Sir Jock Stirrup: Even a US surge won’t beat the Taliban

Sir Jock Stirrup, Britain’s chief of the defence staff, tells Carey Schofield only politics can bring peace to Afghanistan

Fighter reconnaissance pilots possess steely resolve. Having served his time flying Strikemasters during Britain’s “secret war” in Oman in the 1970s and a Jaguar reconnaissance aircraft during the cold war, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, now chief of the defence staff, knows something about steering a difficult course into hostile territory. Indeed, he’s still doing it today. He is described by many in the services as “Gordon’s favourite defence chief” – and it is not meant as a compliment.

At a time when the armed forces are stuck in two unpopular wars, Stirrup has come under heavy fire for his willingness to work with his political masters. Typically, he brushes aside suggestions that the defence budget is in trouble. There is “serious pressure” he admits, but “we have to adjust our programme so that we can live within the available resources”. It is not hard to see why this frustrates troops waiting on the ground in Afghanistan for a helicopter that may or may not arrive to deliver supplies.

But political insiders say Stirrup has won Whitehall battles that more flamboyant generals would have botched. Today he is in his office at the Ministry of Defence – in full RAF rig – but his mind is in Afghanistan. He is not saying what reinforcements, if any, the British will send to Helmand, the southern province it controls, but it will be a “limited number”. He agrees with General Sir Richard Dannatt’s assertion that Britain’s troops are in need of a rest. Britain’s forces are “not structurally resourced” to have more than 12,000 troops on operations abroad: “So of course it’s putting pressure on our people and they and their families are feeling the effect, which is one of the reasons we’ve got to get the tempo back in balance as quickly as possible.”

Although the Americans are sending a “substantial number” of troops into Helmand, he insists that the UK will retain “the key lead in the centre of Helmand, with its provincial reconstruction team and with the partnership it has with the provincial governor and with local governance”. Put another way, Britain will be confined to the surroundings of the capital Lashkar Gah, while the Americans take over the whole of the south.

Stirrup is clearly aware that some of his men are concerned that the Americans are coming in too hard and heavy, all too ready to call in ground attack aircraft regardless of the dangers to civilians. “We would expect, where the Americans are operating in Afghanistan, that they might do things a little differently from the way that we do them,” he says, still carefully choosing his words. “But nevertheless we will be aiming towards the same objective.”

Barack Obama is said to be unhappy with President Hamid Karzai and his regime’s lack of power outside the Afghan capital, not to mention allegations of involvement in the drugs trade. Stirrup refrains from direct personal criticism, but admits to problems. “The weakness of governance in Afghanistan worries me considerably,” he says. “But governance is not just about what goes on in Kabul. We have to look at the wider picture.”

Which is? The clue hangs on the walls of his office: engravings of the Indian army operations that famously failed to impose any order on the Pashtun people who sprawl across both sides of Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Today the “wider picture” means both countries. “The Taliban movement – and Taliban is now a catch-all phrase for ideologues, criminals, people with tribal grudges, people who are quite simply guns for hire to keep bread on the table – is on both sides of the border. It makes no distinction between one side or the other. Some people move across. Some are based almost exclusively in Pakistan. Some are based exclusively in Afghanistan. It’s impossible to distinguish between those two and actually, in my view, not necessary. The border is not relevant,” he says.

The Pakistan army has been criticised for not doing enough but, while admitting its success thus far has been “limited”, Stirrup sympathises. “I think the Pakistan army has a series of very considerable problems,” he says, adding that it has realised in recent years that “the growing insurgency within its own borders is an existential problem for Pakistan”.

Stirrup has discussed this with General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan army, on a number of occasions: “He is absolutely clear on the size of the challenge that he faces. My sense is that the Pakistan army has become much more sophisticated and much more flexible and adaptable in terms of its approach. So we have to do all we can to support the military in that shift, but we have to recognise that they can’t do it overnight.”

Nor can they do it alone, Stirrup says: “Just as in Afghanistan, that kind of insurgency cannot be defeated by conventional military means. It can only be dealt with, in the long term, through politics.”

Here’s the rub: there is a widely held perception in Pakistan that all would be well if only Nato troops were not in Afghanistan, a belief which grows stronger with every US Predator attack that kills innocent civilians.

“It’s very important that the Pakistan government starts to shift that opinion,” Stirrup says, “because, while they shouldn’t be driven just by public opinion, they can’t operate in the face of it. The Predator strikes don’t help in that regard.”

Only if Pakistan is sorted out will there be any chance of sorting out Afghanistan, he believes, although exactly what success will look like is less than clear. Obama has opted for the word “peace” instead of “victory”, but right now achieving peace in Afghanistan seems every bit as improbable as victory.

“The objective is to get Afghanistan to the state where the government of Afghanistan is continuing and substantially unthreatened by the Taliban in terms of its security and is not a harbour for Al-Qaeda,” says Stirrup. “It’s not to turn Afghanistan into some sort of Asian Switzerland. We have to look upon Afghanistan as a journey continued rather than a destination reached.”

February 1, 2009

Source: The Sunday Times

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