Sunday, October 04, 2009

That's enough Urop

... back to Afghanistan – Mr Cameron's number two political priority. He said it, and we'll now see if he means it when he addresses his adoring masses in Manchester this week.

Confronting him from afar - an invisible presence at the fest - will be the new Chief of the General Staff, Gen Sir David Richards who has gone "full frontal" in The Sunday Telegraph today, warning of the "terrifying prospect" of failure in Afghanistan

Richards, we are told, has issued a wake-up call "to the public" to that effect, but it can be no coincidence that the timing coincides with the start of the Conservative party conference. Now, even if Cameron is not going to respond to the Irish referendum result, he will be hard put to ignore Afghanistan.

One wonders if the Tory faithful have quite latched on to the political dimensions of this issue – especially as the bulk of the "right-wing" political blogs are skating round it.

For all his very great merits, Richards is trapped in the Army narrative of believing that more "boots on the ground" is the answer to the immediate problems in Afghanistan, and – with McChrystal singing from the same hymn sheet – Richards will be seeking to bounce Cameron into a commitment for more troops, one which will have enormous public appeal.

However, a prospective government that is having to look down the nose of making serious public spending cuts is not going to relish the prospect of having to fund the extra resources, probably requiring a down-payment in the order of £2 billion to get an extra 2,000 fighting soldiers out to theatre, on top of the £3.5 billion required to keep the existing contingent in place.

With Liam Fox having already nailed the party's flag to the McChrystal mast, it is going to be difficult for Cameron to claw back the ground and fall in with the current government line of "strategy first – then decide on resources". The current Tory line is that strategy is a done deal. If it maintains this line, it is just a question of how many more troops and when.

Where Cameron has boxed himself into a corner is that, by accepting this line, he has closed off the alternative strategy under consideration in Washington, which involves redefining and scaling down the objectives, and pulling some of the troops out.

More seriously, he has missed the opportunity of offering a "third way", based on the idea of doing "less better", an option which would also accommodate the alternative "counter-terrorism" strategy which Obama is considering.

While Cameron is not yet in a position to make decisions, as general election fever closes in on him, he is going to be under increasing pressure to define, at least in principle, his direction of travel on key policy issues – and Afghanistan is one of them.

He has a very narrow window this week, in Manchester, to get a grip of the strategic issues that are currently being debated, and to prize open the trap which Gen Richards is seeking to spring closed on him. Cameron thus needs to come up with a plausible line of his own that keeps his options open, without being seen either to be contradicting the military or coming under its thrall.

To do this, he is going to need Houdini-like skills, as the public has been schooled heavily to accept the "boots on the ground" option, and are not going to take kindly to an opposition leader who seems as irresolute as they believe the government to be.

Without those skills, Cameron is going to find himself trapped into a multi-billion spending commitment that he neither wants nor expected. It is going to need more than rhetoric to escape from it. Richards has put down the challenge – we shall see how our prime minister in-waiting responds.