This week Chancellor George Osborne unveiled £6.2 billion in public spending cuts; the first round in what is expected to be a deep and painful austerity program to rein in Britain’s £156 billion deficit. According to Osborne, the government is targeting ‘wasteful spending’. If waste is truly in the crosshairs, I’d like to put forth a glaringly obvious proposal that will save Britain billions now and in the future. Withdraw our troops from Afghanistan.
Sadly, arguing the case for withdrawal on the basis of British lives lost– both men and women in uniform and private security contractors working in Afghanistan — has thus far failed to convince the government to rethink its policy. Public pressure hasn’t hit critical mass. Perhaps too many voters feel the conflict has no impact on their day-to-day lives or they’ve been frightened by the government’s claims that Britain’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is necessary for safeguarding our national security. But where blood has failed to persuade, treasure may succeed, especially now that every man, woman and child in this country is living in the shadow of an £893.4 billion debt mountain.
The economic argument for pulling out of Afghanistan is compelling. An analysis by the Independent on Sunday estimated that by the middle of this year, the MoD will have spent £9 billion on Afghan operations; a figure that only accounts for logistical costs including wages, equipment and transport. When the Independent factored in ‘hidden costs’ such as support for injured troops, veterans and the families of soldiers killed in action, the figure climbed to £12 billion. And that’s just the bill so far. There are also long-term costs associated with the Afghan campaign, for example, the on-going care of wounded veterans and soldiers suffering from PTSD. Consider too that the MoD isn’t the only British presence in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office and British development agencies have poured tens of millions of pounds into the Afghan black hole.
Again, the naysayers will argue that Britain needs to stay the course in Afghanistan to protect our shores from terrorists. As I’ve argued before, Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan has stoked home grown terrorism and compromised our future defence capabilities by forcing the MoD to gut the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to free up cash for operations. It’s also a mistake to view national security exclusively through the lens of counter-terrorism. Economic strength is equally vital. Right now, Britain is staring down the barrel of a sovereign debt downgrade that would boot it out of the premier league of world economies. And while Britain continues to spend on Afghanistan, education budgets in this country are being slashed. The impact on our future competitiveness cannot be overstated. We need to give our children a running start; not rob them of a decent education and saddle them with a debt bomb.
Britain’s new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, recently described Afghanistan as ‘a broken 13th century country’. As much as I admire the Afghans for their toughness and cunning, I have to say I agree. Pouring good money after bad is not going to fix Afghanistan. But it will add to Britain’s already considerable economic woes.