The US and Britain at Cross Purposes on Libya and Afghanistan
The sunny picnic atmosphere at the barbecue Wednesday, May 25 on the lawn of 10 Downing Street – to which US and British servicemen had also been invited – turned edgy when reporters began grilling visiting US President Barack Obama and his host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, with some hard questions.
Most touched on the super-sensitive fault lines between the two leaders on Libya.
"Ultimately the Libyan leader would go," Obama said. "I do think we have made enormous progress in Libya. We have saved lives. Qaddafi and his regime need to understand there will not be a letup in the pressure we are applying. We may have to be more patient than people would like."
This was a sly dig at the British and French leaders who are demanding more American military backing for the war against Libya to expedite its end and Muammar Qaddafi's exit.
Cameron refused to answer a question about whether the UK would send attack helicopters to bolster NATO's mission in Libya. Only the day before, his Secretary of Defense Nick Harvey contradicted the claim by French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet that Britain would be sending to Libya a dozen Apaches along with French attack helicopters.
Cameron would only say: "We should be turning up the heat in Libya," and promised to look at "all the options" for doing so.
Obama glided around a question one reporter aimed at him about whether the United States would also be sending helicopters to Libya.
Obama refuses to step up military input in Libyan war
As the American and British leaders spoke, unnamed Western diplomatic sources in London leaked this statement to the media: "Britain, France and other European countries have backed away from the precondition that Col. Qaddafi must leave power before there was a halt to NATO action."
This was the opposite position to the one presented on the lawn of the British prime minister's residence Wednesday afternoon. It also gave some leeway to the mediation efforts in Tripoli undertaken by the UN Special Envoy for Libya Abdel Elah al-Khatib and, next week, by South African President Jacob Zuma.
So long as those mediators were tied down to the precondition of the Libyan ruler's departure, their mission had little hope of succeeding.
Later, British and American sources admitted that their leaders had not managed to resolve their disagreements on the Libyan conflict: Obama still views it as a European war which London, Paris and Rome should solve with marginal US military assistance, whereas the British insist on full American military participation, without which Qaddafi cannot be forced to step down and leave Libya, as Obama himself has said he must.
Their different approaches spilled over into the Afghanistan War.
Obama turns down UK Libya-Afghanistan trade
There, the British see their military mission as accomplished and are preparing to draw down their troops with all possible speed, bringing the first 400 home this summer.
Cameron's timeline ran into stiff opposition from Obama.
The US president, forced to find a new term for the fraying "special relationship" historically governing American-British friendship – he came up with "essential relations" – pushed Cameron and his government hard to keep British troops in Afghanistan.
London offered a qui quo pro: The US would expand its military input in the Libyan war in return for London delaying its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It was turned down by Obama.
The US President's state visit to the UK with full royal honors left British officials disappointed and sharply critical of his policies on Libya and Afghanistan alike.
In their view, Obama's latest assertion, "We have broken the Taliban's momentum," misrepresents the Afghan reality which is that the Americans are already engaged in secret negotiations with the Taliban for the transfer of power and an end to the war. Britain, which is not part of the negotiating process, argues that talking sends Taliban a wrong signal and will only prolong the war in Afghanistan.
London criticizes Obama on Afghanistan too
Their disparaging comment refers, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report, to the talks taking place for the last ten days at a secret location outside Berlin, Germany between a high-ranking delegation representing Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omer and senior German diplomats and intelligence officials with an open line to Washington.
The Taliban delegation is headed by Tayyab Agha, a long-time aide of Mullah Omar who often acts as his personal spokesman.
His opposite number is Michael Steiner, Germany's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of its most experienced diplomatic negotiators.
Pakistan too has been left out of this track. The progress made is not to the liking of Islamabad, to put it mildly. Our sources report that the Pakistanis may have tried to sabotage the negotiations by putting out rumors this week that Mullah Omar had been assassinated by the Americans.
Had this been true – or even judged credible by the Taliban negotiators – the peace effort in Germany would have run aground.