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Why Is the UK in Afghanistan?

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As Britain sends more troops to Afghanistan, a statement that it is 'not Berkshire' lays bare the contradictions in our foreign policy

Brigadier Buster Howes, head of overseas operations at the Ministry of Defence, spoke in a Chatham House/Radio 4 panel discussion on Afghanistan last week. But if people were expecting "the British Petraeus" or some tactical masterclass on counterinsurgency or new ideas about winning in Afghanistan, they were disappointed.

Instead, Howes explained the British mission as "not engaged in some misguided project to create Berkshire in the Hindu Kush." Later, when asked about the legitimacy of the recent Afghan elections, he said: "It wasn't perfect, yes, it's not Berkshire. But we're fighting for our own security."

Eric Joyce, former PPS to the defence secretary, responded: "I can't imagine anything more flippant than telling us that Afghanistan isn't Berkshire. It so preposterously simplifies the issue." Indeed the metaphor was ill-chosen for a number of reasons, not least that it forgets the real Afghan-Berkshire connection that on 27 July 1880, during the second Afghan war, 800 soldiers from the Berkshire foot regiment fought against 40,000 Afghan troops in west Kandahar. In what has been dubbed one of the bloodiest battles in British military history, 286 died and 32 were wounded.

In addition to poor historical awareness, the brigadier laid bare the contradictions in Britain's current Afghan policy. The Berkshire line was not a one-off; clearly all spokesmen on Afghanistan have been briefed on the line of reducing expectations. In August, after taking command of the British army, General Sir David Richards announced that "we must remember ... that we are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland." While this week in the Times, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson wrote about how the 2 Rifles had helped Sangin's bazaar grow larger, while reminding readers that "it is definitely not Bluewater."

The remarks do sound silly, but if you are not in control of events then it makes sense to lower the bar on what success is. The crux of the matter, and the seldom mentioned elephant in the room, is that the British priority in Afghanistan is less about any particular vision for a democratic, stable or terrorist free country, but rather the strategic future of NATO and more importantly the US-UK alliance. As veteran Afghan-watcher Rory Stewart recently outlined, "the main reason we are sticking with it is that it will help us with the US to stay there."

British foreign policy today, whether on AfPak, the Middle East peace process or the Iranian nuclear issue, is identical to that of its stronger US partner, and beholden to it. This was very much in evidence at the joint UK-US press conference last week, where David Miliband outlined how "transatlantic co-operation is going to be at a premium as we confront the shared challenges and the shared opportunity." Hillary Clinton said all the right things for the "special relationship" obsessives, reaffirming the principles of standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Britain.

Yet with Afghanistan there can be little doubt that the US is in the driving seat of the coalition's strategy for the country. However, unlike in the Vietnam war, Britain is seemingly "all in" and committed to "burden sharing" whatever strategy may emerge from Barack Obama's "Kennedy moment." The best the British can hope for is secondhand transcripts of the decision-making, as Miliband proudly announced that he'd "had a full discussion of the discussions that have taken place in Washington."

Gordon Brown has just agreed in principle to send another 500 troops to Afghanistan. In September he outlined Britain's Afghan strategy within which he fully endorsed "his [General Stanley McChrystal's] new counter-insurgency approach," focusing particular support on the faster growth of the Afghan National Army and police. Yet one month on, McChrystal's ideas have dramatically changed, prompting speculation over what may be one of the most significant decisions in the Obama presidency to date. Brown is unlikely to reassess Britain's policy accordingly but instead will follow whatever line Obama leads.

While it is certainly true that the government's avoidance of the real reason we're in Afghanistan cheapens the lives of those who are fighting there, being a loyal ally to the Americans at this time may be more important strategically than avoiding defeat in Afghanistan. That of course cannot be said openly, as a democratic audience would unlikely stomach the loss of such blood and treasure in the name of such realpolitik. So instead we're stuck with stories about threats to our security, talk of the evil Taliban, the successes of schools and clinics being built, and just in case we get carried away, reminders that Afghanistan is not Berkshire.