The coalition talks of a 'conditions-based' Afghanistan withdrawal but those conditions can be changed to hit the deadline
The Labour opposition and government backbenchers alike are accusing the government of "mixed messages" over its war strategy in Afghanistan. Military commanders are uneasy.
Announcing a deadline for starting to withdraw troops, let alone for ending combat operations, has traditionally been opposed on the grounds that it gives the enemy the advantage. In Afghanistan, all the Taliban and other insurgent groups need do is sit – or hide – and wait.
The coalition government's view is crystal clear. It has made it plain, virtually from the day it was formed, that it wants British troops to stop fighting there by the time of the next general election, due in 2015. It has also said that it wants British troops to begin withdrawing in July next year, the timetable first set by Barack Obama for US troops in Afghanistan.
The defence secretary, Liam Fox, more concerned than Cameron about fixing deadlines, told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday:
"It's always been our aim to be successful in the mission and the mission has always said that the Afghan national security forces would be able to deal with their own security by 2014. We recognise there will be further work to do in terms of training and improving the quality of those forces beyond that, which is why we have said training forces may be available after that date. But we have made it very clear it will not be combat forces."
"If you go back to the US's original strategy, they expected the Afghan national security forces would be able to maintain the security of Afghanistan by 2013. That was amended to 2014. David Cameron's assessment of 2015 is quite conservative."
The official line also remains that any decision to withdraw troops is "conditions-based". Surely, there is a contradiction between that and setting dates? No, said Cameron on Wednesday, there was "absolutely no contradiction". The same day, Nick Clegg told the Commons that while no timetable could be "chiselled in stone", he said "we must be out ... by 2015".
So, there we are. There will still be conditions but, if necessary, they will be changed to meet the deadlines. Already, government officials talk about an Afghanistan "good enough". Going is talk of human rights and the welfare of women. Coming are calls for talks soon with the Taliban and anyone else who can contribute to a political settlement. And more and more fingers are being crossed in Whitehall.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016