Was that a mix of common sense and reality from the US President, Donald Trump that I listened to on BBC World Service during the very early hours of this morning? Yes it certainly was and not just the US President sticking to what was clearly an agreed script, but also at last actually sounding as if he believed in every word that he was saying.
The arguments made by Donald Trump in this nationwide television broadcast last evening were not only very powerful but moreover, they set the stage for providing much needed reassurance to America’s worried allies. There was much of note and as far as I am concerned, topping the list was the complete rejection of his early notion and election pledge in respect of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Whilst Trump was somewhat shy of providing complete endorsement of either the Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement or the 2013 Bilateral Security Agreement and made clear that this was no blank cheque for American engagement in Afghanistan to continue permanently, he made it abundantly clear that America has learned its lessons from what most of us agree was a far too premature withdrawal from Iraq.
Trumps words “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” After what he described as having been lengthy and exhaustive deliberations culminating in a meeting with his war cabinet at Camp David, Mr. Trump said that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
Calling on his NATO allies to play a larger part in ensuring what is meant to pass these days as some kind of stability being maintained in Afghanistan and importantly that America and its allies must now ensure that the Taliban are refused the opportunity to gain back control of what has been hard fought and gained in the name of freedom and democracy of sorts, Donald Trump went on to provide a rather backhanded compliment to America’s allies saying that not only he had asked them to spend more on defence and that they had risen to the challenge. He had few doubts either that they would rise to the challenge of sending additional forces to Afghanistan. America by the way already has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan and now proposes to increase this number further.
While the jury remains out in respect of reaction by the other 27 members of NATO in regard of Trump calls for them to increase spending on defence, the winding down of criticism of NATO allies by the US president will of necessity be welcomed in Brussels NATO headquarters. French and German reaction to the speech will also be interesting to observe.
Back in June NATO agreed to send more forces in response to commanders’ request for as many as 3,000 troops to train alongside Afghan security forces. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg said at the time of the Brussels talks that month that 15 countries had already pledged additional support. But although the US has the largest number of troops supporting Afghan security forces than anyone else, agreeing to increase numbers of troops deployed was made all the more difficult by the absence and confusion surrounding future American policy toward Afghanistan. Now we know exactly where the US president stands and we should be in little doubt the NATO members will rise to the challenge. Britain by the way has a very small number (500) mainly Army personnel deployed in Afghanistan assisting Afghan security forces in training. The Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon has already agreed to increase this number sending an additional 85 military advisors.
Although he will no doubt be criticised for having seemingly done a complete ‘u’ turn respect of Afghanistan strategy there is more to commend what a more reasoning and sensible message from Donald Trump today than there is to criticise. Importantly, Trump has at a stroke changed the dynamics not only of the ongoing Afghanistan conflict but also of the ongoing of war against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.
Perhaps the starkest warning in last evening’s US presidential address was in regard of Pakistan which the President openly accused of harbouring Taliban. Pakistan should take due note in this important ramping up of US rhetoric. Whilst not a threat of war, for the US to be so blunt in starting its intolerance of Pakistan inability to flush out Taliban and its potential harbouring of Islamist militants should not be ignored by the Karachi based Pakistan administration.
One hopes that President Trump not only understands the dynamics of the new found rhetoric that requires the US and its allies to step up the fight against Taliban and Daesh/Islamic forces opposed to the West but also that this will mark a genuine step change in approach to various ongoing conflicts.
I hope too that the message will be well understood by NATO members and that a renewed effort by America and its allies will be understood by those EU politicians that are hell bent on leading European defence in a very different way. NATO is strong today, fit for purpose and ready for the challenges ahead.
I am suddenly reminded of the summary conclusion words used by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in its 2008 inquiry into the future of NATO and European defence reminding that “NATO achievements over the past sixty years in ensuring the stability and prosperity of Europe are remarkable. Since the end of the Cold War the Alliance has undergone a dramatic transformation, from a largely reactive organisation concerned with contingency planning for the territorial defence of Western Europe to an operational Alliance, expanded to incorporate former Warsaw Pact Eastern European nations, which seeks to project stability on its periphery and beyond”. A lot more from me on NATO in the weeks and months ahead.
It is all very well the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne and who to be fare was all but single-handedly responsible for creating what he chose to call the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ suggesting that too much money is being spent on capital infrastructure projects on London and that more money should be spent creating an HS3 railway in the north, without accepting that business goes where people live and work.
Yes, transport systems matter but building a new railway when so much is being done to improve the northern based infrastructure we have got defeats his rather poor argument.
I have met with George Osborne on several occasions over the past eight years and I can vouch that there is far more to this man than meets the eye. Interviewed on the ‘Today programme’ on BBC Radio 4 earlier this morning he was quick to point out that Britain and the European Union both needed each other and that the UK is nowhere near ready to crash out of the EU by Spring 2019.
I share his view that although we both voted to stay in the EU that the die is cast and that another vote on the matter of leaving the EU is just not going to occur. Reminding that in his view the country is poorer relative to others and we have gone from being the fastest growing of the G7 members to one of the slowest growing Osborne went on to say that “I want to make the best of that decision” and “that Britain needed a transition deal2 and he poured scorn on the notion that no deal was better than a bad deal.
All well and good but building a new rail network connecting Liverpool and Hull and that he believes would transform the northern economy…..sadly, I think not!
Clearly the degree of sour grapes in all this is hard to quantify and I do detect a slight ratcheting down of rhetoric on that score. Yes, the Evening Standard is a good voice for the former Chancellor to set out his stall but suggesting the north should get new railways at the expense of London and where the bulk of the population tend to live, may not be what Evening Standard readers want to hear.
(Please note that I am now away on business for the next two days and then ‘absent’ on leave until September 4.)
CHW (London – 22nd August 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785