Amidst the basket ball games and trip on Airforce One, the Prime Minister has plenty of time to talk to the President about the US/UK involvement in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.
It is a sobering week to do so. We still have in our minds the tragic deaths of six UK soldiers when their armoured vehicle was blown up by a planted bomb. We have been shocked by the mass murders of sixteen Afghan civilians in their own homes from the gun of an American soldier. Yesterday in Parliament the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Labour Leader made longer than usual tributes to our forces, and expressed our common grief at the needless Afghan loss of life.
Both leaders have long acknowledged that we need to take our forces off active duty in Afghanistan, prior to withdrawal of many of them. The policy has been for many months that we will help train more local soldiers and police preparatory to taking a less active role and then returning home. I have just tabled some questions to ask how long it takes to train Afghan personnel. When we can get into a position where the Afghan trainees led by Afghans that are experienced and trained might undertake their own patrols and policing?
We could move more rapdily to a position where out troops stayed in protected barracks and were on call only if some special equipment or expertise was needed by the Afghan patrols. We could plan a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan as a means of accelerating progress in putting Afghans in charge. There is nothing like the experience of doing it yourself to complete the training.
The period of prolonged withdrawal can be the most dangerous for our troops. For that reason if no other we should wish to curtail the period of risk. Risks are increased by incidents like the burning of the Koran and the unprovoked murder of civilians. All those Afghans who want foreigners off their soil or at least want armed foreigners off their streets just have more reasons to support their cause. Of course none of this was intended. Of course the overwhelming majority of foreign troops are well disciplined and generous with their skills, willing to run risks for the sake of the greater good. However, one random bad act can give propaganda victory to those who want an early departure of overseas soldiers.
Let us hope our leaders use their time to establish a new common position that speeds up what Mr Camron calls the “end game”. While they are about it, they might pause to reflect on how it might be better to avoid a further military intervention in the region for a bit. The USA now has access to vast shale gas reserves, which move it closer to future energy self sufficiency. The UK too could reach self sufficiency if it wished. That would be a peraceful goal which helped the world economy and took away some of the reason for such tensions over the oil rich lands of the Middle East.