Friday, March 02, 2007

Wait until the guards are drinking their cocoa

It's Friday, so it must be time for another of my House Points columns from Liberal Democrat News.

With friends like these...

Back in the 1970s someone observed what an advance for civilisation it was that German soldiers now had long hair and moaned about their rights. According to Liam Fox on Monday, things have gone further: Germany’s forces in Afghanistan are not allowed out at night.

That would have done for many old films. No need to build a glider or hide inside a wooden horse. You just wait until the guards are drinking their cocoa and walk out through the main gate. John Mills and Dickie Attenborough would have been looking for other careers.

Evidence to support Fox's claim is elusive, but there is no doubt that some NATO members are contributing far more to operations in Afghanistan than others. Canadian, Dutch, British and American troops are waging war in the south. Other nations confine themselves to the relatively peaceful north, send minimal numbers of troops or insist on going in when their Mums call them for tea.

Nick Harvey began by "reaffirming the Liberal Democrats' support for our operation in Afghanistan". But it is hard to resist the thought that one reason these nations are reluctant to involve themselves is that they have more sense.

It was particularly hard when Des Browne reminded the House of NATO's objective: "To ensure that the Government of Afghanistan, elected by their own people, can deliver government, security and economic prosperity to those people."

For Liberals, the important question behind this disappointment with the contribution of some NATO members concerns the prospects for greater European co-operation on defence. It is an appealing idea – particularly in the light of the near humiliation of our current relationship with the USA – and is resurfacing in the debates over whether Trident should be replaced.

Those of us with long memories are still scarred by David Owen’s eccentric scheme for an Anglo-French nuclear deterrent. As was suggested at the time, it would have been a good idea to try something less ambitious together first – like making cheese.

But European cooperation should not be rejected because of that. Neither is it being fairly tested in the impossible conditions of Afghanistan. Simon Carr suggested in the Independent that Browne’s objective will take four or five hundred years. Others thought he was being optimistic.

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