Afghanistan – The Mechanics of Withdrawal

17:10 Tuesday 13th March 2012
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: The Prime Minister is flying to Washington for talks with President Obama. During the three day trip the two men are expected to discuss measures leading up to the withdrawal of British and US troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. .. It’s thought the precise timetable for Afghan troops to take over combat operations could be brought forward. New opinion polls here suggest the tide of public opinion wants it to be speeded up. But how likely and how possible is that? I talked a little earlier to a leading military analyst, Major Charles Heyman. (TAPE)
CHARLES HEYMAN: Well everything is possible. And they could make a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, if our politicians wanted them to do that. But it’s fraught with danger, both political problems there and military problems as well.
CHRIS MANN: What kind of dangers?
CHARLES HEYMAN: Well on the military side, the plans for the withdrawal are already written. There will be a number of plans, Scenario A, Scenario B etcetera. But the Government is working to a plan which is to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan towards the end of this year, and then to run down to about one battle group, that’s about 1,000 to 1,500 men, by the end of 2014. And then after that, a number of people left behind in Afghanistan to train the police and the army, probably no more than 500 or so. So that’s the plan itself. Now if you say we want to go straight away, well you can’t actually do that, because you’ve got to get a lot of people out of Afghanistan. You can’t get them out overnight. Even in an emergency evacuation, it would probably take a month to six weeks to thin them out bit by bit, because they have to defend themselves as they’re going. And when you get down to only a couple of hundred left, then you really have got a big problem, because the opposition will be circling like vultures, trying to pick people off.
CHRIS MANN: Like Rorke’s Drift.
CHARLES HEYMAN: Like Rorke’s Drift, or even you could paint a scenario whereby the thing looked like Saigon in 1974, with helicopters whisking people away at the last minute. But you also, if you do that, you leave behind all the people that have helped you. All the people in the government, all the civilians that have assisted you, everyone. Afghan Army, police, the good guys there, and there are a lot of good guys there. And you leave them there to the mercy of the opposition. And that really would not be a good thing for NATO. It wouldn’t be a good thing for our reputation, or the American reputation in the long term.
CHRIS MANN: But the fact is public opinion has turned. It was never hugely in favour of Afghanistan, perhaps briefly after 9/11. But for years now, and particularly since the death of six soldiers last week, we’ve seen British public opinion is saying, take our soldiers out. Is there a track record where governments have listened to them in such a case?
CHARLES HEYMAN: Well first of all you’re quite right. And the figures that I’ve been looking at today suggest that about 73% of people are saying, take them out. But governments don’t generally bend all that much until the few weeks before a general election. So there’s a couple of years at least to go before a general election. If you were to whip the soldiers out very very quickly, and go through, you know, face the dangers, some of the dangers I’ve outlined, you’ve also got major political problems. Because we are there in a NATO alliance role. The reality is that the Americans dominate NATO, and our relationship with the Americans, which is very important to us at a number of levels, I mean really seriously important, would be jeopardised in a very big way. Because the Americans would see us as betraying them.
CHRIS MANN: Well we see Mr Cameron and President Obama together at the moment in Washington, smiling for the cameras. But behind the scenes, there must be some hard bargaining surely over the future in Afghanistan. And what they must do, politically as well as militarily, is try and ensure that awful body count is as low as it can be.
CHARLES HEYMAN: Absolutely. And these two leaders, Cameron and Obama, are faced with a problem that’s been left to them by previous regimes. They’re the guys that are trying to sort it out now, and trying to clear this up. And just as there are a large number of people in the UK who are opposed to the Afghan campaign, a similar number of people are there in America opposed to it as well. So President Obama has got a very big problem.
CHRIS MANN: So you’re saying …
CHARLES HEYMAN: He’s got the election this year. And he needs to come up with something good from Afghanistan, or he’s going to be in serious trouble.
CHRIS MANN: But are you saying basically we’re stuck with it for at least another year, year and a half?
CHARLES HEYMAN: I think we’re stuck .. my own gut feeling is that we’re stuck for it for some considerable time. But it may not run on until the end of 2014. There are noises from America, and the American Defence Secretary Panetta himself has suggested that it might be possible to get combat troops out before 2014. But I wouldn’t .. I think we’re talking here about getting them out six months early, or nine months early, no more than that. I don’t think it’s really possible, politically and militarily, to do that.
CHRIS MANN: Major Charles Heyman.