There are clear signs that the Labour government in London has begun to build an exit strategy for Afghanistan based upon the premise of negotiations with so-called moderate elements of the Taliban.
In the face of rising domestic opposition to the war, mounting casualties and a clear unwillingness on the part of European allies to send additional troops for the NATO-led mission, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has set his government down an extremely risky and dangerous path of negotiations with a barbaric enemy.
It is a dangerous strategy that is also backed in principle by some senior figures in the Obama administration such as Richard Holbrooke, the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who may be keen to use the British-led experiment as a trial balloon for a possible U.S. exit strategy as well. This is a disastrous approach that signals defeat, and one that must be firmly rejected by the next British administration, almost certainly Conservative, likely to take office in the spring of 2010.
Great Britain is the second largest contributor to the NATO-operation in Afghanistan, with over 9,000 combat troops on the ground. The British contribution in Afghanistan is roughly equal to that of continental Europe's big four combined -- France, Germany, Italyand Spain. So far 191 British troops have been killed serving in Afghanistan (more than were killed in Iraq), and hundreds wounded. In the month of July alone, Britain lost 22 soldiers in combat.
However great the bravery of British servicemen, it is being undercut by massive underfunding of Britain's armed forces, crippling defence cuts, and by shortages of helicopters, armored vehicles, medical teams as well as basic equipment. Britain now spends less on defence than at any time since the 1930s, and is waging a major war on a peacetime budget. It is though the lack of political will in London that is the biggest threat to the British mission.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's recent speech on Afghanistan at NATO headquarters sent completely the wrong message to our enemies. In his address on July 27, the foreign secretary called for a political deal with so-called moderate elements of the Taliban in an effort to split the insurgency:
First, a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation. That means in the long term an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, which draws away Conservative Pashtun nationalists -- separating those who want Islamic rule locally from those committed to violent jihad globally -- and gives them a sufficient role in local politics that they leave the path of confrontation with their government.
In effect Miliband is saying that Britain and the United States must be willing to place cooperative, supposedly more reasonable wings of the Taliban back in local power in Afghanistan. This would be like putting the Nazis back in office after the fall of Berlin or the Khmer Rouge in charge of Cambodia again. No matter how much spin is placed on this negotiating strategy, it smacks of defeatism and appeasement, and a failure to place the conflict in Afghanistan within the broader context of a global war against a brutal Islamist ideology that seeks the destruction of the West and the free world.
British, American, Canadian and other NATO troops are not dying on the battlefields of south Asia to facilitate the return of a medieval-style government steeped in barbarism and savagery where women are treated as fourth-class citizens and individual liberty is non-existent. It would be only a matter of time before an Afghanistan dominated by "moderate" Taliban returned to its old position as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda to launch attacks against New York, Washington or London.
Great Britain and the United States should have no truck with any strategy that allows a return to political power for the Taliban of whatever stripe. If this foolhardy policy is executed, it may ultimately lead to negotiations with al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region as well.
It is vital that a future British Conservative administration reverses what is a disastrously naïve approach, and commits to the complete political isolation, as well as the ultimate military defeat, of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This will require a significant increase in British defence spending to adequately fund a major military mission on this scale, as well as leadership in Downing Street that takes Britain's great power responsibilities seriously.
As UK Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox wrote in a recent article for The Times of London,
If we abandoned our task in Afghanistan today, we would put the security of our own country in greater peril. Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan for training, and to plan attacks on the West. We must not let that happen again. To throw in the towel at this stage would encourage every jihadist to believe that we lack the moral courage to see through a difficult mission. And it would gravely undermine the credibility of NATO, the alliance that has protected this country for six decades.
Negotiations with a fundamentally barbaric organization such as the Taliban will never result in anything good for the people of Afghanistan and will undercut both Britain and America's long-term security. If NATO talks to the various wings of the Taliban, the Allied coalition will negotiate only with different shades of evil. This is a recipe for failure and defeat as well as a monumental surrender to a totalitarian Islamist ideology based on a doctrine of hatred, fear and destruction.
Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
First Appeared in Human Events