16 Dec 2013

Afghanistan: mission accomplished?

David Cameron was answering a question from a Sun reporter on his trip to Afghanistan. Do British forces return with “mission accomplished?” He replied: “Yes, I think they do.”

He then engaged with the premise repeatedly talking about the “mission.”

But the truth is this was a conflict with changing missions over time: from clearing out al-Qaeda to creating a modernised nation, crushing the drugs trade to the most recent defined purpose, leaving the Afghan military with what the defence secretary has called a “fighting chance” of achieving some sort of stability.

Lord West, who was Nato fleet commander in chief at the time of the post 9/11 attack on Afghanistan, said the only “mission” that was accomplished was the original one to clear out al-Qaeda a within the first 12 months . He says what followed was years of “mission creep”. At the strategic level the whole thing had been an “error”.

David Cameron is normally very careful not to engage with a toxic phrase or premise, and they don’t come much more toxic than the 1 May 2003 moment when President George W Bush proclaimed job done in Iraq. It was only 42 days after the US had started its attack on Iraq but there would be another 3,153 days still to come before the last US combat troops came home from Iraq.

George W Bush subsequently acknowledged it had been a “mistake.”

David Cameron didn’t quite walk into the same error. There’s no question British forces will come back next year even if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, as it might, around the April elections.

But he won’t be thrilled with the headlines his answer has spawned – and the echoes they revive.

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