The long war in Afghanistan has left Britain wary of more major military engagements abroad, much as Vietnam sapped America’s will to fight, Philip Hammond says today.
War-weary Britain is experiencing its own “Vietnam phenomenon” as the Afghan mission draws to a close, the Defence Secretary told The Telegraph during a trip to Afghanistan.
His candid assessment of Britain’s appetite for future conflict comes as David Cameron and other Western leaders edge towards greater military intervention in Syria.
The Prime Minister will use next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to talk to US President Barack Obama about sending sophisticated weapons to rebels fighting to topple Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Britain and its allies will “look at all the options” for Syria, Mr Hammond said.
Opponents of intervention fear that Britain and its allies could be sucked into an escalating regional conflict in the Middle East, as the Assad regime has support from Russia and Iran.
The prospect of greater Syrian engagement comes as Britain tries to wind down its mission in Afghanistan and end combat operations late next year.
Britain’s Afghan operations began in 2001 with a drive to topple the Taliban government in Kabul that sheltered those responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US.
Since then, 444 British Service personnel have died in the country, and thousands more have been seriously injured.
Britain will next year leave behind a country that remains desperately poor, plagued by political corruption and with every prospect of the Taliban returning to share power.
Mr Hammond admitted that the length and cost of the Afghan conflict has reduced Britain’s willingness to conduct major military interventions in future.
“I suspect that the British people – and not just the British people – will be wary of enduring engagements on this kind of scale for perhaps quite a long while in the future,” he said.
In a striking reference, he invoked the memory of the US intervention in Vietnam, which spanned three decades and ended in 1975 with a humiliating American retreat.
Speaking at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand province, Mr Hammond said: “You might call it the Vietnam phenomenon – when an engagement turns out to be longer and more costly than originally envisaged, there is often a public reaction to that.”
But instead of ruling out all future interventions, Mr Hammond said, Britain should learn from its experiences in Afghanistan that early action can avert major crises.
If Britain and its allies had taken a role in Afghanistan earlier, he said, the prolonged war might have been avoided.
“We ourselves have learned the lesson that earlier, smaller scale intervention may often avoid the need for more massive intervention later, and if we are in a mood for beating ourselves up, perhaps we should have foreseen the consequences of what was happening in Afghanistan before 9/11,” he said. “Perhaps we should have been more forward leaning in the west collectively in intervening to try and head off what was happening here before it happened.”
Instead of planning deployments of thousands of troops to combat zones, Britain should now focus on smaller, earlier missions to “snuff out” terrorist groups and other threats, he said.
“The lesson now is that we need to be thinking three moves ahead in the chess game, and trying when we can to intervene with hundreds to build capacity, to prevent conflict, to snuff out early signs of terrorists taking hold of a piece of ground, rather than needing to do it later with massive force.”
By Benedict Brogan, Rawa.org