It's time to pull out of Afghanistan and take the fight to Bin Laden in Britain | Kim Howells

I backed the war, but the chance looks squandered. Local agencies battling terrorism need the funds being spilt in Helmand

For the best part of seven years the British public appeared to accept the argument that, if we didn't deploy our troops to fight al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, we might be forced to fight them on the streets of Britain. In recent months, however, it seems that public support for our military involvement in that United Nations-led operation is diminishing.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The public may be asking whether deploying large numbers of British forces to Afghanistan at great cost, in lives lost as well as in pounds sterling, is actually the most effective way of preventing Islamic terrorist murders in the UK. Perhaps, like me, they are considering that there may be more effective alternatives to the deployment and wondering why there has been little discussion about them, save for the usual "if we are nice to violent jihadists they might be nice to us" variety.

Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan have succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country, but have not destroyed the organisation or its leader, Osama bin Laden. Nor have they succeeded in eliminating al-Qaida's protectors, the Taliban. There can be no guarantee that the next seven years will bring significantly greater success and, even if they do, it is salutary to remember that Afghanistan has never been the sole location of terrorist training camps.

If we accept that al-Qaida continues to pose a deadly threat to the UK, and if we know that it is capable of changing the locations of its bases and modifying its attack plans, we must accept that we have a duty to question the wisdom of prioritising, in terms of government spending on counter-terrorism, the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan. It is time to ask whether the fight against those who are intent on murdering British citizens might better be served by diverting into the work of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining British forces in Afghanistan.

It would be better, in other words, to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women and concentrate on using the money saved to secure our own borders, gather intelligence on terrorist activities inside Britain, expand our intelligence operations abroad, co-operate with foreign intelligence services, and counter the propaganda of those who encourage terrorism.

Such a shift in focus would have the benefit of exposing far fewer British servicemen and women to the deadly threats of Taliban snipers and roadside bombs, but would also have momentous implications for UK foreign and defence policy. We would need to reinvent ourselves diplomatically and militarily. Treaties and international agreements would have to be renegotiated. In particular, relationships with our Nato partners, especially with the Americans – our most trusted and valued allies – would alter fundamentally.

Life inside the UK would have to change. There would be more intrusive surveillance in certain communities, more police officers on the streets, more border officials at harbours and airports, more inspectors of vehicles and vessels entering the country, and a re-examination of arrangements that facilitate the "free movement" of people and products across our frontiers with the rest of the EU.

Some of these changes will generate great opposition, but many of them will be welcomed. If media reports are true, the British public is becoming increasingly hostile to the notion that any of our service personnel should be killed or wounded in support of difficult outcomes and flawed regimes in faraway countries.

This shift in opinion is happening at a time when the size of the Afghan conflict might grow, rather than decrease. Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, the highly respected British deputy commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, backs the request of the US commander, General Stanley McChrystal, for the extra soldiers.

Dutton said recently that the ideal number required to turn the tide in a country like Afghanistan, with its 28 million people, is around half a million. Currently, there is less than half that number of foreign and Afghan troops available to him and McChrystal. I doubt whether the presence, even of another 40,000 American troops – brave and efficient though they are – will guarantee that the Taliban and their allies will no longer be able to terrorise and control significant stretches of countryside, rural communities and key roads. Recent attacks in Kabul and other centres suggest that the present balance of territorial control is at best likely to remain – or, more likely, to shift in favour of the Taliban.

Like many observers of this eight-year conflict, I had hoped that by now a degree of stability might have returned to Afghanistan. I assumed, wrongly, that a desire among ordinary Afghans for peace would prevail over the prospect of continued war and the spectre of being ruled by a tyrannical theocracy in one of the world's poorest and most backward countries. Dutton has stated that the "ultimate answer" to Afghanistan's problems is "a stable democratic state … in which [Afghan] forces are capable of maintaining the rule of law".

The general knows how far away that is. At a recent demonstration in the Afghan capital, Kabul, hundreds of Islamist demonstrators chanted "Death to America". In a Commons debate some months ago, I expressed the view that a deadly combination of anti-democratic Islamic fundamentalism, corruption and the proximity of safe Pakistani havens for terrorists all militated against the notion that we will be able to continue convincing the British people that they should prepare themselves for a "30-year" campaign (as one of our distinguished diplomats put it).

These are my views, not those of any part of the British government or of any parliamentary committee. They are the views of someone who supported the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan. I was convinced that, given the opportunity offered to them by the UN-led intervention, the Afghans would display the resolve, skills and courage to tackle the problems that have blighted Afghanistan for so long. It was never going to be easy but I'm afraid that, despite great sacrifice, the opportunity has largely been squandered.

Bin Laden, along with his admirers and followers, won't wait around for the future of Afghanistan to be resolved. Their preparation and training for terrorism hasn't stopped, and Britain has no choice but to continue to seek out his bombers and those of other terrorist organisations. Our police forces, intelligence and border agencies have mammoth tasks. Their budgets already are much larger than they were in the years prior to the attacks on New York and London in 2001 and 2005, but they will have to grow larger still if they are to prevent further atrocities, not least when the eyes of the world will be on London during the 2012 Olympics.

The public will want to know, of course, where the money to pay for all this will come from. It won't be easy but it is time to tell them that it will come from the savings that will accrue from not having to pay for the war in Afghanistan. Sooner rather than later a properly planned, phased withdrawal of our forces from Helmand province has to be announced. If it is an answer that serves, also, to focus the minds of those in the Kabul government who have shown such a poverty of leadership over the past seven years, then so much the better.


Kim Howells

The GuardianTramp

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