Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Debate on British Troops in Afghanistan

Britain is considering a surge in Afghanistan to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas. Throughout the postwar period, Britain has been pursuing the policy of “punch above its weight” to maintain the position as one of influential powers, while struggling with shortage of military budget and manpower. In Afghanistan, British ground forces face insufficient support from the air, and they are much more disadvantaged to engage in counterterrorist operations than American forces. Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided to send withdrawn troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to defeat insurgents. This strategy has been considered since the Blair era, and now, security in Iraq has improved while things in Afghanistan is evolving increasing serious.

In view of the rise of casualties among British soldiers, Army General Sir Richard Dannatt requested more troops and equipments in Afghanistan (“Troops need more, says Army head”; BBC News; 17 July 2009). At the Westminster parliament, Conservative leader David Cameron asked Prime Minister Gordon Brown to clarify the objective of the war in Afghanistan, in order to maintain public support for it. Also, Cameron expressed serious concern with helicopter shortage, and criticized defense policy of the Brown cabinet (“PM challenged over Afghanistan”; BBC News; 16 July 2009).

The controversy on the Afghan mission is getting increasingly intensified among the public. The Conservative Party urged to send more British troops in Afghanistan in order to speed up trainings for Afghan armed forces and the police (“Conservatives to increase British troop levels in Afghanistan, David Cameron hints”; Daily Telegraph; 3 August 2009). After talks between Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, General Stanley McChrystal of the US Army said Britain would send additional 2,000 soldiers (“Britain to send 2,000 extra troops to help train Afghans”; Times; 2 August 2009).

Britain must resolve equipments and manpower problems, while maintaining global commitment. As shown in the table below, Britain shares disproportionately great burden in the Afghan mission.

Source: Economist

Currently, the British public is supportive of the mission in Afghanistan, as Britain takes pride in its military success. However, both hawkish Tory and dovish Liberal Democrat are critical to strategic troubles of the current administration. Particularly, helicopter shortage is so serious that the out-going head of British army General Dannatt needs to use an American one. The incoming head, General Sir David Richards, mentions contending viewpoints in British defense policy. British generals complain that White Hall policymakers give preference to big arsenals such as strategic nuclear weapons and war ships, but do not give sufficient consideration to land battles against insurgents (“British forces in Afghanistan: And the soldier home from the hill”; Economist; 16 July 2009). Labour MP Mike Gapes, who led to release a report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, criticized high casualty rate of British troops, and administrative sectionalism among the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department of International Development. Furthermore, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague questioned who was in charge of the war in the cabinet (“Tell us why we're in Afghanistan, MPs say”; Times; 3 August 2009).

General Sir Mike Jackson told that structural reform of the Ministry of Defence was necessary to follow the recommendation in the House report led by Gapes, in order to focus on tightly defined strategic objectives. Current operations include counternarcotics missions as well as defeating insurgents (“UK troops 'given too many tasks'”; BBC News; 2 August 2009). If the allied forces were to focus on definite objectives, rapid trainings for Afghan security forces are required.

The Afghan problem is strongly related to British foreign and defense policy across the globe. Prior to the Falkland War, admirals of the Royal Navy objected to sacrificing aircraft carriers for the sake of Trident SLBMs. After the war, Prime Minister-then Margaret Thatcher decided to maintain carrier squadrons. Here again, Britain faces a dilemma between managing resource problems and maintaining global military presence.

Paul Cornish, Head of the International Security Programme, and Andrew Dorman, Associate Fellow, both at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, explore British defense policy. In 1998, the government released “The Strategic Defence Review (SDR)” to define British defense objectives: commitment to Europe, partnership with the United States, securing British economic interests, and defending British freedom. In order to fulfill the above aims, “After all, a careful strategic assessment might well reveal that the United Kingdom will need aircraft carriers and fast attack aircraft as well as ‘men on the ground’ .“ Cornish and Dorman proposes to withdraw troops from Germany and possess fewer types of fighters for maximum availability, thereby transform personnel and equipments more effective and cost-efficient (”National Defence in the Age of Austerity”; International Affairs; April 2009).

Finally I would like to mention an article on Afghanistan by Sir Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy and Professor at Oxford University. In a periodical published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Sir Adam comments that British and American forces have much lessons to learn from past counter insurgent operations, and foreign troops should not behave as eternal occupiers (“Doctrine and Reality in Afghanistan”; Survival; February 2009).

Policy discussions on Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan have profound implications to other US allies. Within limited resource, free nations need to explore maximum contributions to global security and defend their own sovereign interests. Some allies like Japan have mush to lean from British experience, in order to pursue greater presence in global politics and strengthen alliance with the United States.