There was a gaping contradiction at the heart of Gordon Brown's speech on Afghanistan, which he gave this morning, at short notice, to the Royal College of Defence Studies. He had two messages to deliver, one for us, the other for the Karzai government in Kabul. To the increasingly sceptical British public he took a familiar line: our presence in Afghanistan is essential for our security, for if we leave the country's tottering government will fall to the Taliban, terrorists will have a free hand to bring devastation to our streets, the entire region will implode and chaos will reign. There is, in short, no alternative. Rejecting Kim Howell's call to pull up the drawbridges at home, Brown declared:
Investment, of course, in our borders and our domestic counter-terrorism capability is vital, but when three quarters of terrorist plots originate in the Pakistan-Afghan border regions, investment at home of itself cannot insulate us entirely from the new terrorist threat we face. Only by tackling this threat at source can we prevent it reaching our shores, and it is the combined effort of our armed forces, police, security services, border agency, and other agencies both at home and abroad which are our best protection against further attack.
This is a war "prosecuted out of necessity, not of choice," said Brown - essential for our national security. It follows from this that, come what may, we have to prop up the Karzai regime, because the alternative is the Taliban, and the Taliban means more 9/11s, more tube bombings and, quite possibly, the collapse of Pakistan. That was his message for waverers at home.
To Karzai, he had a quite different (indeed, incompatible) message to impart: "shape up or you're on your own".
The PM laid out five areas in which the Kabul government had to make progress. First, with Western help, they had to take responsibility for security. This, among other things, involved recruiting 5,000 army recruits per month to build the Afghan forces' strength up to 134,000 by this time next year, as per General McChrystal’s recommendation. It's doubtful that even this would be enough. Sen Joe Liberman told the Council on Foreign Relations a few months ago that
a total Afghan security force of 425,000 to 450,000 is needed, including an Afghan National Army that is at least 250,000 strong. It is only when Afghan forces reach those numbers that the ratio of security personnel to population will achieve the level necessary for success in counterinsurgency... Given the country’s population, size, geography, and security environment, it is apparent that a 134,000-strong army will be insufficient to the country’s needs
Where will all these people come from? And who is going to pay them? In an interview with last Sunday's Telegraph, the impressive Rory Stewart pointed out that the total force required would be four times the size of the British army, and would cost five times Afghanistan's annual revenue to maintain. It's a non-starter. And anyway (Stewart again):
Rebuilding Afghanistan, even to the level of Pakistan, would take 30 years of huge investment. And why should we commit? Al-Qaeda are internationally focused, educated, middle-class Arabs. They’re not in Afghanistan. The CIA are almost certain Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. And if it’s poverty we’re worried about, we should be in Africa. We need to step back and take a good look at a map of the world and realise there are more important places to focus on.
Next, said Gordon, The Afghans have to sort out corruption. "Cronies and warlords" had no place (!) in the new Afghanistan. Instead, there will have to be "properly qualified men and women in the key jobs". There also (point 3) has to be a "more inclusive political settlement" - which includes "reaching out" to "those who have been outside the political process". Presumably, that's code for doing deals with the nicer elements of the Taliban. But in any case it's hard to see how an "inclusive" government could exclude all those corrupt cronies and warlords.
As far as a mechanism for tackling corruption goes, Brown seems to be confusing the Afghan government with the House of Commons:
President Karzai agreed with me yesterday that the first priority of his new government would be to take decisive action against corruption. I proposed that there should be a new anti-corruption law, that a new anti-corruption commission be formed with powers of investigation and prosecution, that the commission appoint an international adviser of standing and substance, and that there be new rules for the more transparent award of contracts.
Perhaps, when he's finally booted out of office, Gordon Brown himself could volunteer to do the job.
Fourth comes economic reconstruction - with massive international help, of course. Brown had some figures:
Helmand is one of the most aid-supported places in the world. The United Kingdom is alone spending over £80 million in Helmand on development this year; it’s part of the international community’s wider efforts that total £200 million. That means Helmand will receive some £200 in aid per person this year - around double the Afghan average.
That seems a lot, doesn't it? But how far would £200 per person go in this country? Not much more than one week's old age pension. And it's even less once you've taken off the contractors' profits and the kickbacks to corrupt officials and the Taliban. It's delusional to imagine that such spending will have a decisive effect on what happens in the country, or indeed have much effect at all. The sum is tiny even in comparison with the cost of repairing the damage caused by the fighting, let alone the expense of maintaining our army there. And how can the Afghan government play any part in the rebuilding of the economic structure of the country when they're simultaneously being told to recruit a vast and unfundable army?
Finally, tacked on the end, was something about "stronger regional relationships". Not so difficult, on the face of it: Karzai and Zardari get on reasonably well, and can doubtless swap tips on running a corrupt regime. But then Brown said that the good relationship between the leaders "has yet to translate into closer cooperation between key institutions," and once again you realise he's away with the fairies. One of Pakistan's key institutions, after all, is the ISI, the intelligence agency that more-or-less invented the Taliban.
All in all, a tough, not to say impossible, list of demands. And what if the Afghan government fails the tests? It's not clear, but Brown did say this: "If the government fails to meet these five tests, it will have not only failed its own people, it will have forfeited its right to international support." He also declared that he was "not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm’s way for a government that does not stand up against corruption."
So what then? We'd get out?
If our presence in Afghanistan is dependent upon the government of that country meeting the (virtually impossible) challenges Brown has set for it, then it cannot be essential for our security. But if it is so essential, then we will remain there regardless of how corrupt, useless or just plain powerless the authorities in Kabul remain. And they will.
In reality, it is neither to defend our island nor to rebuild Afghanistan that our forces remain there, at great cost in both lives and money. It is because we entered the country in 2001 and have not yet found a definition of success that would enable us to leave with dignity; or, to be strictly accurate, it is because the Americans haven't yet given up. That moment may come before too long. When it does, Brown's speech today will seem even more irrelevant.