Britain, Afghanistan, and the ‘special relationship’

Editor’s  Note:  Joining MediaShack is my good friend Monty, a Tommy  who has spent lots of time in Egypt and Syria and has good Arabic skills.   Monty is one of those wicked cool Europeans that like both American and European football.   His only problem is, for some reason, he chose a crap team to root for- the Oakland Raiders.  Dude, you have no geographic obligations.  You can pick any team you want and noone in America can say anything!! A Brit choosing to root for the Raiders is like an American choosing to become a fan of Manchester City FC!  Anyway, Monty will be blogging about Middle East security issues from a British perspective. 

 British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was in Washington yesterday after grabbing the much-coveted first slot for a foreign minister to appear side-by-side with the Obama administration.  For all of you in the US, this appointment may not sound like a big deal, but in Britain the press has been reporting widespread panic overtaking Whitehall.  Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday that there had been a   “slight_change…but_continuity”  of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, describing it as “certainly special in my eyes.”   Whitehall will have been watching intently.

The UK Government usually takes time to ease alongside new US Presidents, but this transition may be more painful than most.  

Many Brit’s are beginning to see themselves as adrift in Afghanistan and on their way out of Iraq.  The British edition of  The Economist this week summarised the position of the British military perfectly as “overstretched, overwhelmed and over there.” The article quoted a senior official in the Bush administration as saying that there is “a lot of concern on the US side about whether we are going to have an ally with the capability and willingness to be in the fight with us.”  Indeed, with even Britain’s own generals openly questioning the role of their armed forces in Afghanistan, the UK is likely to resist an expected Obama “surge” in the mould of that which was unleashed in Baghdad.  This request was alluded to by Clinton yesterday when she said that she looked forward to the UK and Europe helping to “enhance our support for the people of Afghanistan.”

There is also great weight of expectation on Obama.  Philip Stephens, a commentator writing for The Financial Times – and always worth reading – argued that Britain expects two things from Obama; first, that the US steps in and resolves the world’s myriad problems, and second that it stops throwing its weight around and asks less from the UK for its support.  The public popularity of the war in Afghanistan is very low.  With British forces pulling out of Iraq, the British public would most likely support a similar move in Afghanistan which is at risk at being viewed as an intractable conflict. The current economic climate provides little prospect of an increase in funding for a stretched military, which is badly needed if Britain is to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

And finally, for all Obama has said, he has said little on Britain. Obama makes little or no reference to Britain in his ‘Audacity on Hope’ political tract.  Apart from the affirmation that no war should be embarked upon by the US without a UN mandate, that is.  The 44th US President has also paid more initial attention to France than his predecessors – although the French are too likely to baulk at demands upon their military.

While there is no doubt that the US and UK will continue to have a strong relationship, the degree to which it is special is likely to be tested in Afghanistan.