British hint at 2011 exit from Afghanistan

WOOTTON BASSETT, England — If you have recently taken a short position on Britain's continued participation in the Afghanistan War, it would seem you made the right play.

Three weeks ago British Prime Minister David Cameron made clear he wanted all British troops home by 2015. At the start of this week Britain's Defense Secretary Liam Fox said 2014. Following his meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama, 2011 is the new target date to begin withdrawal.

Those discussions hovered in the air yesterday in Wootton Bassett, the ancient market town next to RAF Lyneham airbase in Wiltshire. Bodies of fallen British servicemen are "repatriated" to Lyneham and then their corteges must pass through Wootton Bassett on their way to wherever their final resting place may be.

Over the last few years the people of the town have created a ceremony to honor the dead as they pass by. On Tuesday, as Cameron was preparing to meet Obama, and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague was in Kabul with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton creating the fig leaf that would allow withdrawal from Afghanistan, four bodies were repatriated.

The talks in Kabul were about preparing Afghans to take over responsibility for national security from British and American troops (yes, other NATO nations provide soldiers but let's get real here, we are basically speaking of an American and British venture when we talk about Afghanistan).

Three of the dead passing through Wootton Bassett were murdered in their sleep by an Afghan army trainee — in theory, one of those to whom security is supposed to take over in 2011 or 2012 or 2014.

These bitter ironies were being put to one side by the veterans who started gathering around noon near the War Memorial on the small town's single main street. The ceremonies have become famous and for a first time visitor to Wootton Bassett the experience was different than you might imagine.

You expect the crowd to be mostly elderly members of the Royal British Legion, the main veteran's group in this country. And there were plenty of elderly chaps dressed in wool blazers and regimental ties, hair brylcreme'd into place in defiance of the summer heat and humidity. But there were women in saris — a Ghurka soldier was among the dead — and a goodly number of men in the distinctive Ghurka hat, with its slightly turned-up front brim. There were young people with no connection to the armed services and at least one British Muslim preparing to pay their respects.

Most distinctive of all were the 30-odd gray-haired bikers in leather, lounging about their beasts — 1200 cc was about the smallest — who turned out not to be patriotic private citizens but rather members of the Royal British Legion Riders Branch. Their leader, "Big Steve" Blundell is one of the marshall's of these events.

It is an interesting sight, watching the burly man with gray hair to his shoulders, lengthy chin whiskers braided like a pharaoh, wearing a vest with a patch that reads "Caution does not play well with others," solicitously looking after the mourning families, ushering them into the Cross Keys pub to wait for the hearses to come by.

I asked Blundell about the irony overhanging the day, that even as the veterans and townspeople prepare to pay tribute the deals were being negotiated in Kabul and Washington that would lead to a British withdrawal, with many of the nominal objectives of the war unmet.

"Most of us don't have an opinion about politics," he said, nodding over the road to where his comrades were lounging about in the sun. "We do this to be patriotic."

He admits that the publicity that attends these ceremonies is another reason he and his fellow bikers attend. "Vietnam. Vietnam was swept under the carpet. The press and public didn't want to know. The public showed no support. That was detrimental to the guys fighting. That won't happen with us."

Pressed on the idea that somehow what the politicians were doing made going into battle more difficult for British troops in country, Hubbell, a veteran of the Falklands and four tours of duty in Northern Ireland said that whatever the politicians do won't affect the men in the field. "That's what you join the force for ... to fight. You want to be a cook, you don't join the army to be a cook. You want a job that doesn't involve getting shot at, work in a warehouse."

Following his meetings with Obama, Cameron told the BBC that British troops could begin withdrawal as early as next year, conditions on the ground permitting.

"I mean, the faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home. I don't want to raise expectations about that because that transition should be based on how well the security situation is progressing," Cameron said. He added: "People in Britain should understand we're not going to be there in five years' time, in 2015, with combat troops or large numbers because I think it's important to give people an end date by which we won't be continuing in that way."

Across the road from where Steve Hubbell was looking after the bereaved, his comrades were a little more willing to allow politics into the days' solemnity, even if, as Andy Rathbone began, "We're not here for the politics."

He paused and then bit out: "Despite INCONTROVERTIBLE evidence they will be pulling out, the guys are doing their jobs to the best of their ability and making the ultimate sacrifice."

His buddy Andy Sleep added: "I never and will never follow politics. You know and I know the politicians get us embroiled in things we shouldn't be embroiled in. They should have gone a diplomatic route first."

Now the politicians are stuck trying to find a way out of the mess, but they have to be careful how they do it, according to Sleep, "otherwise 324 guys [current British death toll] have died for nothing."

At about the same time the crowd in Wootton Bassett was swelling to more than a thousand, in Kabul, Hague — the British Foreign Secretary — and Clinton were reaching an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to channel 50 percent of foreign aid through his government, up from the current 20 percent. They also, in the words of the final communique, expressed "support for the president of Afghanistan's objective that the Afghan national security forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014." 

Karzai said a review of the security situation in all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces would be undertaken and in some places Afghan security forces might take over as soon as next year. That seems to be fine with all the NATO nations who have troops around the country.

Hague told the BBC: "It's a very mixed picture and I don't want to be starry-eyed about it in any way, but there are many areas where things have improved."

Improved security = withdrawal. The task for Cameron and Hague and Obama and Clinton now shifts to creating a rationale for withdrawal that sells their own people the idea that their soldiers have not died in vain.

Around 2:20 p.m. the bell of St. Batholomew's church began tolling at a mournful rate. Big Steve Blundell made a final check on the grieving families, handing out tissues, whispering a quick word of encouragement. By 2:30 the silence was total. There wasn't even a breeze to flutter the ear drums.

An elderly voice called out to the octogenarian Royal British Legion color guard to present their flags, then dip them to the ground. Then a minute later, a quiet rumble of police motorcycles moving slowly, a police car and then, an undertaker in top hat and tails, holding a staff, led the four black hearses each containing a coffin past the crowd. The vehicles stopped and the various family groups placed flowers on cars. The only sound was the shuffling of footsteps to and from the vehicles and the strained attempts to choke back sobs. Men occasionally looked skyward hoping to let gravity roll the stinging salt back into their brimming eyes.

A very long minute of silence — more like four, one for each body — followed. Then the color sergeant barked out to the elderly guard of honor to stand down. The hearses resumed their journeys and the crowd moved on.