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Dancing to Deadlines

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 12:23

Officers on parade.

By Dr Duncan Anderson, Head of War Studies, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst

As American combat troops made their much heralded departure from Iraq in the last week of August, bombs exploded within a two hour time period across thirteen cities, killing 36 and injuring many more. Interviewed on CBS, General Raymond Odierno argued that these carefully co-ordinated attacks were almost certainly the work of Al Qaeda and indicated the continued existence of a terrorist network. In the weeks before withdrawal, several prominent Iraqis, including the commander of the Iraqi army and even Saddam Hussein’s former foreign minister Tariq Aziz, had urged the Americans to delay their departure, arguing that the Iraqi army was not yet ready to take charge of national security.

The attacks in Iraq came just as NATO capitals across the world were publicly debating President Obama’s deadline for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Senior officers in America, Britain and France have openly questioned the wisdom of his decision. Modern military history supplies only one example of a successful outcome when a government signals its intention to withdraw. In February 1956, Britain announced its intention to grant full independence to Malaya within eighteen months. Had this statement been made five years earlier, when the communist insurgents seemed to be in the ascendant and British victory less assured, the effect would have been very different.

In all other cases, a public announcement of withdrawal dates has indicated a lack of will and/or capability. Such announcements have invariably diminished troop morale and encouraged the enemy. French history can supply two such examples. In March 1866, Napoleon III’s government announced the phased withdrawal from Mexico of a French expeditionary force which had been supporting Emperor Maximilian’s government against the Juarez insurgency.  Within eighteen months Maximilian’s forces had melted away, and the emperor was executed by an insurgent firing squad. In September 1959, General Charles de Gaulle announced France’s intention of withdrawing from Algeria. Within weeks the hitherto successful counter-insurgency campaign had degenerated into a three-way civil war, with Colon terrorists and elements of the Foreign Legion attacking both the FLN and metropolitan French troops. The denouement came less than three years later, with massacres and ignominious evacuations.

The British experience has been the same. During the course of 1946 the Attlee government’s announcements of deadlines for British withdrawals from Palestine, Egypt and India contributed to disasters in all three areas. Following the announcement of the British withdrawal from India, the viceroy Lord Wavell witnessed an increase in inter-communal violence and the decreasing reliability of the Indian army and police forces. He predicted a rapid descent into chaos and argued that that Attlee’s government had two options – either to announce Britain’s determination to maintain control of India for the next 15-20 years, or to quit immediately, and accept the fragmentation of the Raj and the inevitable widespread massacres. Wavell’s replacement Lord Louis Mountbatten quickly came to the same conclusions. He accelerated the British withdrawal, which produced the outcomes Wavell had foretold.

Twenty years later Harold Wilson’s government set a timetable for a withdrawal from Aden. The South Arabian police, hitherto reliable allies of the British, quickly became unreliable. Intelligence soon dried up, and British patrols were led into ambushes in which the police participated. The result was an evacuation which had all the appearance of a rout.

Mindful of their own country’s previous withdrawals from imperial commitments, both President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron have avoided setting dates for a departure from Afghanistan. Cameron has spoken of a five year commitment, while Sarkozy has suggested that France’s commitment might be even longer. Both leaders have argued that although Obama has announced a start date for the American withdrawal (July 2011), he has carefully avoided saying how long that withdrawal might take. In short, the president has given himself considerable room to manoeuvre.

Like all military campaigns, Afghanistan is as much about perception as it is about reality. No one in official circles in London, Paris or Washington believes that the West will begin packing up in 2011 and abandon the Karzai government to its fate, anymore than that America will pull its remaining 50,000 troops out of Iraq if Al Qaeda seems capable of seriously damaging the government in Baghdad. The view from Kabul, Kandahar, Lahore and Islamabad looks very different. There is a growing belief that America will once again ‘betray’ its former commitments (commentators cite Chiang Kai-shek and the Shah of Iran). The desertion rate from both the ANA and ANP remains, unsurprisingly, worryingly high. If our leaders could avoid the language of deadlines they could redress one of the major problems which besets the Afghan mission. They need to find a way of showing the enemy that they have no desire to stay in Afghanistan forever but will not withdraw if the price – a radical Taliban government in Kabul — is too high.