Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 15:28 UK

New emphasis on exit from Afghan war

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

UK troops in Afghanistan 2.8.09
Gordon Brown sought to reassure British forces in Afghanistan

Political leaders tend to make rallying speeches on wars only when things are going wrong and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's speech on Afghanistan is no exception.

It is a mark of the deterioration in the British position that almost a year ago, in the same place - the temple of British strategic thinking, the International Institute for Strategic Studies - a similar speech was left to the then Defence Secretary John Hutton.

Now the prime minister himself had to step up to make the case.

His aim of course is to rally the public behind the war and to reassure the troops that their mission is worthwhile, achievable and properly equipped.

There have been doubts on all these scores, heightened by the casualty rate during the summer and emphasised only a day before the speech by the resignation of a Labour MP, and former Army officer, from his role in assisting the defence secretary in the House of Commons.

Mr Brown's message was "Take heart, but take action." He also wanted Nato partners to do more.

New emphasis

The arguments used in both speeches were essentially the same - that it is a strategic necessity for the UK to help the US deny Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to the Taliban and to al Qaeda and that the Afghans themselves must eventually take over their own security.

But what were simply questions about the operation at the time of the Hutton speech had become deep worries by the time of the Brown speech.

UK AND US OPINION ON WAR
In the UK, 58% believe the war is not winnable, 31% disagree. ComRes/Independent. July 09
In the US, 42% think America is winning the war, 36% think it is losing. ABC News/Washington Post. Aug 09
54 British troops killed in 2009 so far, compared with 47 in total in 2008
172 US troops killed in 2009 so far, compared with 155 in total in 2008

So Mr Brown introduced a new element - an emphasis on an exit strategy.

This element was there in the Hutton argument but it was mentioned more in passing, as when Mr Hutton said it was vital that Afghanistan "remains a legitimate and increasingly effective state, able over time to handle its own security."

The Brown version was much stronger. The rather vague "over time" hope of Afghan-led security, relegated to a relative clause, has became a central aim. Success would be evident, Mr Brown said, when British troops started coming home because Afghan troops were doing the job.

To help achieve this, he outlined a new tactic under which British troops would move from training or mentoring Afghan forces to partnering them in combat.

At the same time, the increase of the Afghan army to 134,000 should, he said, be speeded up. The current aim is to have that force ready by November 2011 (a target already brought forward from 2014). Mr Brown wants the new target date to be November 2010. That means doubling the number of Afghans being trained per month,

The implication is clear - the more Afghan troops in the field, the quicker British and other forces can go home.

The new US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, whom Mr Brown met in Afghanistan last week, might even go further. He is believed to want to increase the Afghan army to 220,000 and, if necessary, to 400,000.

New ideas

The British prime minister was careful to swing behind General McChrystal's new ideas about laying greater stress on winning over the people.

This partly means less bombing from the air, an example of which was seen this same day when two stolen fuel tankers were bombed, causing large numbers of casualties.

Graph

But the general might also want more US and Nato troops. An American decision is awaited.

Mr Brown was silent about British reinforcements, beyond repeating that 200 more specialists are to be sent to try to counter roadside bombs. British forces need much more unmanned aerial surveillance, for example, to keep watch on key areas night and day.

The prime minister said that British troops had defused more than 1,000 roadside bombs recently. That sounds impressive - but so is the ability of the Taliban to produce them.

Upbeat

On the plus side, to counter the negative impact of casualties and critics, has come a more upbeat assessment of Afghanistan from the Brookings Institution in the United States.

One of the authors, Michael O'Hanlon, predicted in mid-2007 that the US had turned the corner in Iraq. Now he is saying that there are plenty of things that are "right with Afghanistan".

"The Afghan people want success," he argues and are "still largely pro-American." He also says that "the Afghan army is reasonably effective" and that "the elections were not all bad."

The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that there was "limited time" to show success.

O'Hanlon says it will take at least 12-18 months to see results.

The British ambassador in Kabul Mark Sedwill said recently he hoped that by the next Afghan presidential election in five years time, Afghan troops and not Nato forces would be in charge of security.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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