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Make no mistake, this imperial war in Afghanistan cannot be won

We warned in 2001 that this conflict could put Britain and the US on the wrong side of the moral arg

In March 2006, only five British service personnel had been killed in Afghanistan during the previous five years of conflict. This was before British troops were deployed to Helmand Province by the then defence secretary, John Reid, who hoped that their mission could be completed "without a shot being fired". Today, the death toll stands at 184, and has surpassed the number of our personnel killed in the occupation of Iraq.

The British and Americans seem to be intent on re-enacting the follies of imperial misadventures in Afghanistan, and, as the conflict in Helmand intensifies, the parallels with the mid-19th century become more resonant. Indeed, throughout their martial history, the Afghans have had the resolution to force out foreign occupiers, in the most violent of ways, no matter how superior the military force they face happens to be - as the Soviet army discovered in the 1980s.

Today, politicians argue over the number of helicopters and Land Rovers at the disposal of British troops serving in Helmand, labouring under the misconception that superior firepower will eventually win the day. It will not - and it is fanciful to suggest otherwise.

There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, which pits not only Afghan insurgents against foreign occupiers, but also Afghan against Afghan, and Pashtun against Tajik. Nor are we "winning". Independent observers, from army generals and diplomats to aid workers, acknowledge this. In fact, an Atlantic Council of the United States report, chaired by the former supreme allied commander of Nato, bluntly stated over a year ago: "Make no mistake, Nato is not winning in Afghanistan."

In our interview with the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander (starting on page 30), he twice evades the question of whether we are winning or losing, only loosely referring to the "progress" that has been made.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 atrocities, there were few who denied the western alliance the right to some form of armed response. This magazine advocated launching commando raids with the specific aim of capturing Osama Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda camps. The public lined up behind politicians of all parties in agreeing a policy that would allow us to invade, occupy and then rid the southern region of terrorist bases. Eight years on, the number of terrorists there has multiplied, suicide bombings are on the rise - and Bin Laden and his followers remain at large.
To criticise the war, or the conduct of the war, is not to criticise the performance of the brave men and women of our armed forces deployed in Afghanistan, nor to understate it. As the former platoon commander Patrick Hennessey powerfully states on page 15, while politicians bicker, the ground "units are galvanised by loss, bonded even more closely by the shared experience and more determined to fulfil the mission".

But what is the mission? Ask a different British minister, get a different answer. Gordon Brown echoes the hawkish, neoconservative, Blairite line that the conflict in Helmand is about making "the streets of London safe" from terrorists - even though his own intelligence agencies tell him the opposite is the case. In the past, Tony Blair also cited the war on drugs as a contributing factor, as well as the need to tackle Afghanistan's heroin trade. In his interview, Mr Alexander seems more comfortable discussing the humanitarian and reconstruction case for the continuing British presence in that ravaged, impoverished country and, like Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons, he talks passionately - and surely with some justification - about the need to provide education for young girls.

Yet there is an undoubted element of mission creep here, not to mention incoherence and confusion on the part of our leaders. While we happily praise our soldiers for their bravery, our shameless politicians must enjoy no such luxury.

We warned in 2001 that this conflict could put Britain and the US on the wrong side of the moral argument, firing missiles and dropping explosives from a safe distance and risking civilian lives, rather than those of their own professional soldiers on the ground. The tragedy is that the deaths
have been indiscriminate, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and hundreds of British soldiers alike. Where will it end?

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country