British soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan in a conflict as fundamental to the UK's national security as the first and second world wars, John Hutton, the defence secretary, said yesterday.
Choosing Armistice Day to make his maiden speech in the post, Hutton's clear message to the public was that the September 11 al-Qaida attacks on the US were as significant as the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 and of Poland in 1939.
His message to the Afghans and the Taliban was that the British would "stay the course". Withdrawal "would confirm al-Qaida propaganda that Britain, like the Soviet Union before, bombed and bolted". The lesson would be that Britain would give up and go home. "We must never, ever send such a message", Hutton said.
In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies studded with references to Britain's "national security", he said the arguments "that took us to Afghanistan are stronger today that in 2001". He added: "I do not want to see British youngsters being indoctrinated into extremism at new al-Qaida camps in an ungoverned space."
But he avoided any mention of widely expected pressure from the US administration on Britain to increase the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. Military chiefs have said British troops cannot simply be transferred to Afghanistan when they leave Iraq next year, and ministers have said they will take the advice of their military commanders. Hutton said British military experts based in the US were working closely with General David Petraeus, the US commander in central Asia and the Middle East, to review Nato's strategy in Afghanistan.
He said that Pakistan was crucial to the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. "Unless authorities on both sides can work effectively together, neither the insurgency in east and south Afghanistan nor the instability in Pakistan's border regions can be fully contained," Hutton said.
He described cross-border security as the "core of our approach". But he declined to comment on US cross-border attacks on suspected Taliban or al-Qaida bases in the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan. Pakistan has described the attacks as counter-productive.
Hutton said there would be a time to negotiate with those Taliban leaders prepared to do so. "If there is one lesson that history has taught, it is that there can be no long-term solution to any conflict without a political settlement," he said.
"But, and this is critical, history also teaches us that you negotiate a political settlement from military strength, not weakness."