Coffee House

Lord Ashdown: Get out of Afghanistan quickly

16 November 2012

The headline on Lord Ashdown’s piece on Afghanistan in today’s Times (£) will please Lib Dem strategists. ‘This awful mistake mustn’t claim more lives.’ It allows the Lib Dems to play the anti-war card: we are the party that will bring Our Boys (and Girls) home. The strategists could take plenty of other lines from Ashdown’s quotable article. ‘All that we can achieve has been achieved. All that we might have achieved if we had done things differently, has been lost… Our failure in Afghanistan has not been military. It has been political.’

Ashdown’s analysis echoes that of prestigious think tanks such as the Centre to Strategic and International Studies and humble foot soldiers, like Patrick Hennessey, who have toured Helmand. ISAF has acquitted itself well in battle; but the list of political mistakes is long and repetitive: empowering Karzai and Kabul, the Iraq distraction, ignoring Afghanistan’s neighbours, negligible reconstruction efforts, alienating international partners. All have conspired, Ashdown says, to ensure that there is a ‘political price to play in diminished western influence.’


Ashdown’s tone is mournful because he believed that the West could win. Nearly four years ago, I reported him saying that ‘7/7 made (Afghanistan) our fight’. He was in full Cockleshell Hero mode then, as if he himself might still make a difference. It has been forgotten, perhaps, that Ashdown lobbied for the job of UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan. His candidacy was blocked in January 2008 by Hamid Karzai. Understandably, his piece in today’s Times is infused with poignancy and regret.

Ashdown is one of Nick Clegg’s political godfathers, so it is tempting to see this piece as a partial reflection of the deputy prime minister’s views. What then, Lord Ashdown, is to be done? Judging by the headline, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ashdown favours immediate withdrawal; but that is not so. He writes,

‘The only rational policy now is to leave quickly, in good order and in the company of our allies. This is the only cause for which further lives should be risked.’

Plenty of room for manoeuvre there (both in terms of time and tactics), reflecting the fact that there is precious little clarity on the issue (something of which, ironically, Ashdown complains by calling on the government to ‘clarify’ its position). The re-election of President Obama has set a line in the sand: the administration is married to the 2014 exit date. However, the pace of withdrawal is still open to debate. Ashdown says that Obama’s re-election probably means that America will downscale sooner rather than later. That supposition appears to be shared by George Osborne, who favours swift withdrawal. A reduction of 4,000 by the end of the 2013 ‘fighting season’ is understood to be the ambition of the Cabinet’s egressors, but the army chiefs are apparently reluctant. It seems that both coalition partners can see the value of being the party which brought the troops home; but they need to work out how to do it.

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  • Clive Holland

    When you’re wounded alone on Afghanistan’s Plains
    And the women come out to cut what remains
    Then roll on your rifle and blow out your brains
    And go to your God like a soldier.

    There is a history, for ever, of failure in Afghanistan. Think Alexander the Great. And we let shallow politicians who barely know how to wipe their bottoms, Blair, Bush, Cameron et al to posture as strategists and take us into war.
    I am certainly no pacifist, I am a trained professional in the art of fighting. But I wouldn’t like to be led by this modern bunch of shallow politicians

  • Clive Holland

    Kipling said it.
    When you’re wounded alone on Afghanistan’s Plains
    And the women come out to cut

  • Daniel Maris

    We tried to do it on the cheap. We tried to avoid reforming the country.

    We should have pursued a revolutionary democratic strategy of providing an alternative economic network, creating millions of clients dependent on us; distribution of feudal estates; arresting any Mullah who spoke out against us; creating schools teaching our curriculum and installing a government to our liking.

    The military strategy of intermittent patrolling has been pathetic, pointless and costly in human life and limb.

  • paulus

    Effectively there isnt a great deal more can be done in Afghanistan, the original mission was to root out and hunt down the terrorists, this has been done.

    Any noble sentiment of reconstruction and liberalisation has hit a cultural wall, and those walls are not breached by boots on the ground. Our solidiers are dying needlessly and we cannot ask no more,we want our people brought home.

    The other tribes and people are strong enough now to negotiate with the Taliban, and they must find a peace that satisfies themselves,

  • MajorFrustration

    Get out asap and leave them to sort the problem out themselves and find the type of democracy that suits them – even if it appears “dark ages” to us in the West. No more waste of lives. Never quite understand who pays for the Afghan army or police when we go. An idea expressed early of bombing Mecca did bring a smile to my face – might be a little extreme but at least we would be fighting all the muslims rather than not knowing now who is on our side

  • El_Sid

    the army chiefs are apparently reluctant
    Is it just possible that they might know a bit more about what’s going on than some has-been politician?

  • HooksLaw

    Read ‘1 Million Bullets’ by James Fergusson to see how (in his opinion) we made a mess of our entry into Afghanistan.

  • HooksLaw

    As you say Ashdown was a cheerleader in taking us in to Afghanistan, so I doubt the LDs would gain any noticeable traction from his opinion.

    The govt are in fact ahead of him and almost from day one were pressing for a set date to pull out our fighting troops and Cameron is clearly going to get them home before the official timetable if possible. Ashdown himself says ‘as soon as is decent’.

    From our own security point of view we can protect ourselves from the re-establishment of terrorist training bases with air power and rely on the Afghan govt army with our trainers to maintain some sort of stability on the ground. Afghanistan needs a secure anti extremist govt in Pakistan if it is to live in peace.

  • James Strong

    What we need is a strong Western leader, it’d have to be the President of the United States, to call a meeting of all heads of government of Islamic nations, and non-government actors too.

    A short meeting, a short speech:

    ‘We do not care what you do inside your own borders, but if there is another attack on Western interests by ANYONE in the Islamic world we will obliterate Mecca and Medinah.

    And you know we have the weapons to do it.

    Thank you, you can go now.’

    Then withdraw all our forces from Afghanistan, never commit them to Syria or anywhere else in the backward world, and let those people sink into the earthly hell-hole that their culture makes inevitable.

    And be ready to use the bombs.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      They would understand this.

      Oh the howling it would bring on, from all quarters, but if the howling was met with grim determination and fortitude, and unshakeable will to carry through… the parties in question would well understand and respond.

      Mecca and Medinah as smoking piles of rubble. They would understand this.

      Of course, you’d have to level Riyadh as well.

    • Daniel Maris

      Don’t be ridiculous. They would go away and the oil rich countries would get busy with weapons of mass destruction. And then in due course they will call a short meeting with you.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        They can go ahead and call the meeting, short or long.

        Same message applies, except the target package expands to include everybody in attendance at that meeting, in addition to the original Mecca/Medinah/Riyadh combo.

        See how this works?

  • Ant

    He is right they should be back. My dad had just gone out again which means he eill miss christmas with me and also my birthday. We have nothing more to do out there its now just stupid we are still there.

  • Thebian

    I agree, why should we be supporting America when Obama is giving our nuclear missile codes to the Russians?

    • Daniel Maris


  • Colonel Mustard

    I think Ashdown should get out of politics quickly. He is a has-been, like me, but I just rant amongst the nut jobs here whereas he spouts forth to the country as a whole.

  • Noa

    “leave quickly, in good order…”

    Which may be easier said than done, the way home is through the Salang Pass and as William Forbes has pointed out, the Taliban will be waiting.

    Meanwhile we have been creating our own victims of this pointless adventure:-

    • telemachus

      We will leave the horses behind
      We have had aeroplanes for a hundred years or so

      • Noa

        Obviously you haven’t bothered reading the Forbes link, maybe you can’t…

    • Airey Belvoir

      The undeclared reason why we will stay till 2014 is the huge task of getting hundreds of millions worth of our military equipment back. Evidence to a Select Committee was that, even if we go flat out on repatriating it till end 2014, we will still leave a lot behind, not knowing quite who will end up with it. It cannot all be airlifted and overland is very tricky.

      • HooksLaw

        We are not leaving completely, neither us or the Americans or others. We will still have a military presence, planes helicopters etc and advisers and trainers. The West’s involvement in Afghanistan will last many years, but its their country and they should do the ground fighting if they want to keep it.

    • HooksLaw

      The Afghan army is about 200,000 strong. We are not fighting them.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        No. But they are fighting us.

      • Noa

        “…The current significant date for withdrawing the American
        ‘surge’ troops was dictated by the forthcoming presidential election,
        and the date for removing all British frontline troops was based on that
        of the next general election in the UK, so we are all aware that
        politics are entwined with planning. But with the execution of the
        The Russians did not just pull out, as the West has been allowed to
        believe. They had to bribe their way out, and most of the promises made
        in return were broken. And why not? That is the Afghan tradition.
        Promises are merely pawns on the chessboard. The Russians reacted with
        the air power they had close at hand in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and
        its application did not accord with the Rules of Engagement NATO will
        have to observe. When we are at our weakest, during the final stages of
        our retreat, our airpower will be based on aircraft carriers in the
        Indian Ocean and at airfields in the Gulf, all hours away. Pakistan?
        And using roads out through Pakistan? No plans can be based on
        speculative ideas of what may happen there, especially when the Taliban
        victory over NATO may encourage a Taliban resurgence in Pakistan itself.

        Evacuation is far more difficult than invasion, and a retreat under
        fire is yet far more difficult still. This one will be choreographed by
        an enemy that has already beaten the Russians and will rejoice in the
        opportunity to punish the other superpower in similar fashion. That way
        outsiders will want to leave Afghanistan alone for a century of so.

        The chances of a grim fate for our troops and the seizure of their
        military assets are so high there will be great reluctance politically
        to believe them. Our defeat in Basra was hidden by Brown’s government,
        but a massacre here will be impossible to present as anything but a
        shameful responsibility of the Cameron government. The electoral
        consequences are impossible to predict, for the overall blame must be
        shared by the three major parties — so would it nourish UKIP, the only
        party consistently warning about our military weaknesses? Who knows?

        Perhaps at next week’s party conference someone could ask the Prime
        Minister his views on the chances of our troops withdrawing unscathed
        when history and military doctrine suggest we shall pay a heavy penalty
        for our interference here, in someone else’s civil war…”
        Per William Forbes on the link above

  • Rhoda Klapp

    YES. About time too. Let’s get out today. Why has this never been a publicly-discussed issue before now? It is not important or correct because it is legitimised by this stuffed shirt saying it, the media were quite capable of putting this on the agenda by themselves. But did not.

    • telemachus

      Ashdown like all LibDems has no spine
      I thought better of you

      • Noa

        Well macho, why don’t you show us the courage of your convictions and take your own spine to Damascus. The locum at your local A&E should be able to put you in touch with the people you want…

    • John_Page

      It’s Westminster Village syndrome again. Saying we’ve lost in Afghanistan would be like saying level temperatures mean there’s no global warming.

  • Vulture

    Don’t often agree – no , make that never agree – with the insufferably pompous Pantsdown but he’s called this one right. The boys should be back from the hellhole by Christmas. This Christmas. Those scores that will die over the next two years will die for nothing – sent by our rotten politicians to save their miserable faces.

    • Noa

      Yes, and great pity that a Conservative luminary didn’t have the courage to say it.
      Especially as Cameron has started preparing the public for the deployment of British troops to support Al Quada in Syria.

      • telemachus

        That is an inflammatory statement that is even base for you
        We are about to formally recognise the recently ratified legitimate opposition
        “Britain will recognise the new Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate voice of the country’s people, following talks in London, Foreign Secretary William Hague has said.
        Mr Hague, who was meeting a group of rebel leaders, said that the creation of a coalition of forces opposed to president Bashar Assad was “a big step forward.
        The Foreign Secretary will urge the group to develop a clear plan for political transition in Syria when he opens the London talks, which are being hosted by the UK’s special envoy, Jon Wilks. He will also press for the need to respect human rights and “win over the middle ground of opinion” in the nation amid the spiralling violence meted out by the regime.
        The US and the UK have signalled support for the group but stopped short of the formal recognition of it as a government-in-waiting already accorded by France.”
        We have a duty to rid Syria of the Eye Doctor

        • Noa

          Yes, it grieves me to see a former conservative minister in the thrall of common purpose, though I expect nothing else from a stalinist pawn like you

  • Heartless etc.,

    I had always hoped for clear concise and helpful statements from one so admirably qualified in the most demanding military issues.

    Alas, plenty of words, but never came good. Must have confused ‘Liberal’ with loquacious.

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