A major rift in Britain's governing party over the war in Afghanistan opened up Wednesday when a former Foreign Office minister became the first senior British politician to call for a withdrawal of British troops.
Kim Howells, a Labour Party MP who chairs a parliamentary committee overseeing intelligence and security, published his article calling for withdrawal just ahead of news that five British troops were shot dead in southern Afghanistan. Analysts say his senior position, and the access to classified information it affords him, will likely give his words resonance among the broader British public.
"He is not just any parliamentary backbencher. He is chair of a very important committee, 'the' committee when it comes to security and intelligence, which reports directly to the Prime Minister and whose members have a very high security clearance," said Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Britain's Bradford University.
The shift of position from Mr. Howell – an early and ardent supporter of the Afghan invasion – comes at a delicate time, with UK public support for the war dwindling even as President Obama is considering a troop surge into the country. The UK is the second largest contributor of troops to the war and while the government says it remains committed, the British public is growing increasingly skeptical about the loss of life in a foreign land that recently saw President Hamid Karzai reelected in a corruption-tainted election.
Howell's comments have inflicted damage on the deeply unpopular government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown as it turns toward elections expected for early next year and may also provides cover for opposition politicians to campaign on a 'troops out' ticket. Until now, anti-war sentiment among Labour MPs has largely been confined to the party's left-wing fringes.
The British soldiers killed Tuesday by an Afghan policeman in Helmand province brought British deaths in Afghanistan this year to 92, making it the bloodiest one for British forces since the Falklands war in 1982. The Taliban claimed the killer was acting on their orders.
A phased pullout?
Howells argued for a phased pullout of British forces from Helmand and said that money would be better spent on expanding overseas intelligence operations and securing Britain from terrorist attack at home. No major party has adopted an Afghan withdrawal as official policy. To the extent that Afghanistan has been politicized, it has been as a result of bitter debates about equipment shortages.
Observers have suggested that Britain's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, could adopt a policy of withdrawal. Their MPs may wield considerable clout in the not unlikely event of a hung parliament next year.
Responding to public cynicism about the recent Afghan presidential election, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Monday that British forces were "being asked to prop up a government in which no one believes."
Deaths could turn unease into opposition
Professor Rogers says casualties could tip the unease of politicians like Mr. Clegg into outright opposition. "It's not the case at the moment, but if there were further major losses then a withdrawal could become an election issue."
Tim Bird, a defence expert at King's College, London and the author of a forthcoming book on 10 years of intervention in Afghanistan, said that there was widespread disillusionment in security circles and within the British military about Afghan policy, but that UK policy makers are waiting to see which way Obama jumps.
"A strategic debate is raging, but to an extent its outcome has to be put on hold until the end of the debate currently also raging in Washington is known," Dr. Bird said.
"The significance of Kim Howells is for another debate, a domestic, public and political one. It opens up space for others to press for troops to be pulled out on the basis that it has already been said by someone with these government links."
Howells said in his article, published in The Guardian, that his proposals would also mean Britain would have to reinvent itself 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."
A separate controversy was meanwhile brewing around his prescription for greater domestic security arrangements – described in the media as 'fortress Britain' – in which he called for a much heavier police presence at street level and "intrusive" surveillance.