Just days before the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist assault on the USA, the civilian head of the US Armed Forces said that his country’s military must remain committed to the fight in Afghanistan to prevent it from being used as a base for launching such attacks. Secretary of State for Defense Robert M. Gates said during a Pentagon briefing: “The fact is that 9/11 represented the first foreign-based attack on the continental United States, with significant casualties, since the War of 1812.” He continued: “That attack emanated from Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. They actively cooperated and collaborated with Al-Qaeda. They provided a worldwide base of operations for Al-Qaeda.”
Gates admitted the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated. He was revealing his thoughts on the war as US Marines continued to spearhead the fight against the enemy in parts of Helmand Province, the bitterest battleground between Western forces and the Taliban. The UK is the second biggest contributor of fighting forces, like the USA committing marines, naval aviation and other maritime formations, to the fight as well as land-centric units.
Currently the head of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the US Army’s Stanley McChrystal, who has submitted a detailed assessment of the campaign to the US Department of Defense. Secretary Gates commented: “I don’t believe that the war is slipping through the [US] administration’s fingers. The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising. I think what is important is for us to be able to show, over the months to come, is that the President’s strategy is succeeding.”
That strategy is region-wide, with a focus on the Pak-Afghan dimension and ensuring that while the Taliban is beaten, the conflict does not plunge nuclear-armed Pakistan into anarchy and all-out civil war. Above all, the US administration is aiming to ensure that the region does not spawn further terrorists’ atrocities like 9/11. To this end, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen has created a Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell in the Pentagon to work exclusively on the area’s issues. Mullen says of the campaign in Afghanistan: “I’d rather see us, as a nation, argue about the war - struggling to get it right - than ignore it.”
Mullen said of the terrorists who attacked America in September 2001: “They live and plan and train in safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They’d like nothing better than to see either country - or both - fall prey to the grip of an extremist ideology.”
No such confidence on where the Afghan campaign is headed exists in government circles in the UK, where a senior politician resigned his post in protest at his own administration’s inability to manage defence matters properly, including the campaign against the Taliban. Labour MP and former Army Major Eric Joyce delivered his resignation letter to his boss, Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth, on the eve of a speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in which the PM was due to set out why Britain must remain in the fight. Joyce reportedly said: ‘I do not think the British people will support the physical risk to our servicemen and women unless they can be given confidence that Afghanistan’s government has been properly elected and has a clear intent to deal with the corruption there which has continued unabated in recent years.’ He also wrote: ‘We also need to make it clear that our commitment in Afghanistan is high but time limited. It should be possible now to say that we will move off our present war-footing and reduce our forces there substantially during our next term in government.’