Twelve months ago, almost to the day, ministers and mandarins at the Foreign Office and MoD would have been watching the unfolding events in Tunisia with trepidation - would they lead to a political revolt across north Africa, dragging the UK into yet another messy conflict in the Arab world? Twelve months later we know the answer, and the removal of Gaddafi by NATO has been judged a success. But it’s cost Britain £200m, money we can’t really afford, and many expect 2012 to be a year in which the UK tries to keep its head down and manage existing problems and challenges.
Elsewhere the Afghanistan conflict cost the lives of 43 British service personnel, a significant improvement on the 145 killed in 2010. But 392 have been died as a result of the Afghan operation since it began ten years ago, and only a blind optimist would expect that number not to rise next year.
So what will be Philip Hammond’s priorities in 2012 and are they achievable? Charlie Edwards, Research Leader at RAND Europe, a non-profit research institute that looks at defence issues, told HuffPostUK: “World leaders have been preoccupied at home because of the economy and elections, but they will have to think of running the world too because there are a lot of issues.”
“Philip Hammond will have two priorities in 2012, his first Afghanistan and his second continuing reform”, he said. Edwards describes the outlook in Afghanistan as: “Pretty pessimistic, we are in a difficult and turbulent period. For defence they have to continue the current strategy and we need to see a reduction in violence in 2012 in order for British troops to be withdrawn”.
The priority is getting Pakistan to become more supportive, but at the moment things are heading in the wrong direction. The attack last month by a US drone, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, only worsened relations after a fairly tense year in 2011. Pakistan is blocking supply routes into Afghanistan, and its own fragile democracy remains subject to destabilisation from internal forces.
“If a substantial change happens in the first part of next year, in terms of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the US, then things will look more positive”, says Edwards, suggesting many factors regarding British interests in Afghanistan are rather out of our hands.
Gemma Doyle, Shadow Defence Minister, echoed this saying: “The withdrawal from Afghanistan was always going to be difficult, there is a lot of work that needs to be done between now and then.
“There was never going to be a military solution, there has to be a political one.”
But the politics look grim. Dr Michael Williams, lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “The Government in Kabul will attempt to increasingly show its distance from the West, making relations more acrimonious. Pakistan will be concerned that they need a friendly government in Kabul and may step up their interference in the region, which could have a possible negative impact.”
A senior panelist at RAND, James Gilbert, thinks given the economic crisis little extra money will be spent on defence next year, and the big focus for Britain will be reforming the Ministry of Defence.
Gilbert said: “The MOD has never had such an ambitious reform schedule, there are key reports that the MOD are trying to implement at the moment. Liam Fox was doing a good job on putting reforms through and Hammond must do the right thing to continue them”.
“It is imperative for defence reforms that we make the MOD more efficient so they can do more with their resources,” he continued.
Charlie Edwards said: “Every government that comes into power has to prioritise next year. The economy is our main priority which means people will be preoccupied but although we are running the country at home, life doesn’t stops overseas.
“We are limited in what we can do and will have to use all the tools at our disposal and prepare for a turbulent future.”
Other issues that are likely to come up in the New Year include the Olympics and ensuring injured personnel staff from Afghanistan get the right care and support. The Olympics could be a huge distraction for defence planners next year, with organisers putting forward proposals for military muscle during Game time.
Charlie Edwards criticised this: “The police have the capability to work as security, the military will play a niche role. The MoD cannot be distracted by security plans for the Olympics, there are other major issues they need to focus on.”
Those are the known quantities. The unknowns are potentially multi-fold and troubling. Dr Michael Williams said: “If the situation in the Middle East should become further destabilised, this would have a major impact on European imports of Middle Eastern oil. Thus Europe, including the UK, will want things in the Middle East to remain certain and stable, which could be difficult.
“I doubt that the UK will want to directly intervene in Syria or any other Middle Eastern country, but possible strikes against Iran are another story. Somalia is another major indirect threat to the UK with a large number of passport holders receiving terrorist training in the country. A lack of governance means piracy is and organised crime has become a big problem.
“I expect the UK will continue to work with the UN and other organisations to try and remedy the situation somewhat, but I highly doubt they will send in any sort of combat force to tackle the problem head on."