On assuming Gordon Brown’s dubious legacy to the nation, the coalition government was undeniably dealt a bad hand from the very start. Ballooning domestic bureaucracies, an avaricious EU even as it went on the road to implosion, and a public debt so large the original £80 billion in cuts reportedly only covered the interest payments amassed through the administration’s time in office. Combined with the occasional glimmer of competence and success, the political marriage of convenience no doubt earns a measure of sympathy. But, sympathy and excuses can make up for only so much.
Pasty taxes; Lib Dem intransigence; small yet significant issues like Andrew Mitchell’s outburst – these all erode public confidence in the embattled government. Yet, there remains the hope that – with just enough time, or just enough effort, things might be turned around for the better. Where this promise continues to fall down as a mirage is defence policy.
Last week’s headlines again underscored something that the Strategic Defence and Security Review made clear – the ineptitude (or at least recklessness) of the ministers the forces answer to. The Chancellor, for instance, asked at a recent National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan as to why British forces “should not come home now.” Given this is not Mr. Osborne’s first such outburst, and that his stance continues to prolong debates over withdrawal, this is not the pure rhetorical argument some insist he fronts. Rather, we see an apparently stunning ignorance of the nature, means and purpose of Britain’s struggle there.
…early British withdrawal would undoubtedly undermine our purpose…
The nature of the Afghan war is counter-insurgency; well-directed, well-motivated and effective manpower is perhaps the most useful means of fighting it. With Obama’s surge wound down, NATO partners like Canada already departed, and the vaunted Afghan National Security Forces so unreliable they are touted as a ‘Model for Insider Attacks,’ this is already in short supply. As the second-largest contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, early British withdrawal would undoubtedly undermine our purpose: to face down Islamist barbarism abroad so it cannot strike home. Will 2014 see victory? Likely not – but a scramble for the exit in 2013 would guarantee failure.
That said, the Chancellor likely understands all this – he is no idiot. Rather, we might get an inkling of his motives by looking into the Defence Secretary’s plans to ‘end the nomadic nature of military life‘ – the commitment to get personnel into home-owning. (Note, above all, the implicit MoD savings to be made by turning soldiers out of barracks.) Here we see exactly the kind of recklessness – if not wilful ignorance – dominating defence considerations: potential savings come before potential damage to the cohesion and effectiveness of fighting units. One could be forgiven for thinking this echoes the Chancellor’s own calculations.
…vociferous opposition to fiscal sanity from all angles…
Politics is often called the art of the possible and, with vociferous opposition to fiscal sanity from all angles, Mr. Osborne must be acutely aware of this. With no more money for the state’s extravagance, the armed forces are simply the path of least resistance for savings – and the £17 billion yearly cost of combat operations in Afghanistan is surely being eyed jealously. If so, then our armed forces, and with them the security of British citizens, are being undermined for the sake of political expediency.