The Whitehall battlelines over Afghanistan are coming into focus. General Sir David Richards this morning made absolutely clear he is a commander who is unwilling to be hurried out of Helmand, whatever the prime minister might think.
In his first major interview as chief of defence staff, he rules reducing troop numbers next year and says Britain will stay “as long as it takes”. His words to The Sun leave some room for manoeuvre. (Downing Street are insisting he is “of the same mind” as the prime minister.) But they certainly do not chime with David Cameron’s recent pronouncements. The differences in nuance are obvious.
They give a flavour of a behind-the-scenes debate that will grow in importance. Indeed differences camps almost mirror those in Washington, with Obama and Cameron pitted against the Two Davids (Petraeus and Richards) over the pace and timing of withdrawal.
There is one line in the Richards interview that underlines these emerging alliances. “As long as we continue to put faith in Dave Petraeus and hold our nerve, then I think we can do it,” he says. “It’s definitely winnable.”
This military faith in the mission contrasts markedly with the advice David Cameron is receiving from his spies. John Sawers, the head of MI6, is warning that Britain is overly focussed on a small part of Afghanistan while the threats to Britain are growing elsewhere.
It is worth comparing Richards’ words with those of Cameron.
Take the prospects of a withdrawal beginning in 2011. When Cameron was asked whether a British pullout could start in tandem with the US next year, he replied:
“Yes we can, but it should be based on the conditions on the ground. The faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home.”
By contrast Richards sees conditions as being British troops to be in place next year.
“We are in a demanding part of Afghanistan and therefore, inevitably, we’re going to be shouldering the burden at least through next year.
There are also differences in emphasis over the 2015 deadline set by Cameron:
“People in Britain should understand we’re not going to be there in five years’ time, in 2015, with combat troops or large numbers because I think it’s important to give people an end date by which we won’t be continuing in that way.”
Richards’ view is again somewhat different, particularly if you think 1,000 troops is a “large number”.
After 2015, we’ll be in a supporting role. But we’ve expended so much time, effort and, yes, lives on this. The worst of all things would be to get out before we finish the job properly, for want of 1,000 trainers to keep them going for another couple of years. I’m absolutely clear. We really mean it when we say we will be there for as long as it takes.