Kim Howells told me about this Guardian piece while we were waiting in the division lobby. The key question for us all to consider now, is whether, what we are doing in Afghanistan is the best way of serving our UK interests. Kim suggests not: he says we need to put more effort into what we are doing here in the UK, instead. I agree with him. The trouble for us in the UK at present is that we do not seem to be articulating, in any clear sense, a UK foreign policy which is separable from our US interests. Our European allies do this perfectly well, while we do not. We may criticise them for being less active than us in fighting in Afghanistan, yet are the streets in mainland Europe less safe than in the UK? Clearly not. So how do we justify the daily sacrifice made by our remarkable service personnel in Afghanistan? We too often hear how we,punch above our weight? We have a special relationship? There is a wider geopolitical benefit? Is any of that measurable or reasonable? If it were, we might expect our ministers not to simply look to the US each time we reach a watershed. We might also expect the price of our effort to merit civilised improvements, perhaps the end of Karzai’s law permitting men to starve their wives (only in extremis, mind). But no. Last night on Newsnight, Douglas Alexander, DFID Secretary of State, was reduced to stressing that we’d done the decent thing and ‘mentioned the matter’ to Karzai.
How can we raise our heads and call Karzai president? Perhaps in the same way we call Mugabe president? Yet it’s literally sickening to hear ministers laud the election process there as somehow valid, ‘albeit flawed’, as somehow legitimising the loss of soldier’s lives. The fact is that the obvious corruption there demands our condemnation and nothing less.
Perhaps Afghanistan is best organised regionally for now – this is a technical matter but it should be part of our national dialogue. Instead, we have generals telling us we’re not trying to create Surrey or Switzerland in Afghanistan, that we have a far lower (but unstated) objective. In truth, it’s the job of politicians, not generals, to express the views of our constituents. I know what mine think. They think UK troops are the best in the world and they’ll support them to the ends of the earth. But they no longer accept, without question, the simple, and quite possibly wrong, proposition that the best way of protecting families living here in the UK is by following the US whip, however decent their president, however professional their troops.
Europe is failing because we to fail to work together on important areas of foreign policy and essentially security policy. Maybe that’s about to change. For now, the UK must take a cold, hard look at how we can best serve the interests of our own people. A rational analysis, is being proposed by Kim Howells: we should listen. It is a matter of the greatest urgency.