanistan and is on record saying: “As the second-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan, the first thing we say is that we don’t want to bear an unfair share of the burden.”

Crucially, he also questioned the assumption that a military surge alone is the answer to the Afghanistan imbroglio.

“It needs to be an approach that combines a serious security presence with the development of the country ... It’s got to be a civilian surge as well as a military surge. That is the lesson from Iraq as well as Afghanistan,” he said echoing Sir Jock’s jibe that that he got “a little nervous when people use the word ‘surge’ as if this were some sort of panacea.”

The view that Britain is making a “disproportionate contribution,” as the shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague put, is widely held — the subtext being that other Nato nations are not pulling their full weight and that while Britain is constantly asked to take on more burden others get away with it. And there’s some truth in it. For the brunt of the fighting, mostly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, has been borne by Britain and a handful of other countries, while others including Germany and France — based in the country’s “relatively safe north,” as the BBC pointed out — have avoided hazardous operations.

But, then, Britain has only itself to blame for its “over-commitment.” While other countries decided on the level and nature of their military involvement in Afghanistan after much deliberation—and, especially, taking public opinion into account—Britain, under Tony Blair, went headlong into it to please his pal George W. Bush despite warnings that they could be in it for a long haul. So, in a sense, Britain has been a victim of its own misplaced enthusiasm and there’s no point trying to play the martyr.

Even now, despite strong opposition from the top military establishment and the foreign office, there is every possibility that when the push from Washington comes to a shove, Britain’s political leadership might just keel over to keep the new President in good humour.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hoping to be among the first world leaders (if not the first) to host Mr Obama after he takes over as President. The buzz is that this is what really lies behind his bid to hold a summit of G20 leaders in London next April to discuss the economic crisis. It would also give him an opportunity to burnish his image as a world statesman after his high-profile intervention at the recent Washington summit.

But in what conspiracy theorists regard as an attempt to steal his thunder, Mr Brown’s old boss, Tony Blair, has joined hands with the French President Nicholas Sarkozy to host an international conference on precisely the same subject — to look for “concrete solutions” to the economic meltdown — in January. There’s much speculation whether Mr. Brown would attend the Paris meet. His aides are reported as saying that it would depend on his “diary” commitments at the time.

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…And lastly, a recession-inspired joke doing the rounds on the comedy circuit: “Question: What’s the difference between a banker and a pigeon?”

“Answer: A pigeon can still make a deposit on a Ferrari!”

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