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A look at the new ‘Conservative realist’ policy

Britain needs to forget trying to shape nations through military interventions, and start making deals with existing regimes in order to stop Russia and China gaining influence, SOLOMON HUGHES hears at a Tory Party fringe

ARMED Forces Minister James Heappey said at a Conservative Party fringe meeting that Britain would probably have to “hold its nose” and do a deal with the Taliban. 

Addressing a packed meeting on Afghanistan, the minister showed how far the Conservative leadership is drifting away from the “neoconservative,” interventionist approaches they embraced after September 11 2001.

Heappey was addressing a meeting of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, which was “marking the 20th anniversary of British troops in Afghanistan,” but did so like the wake for a failed policy.

Heappey told the audience: “There is one part of the Taliban we can, sort of, hold our nose and work with,” saying: “We are going to have to work out when the right time is to recognise, work with and try to build a relationship with Afghanistan.”

In part, Heappey argued this because the very real danger of a “humanitarian disaster” if the West simply refuses to recognise the Taliban and continues “freezing the assets” of the country. 

Much of Afghanistan’s budget is held abroad and currently frozen as the new government is not recognised. This could mean salaries of healthcare workers and cash for emergency supplies dry up. A strategy to deny the Taliban recognition could punish the Afghan people and cause many deaths.

But Heappey was also arguing for a Conservative “realist” policy — in his argument, because military interventions have failed, Britain will need to make more deals with contentious smaller nations to “win” against big rivals like Russia and China.

Heappey was direct about the failure of intervention. He said: “The history of our interventions in Afghanistan — or any interventions in Afghanistan — is not great,” although, he added: “The problem is that Afghanistan when left to its own devices doesn’t have a great history either, and that is a challenge.”

While many in the audience wanted to emphasise the successes of the Afghan intervention, Heappey said: “I wish I could sit here full of optimism and draw a line under the interventions of the last 20 years and say ‘what a wonderful success that was’,” but he couldn’t because it “hasn’t gone all that well.”

Heappey said that “we are not the sort of interventionist, ground-holding, state-building military — we are sort of more into capacity-building and shaping upstream.”

This means that Britain is against big interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan, though it still does think shorter, sharper interventions might work.

Instead, Heappey argued, we “have to be clear that in this kind of situation all over the world in the days ahead” British authorities “have to be clear” they can’t act “entirely on our own terms” because “we don’t get to say ‘here are the list of criteria you must meet in order to be a friend of the West and when you have met these criteria we will be your friend and as long as you don’t meet these criteria we will not.’ 

“Because there are other countries, our competitors, China and Russia most notably, who set the bar far, far lower and will come in and be the friend and will scoop up all the relationships that come with that without asking any questions.”

In short, Heappey is saying that Britain needs to forget trying to shape nations through military interventions, and start making deals with existing regimes, in order to stop Russia and China gaining influence. 

Of course this already happened in the “neocon” era, where Britain kept good relations with many authoritarian regimes like the Gulf states without question. But there is a shift in balance here.

Heappey said: “We are going to have to ask ourselves some really hard questions” because “if we set the bar too high “for the kind of nations we make close allies, rival powers will step in and take the UK’s place.”

Heappey’s argument for more “Conservative realism” ran against the emotional state of many delegates in the audience, who preferred to rage that the Afghan withdrawal was mostly caused by “betrayal” by the “geriatric” President Joe Biden.

Liam Fox, who also addressed the meeting, spoke for many Tory delegates. Fox, who has always leaned towards neoconservatism, opened the meeting saying he was “not going to beat about the bush: I regard what happened in Afghanistan as a betrayal.” 

Fox said that thanks to the Afghan withdrawal “we are weaker today than we were” and “this is a tragedy as much as everything else.”  

Fox’s complaint about Afghan withdrawal focused on Western “strength” more than the fate of the Afghan people. 

He said: “What’s happened in Kabul will be watched very closely in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran.”

However, while Fox was angry about the end of the Afghan intervention, he did not make an argument for further interventionism. Heappey’s stance looks like the dominant approach.

The strength of “realist,” non-interventionist approaches was strongly reinforced by Major General James Cowan, who also spoke at the event. 

Cowan was a very senior military officer, who led Task Force Helmand, Britain’s main intervention in Afghanistan. 

Cowan now leads the Halo Trust, the demining charity which is active in Afghanistan. Cowan argued strongly that the West should recognise the Taliban because if not, Afghanistan would have a humanitarian crisis and would descend into civil war. 

Cowan said the West needed to try and encourage the “moderate wing of the Taliban” by unfreezing assets and resuming aid. The best option, which he argued may be achievable, would end with “moderate Taliban regime, really no nicer than that which rules Saudi Arabia, an ally.”

Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.

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