Top US general calls for new strategy in Afghanistan

General Stanley McChrystal calls for focus upon civilian hearts and minds

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, yesterday called for a new military policy in the country, saying that "serious" change was needed to achieve victory.

In a report sent to the Pentagon and Nato headquarters, McChrystal acknowledged that the last eight years had been disastrous, and said that the focus should be upon winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population, not direct engagement with militants.

McChrystal said: "The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort."

The recommendations came as it was announced that two more British soldiers had been killed, bringing to 19 the number of British troops killed in August alone. 2009 has been the deadliest year for foreign troops since fighting began in 2001.

The report is expected to pave the way for McChrystal to request more troops, in addition to the 108,000 international troops already there. It is not thought that Britain will announce a major increase, regardless of what the US does.

He has already ordered his troops not to drop bombs where there is a high risk of civilian casualties, and has shifted the focus from destroying poppy fields to attacking drug traffickers.

However, there is still a long way to go in the battle for hearts and minds. Yesterday it was reported that Western and Afghan officials have admitted that widespread and systematic fraud during the presidential election has undermined the legitimacy of any future government.

David Kilcullen, counter-insurgency expert and advisor to Nato, said that the Afghan government has failed to provide basic services such as hospitals, security, and courts, allowing the Taliban to establish its own. He said: "A government that is losing to a counter-insurgency isn't being outfought, it is being outgoverned."

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.