Leader: Why Britain must abort mission in Afghanistan

There are no good options left for Britain in Afghanistan. Brown should set a date for withdrawal

On his first visit to Afghanistan in March 2006, George W Bush spoke of his hope that its people understood that, as "democracy takes hold, you're inspiring others. And that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom." More than three years later, the neoconservative vision of setting up a western-style, democratic state in Afghanistan - endorsed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, among others - lies in ruins, discredited by widespread and state-engineered fraud in August's presidential election.

Now, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, having initially received more than 2,000 complaints of fraud and intimidation, has confirmed what the world already suspected. It ordered that ballots from 210 polling stations be discounted, invalidating roughly 1.3 million votes cast for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai (thereby reducing his share of the vote to below the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a second round). After two months of stonewalling and angry accusations of "foreign meddling", President Karzai has reluctantly agreed to a run-off against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, on 7 November.

In the immediate wake of the first round of voting, over six weeks ago, this magazine denounced the leaders of coalition countries for their "desperation to find anything that might lend legitimacy to our continued military presence in that war-torn land", and for "ignoring allegations of fraud and corruption that they have not tolerated elsewhere". We noted that the British ambassador in Kabul had said he was "pretty satisfied with how these elections have gone".

How things change. On 20 October, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, conceded in parliament that there had been "attempted fraud on a large scale". "There is no doubt that there have been flaws," acknowledged the Prime Minister, as he welcomed President Karzai's "statesmanlike" decision to hold a run-off with Dr Abdullah. The demand from western governments for a second round of voting, and Mr Karzai's capitulation, however reluctant, are welcome, if belated, developments. But it would be naive to believe that the problems of Afghanistan will be resolved by another election.

First, there is no guarantee that the run-off will be cleaner than the tainted first round. It is more than likely that the enfeebled Mr Karzai will emerge victorious once more.

Second, it will be an enormous logistical challenge for the Afghan - and international - authorities to organise a credible second round of voting in the limited time available. Officials had months to prepare for the August ballot - but have only a matter of weeks for the vote in November, and that, too, as the severe winter weather approaches.

Third, in terms of security, the new election could prompt another round of violence from Afghanistan's various in­surgent groups. Nato and Afghan forces will be tasked with preventing a repeat of Taliban attacks of the kind that killed dozens in August. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted. And expect more British casualties.

But what are they dying for? It cannot be said often enough: eight years into a conflict that will soon eclipse Vietnam in its length, more British personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan than died in the Iraq debacle. With the death of 23-year-old Lance Corporal James Hill in an explosion near Camp Bastion in Helmand on 10 October, the total number of UK troops killed reached 221.

Meanwhile, political stability remains an illusion, and the civilian death toll continues to rise. The resurgent Taliban control swaths of Afghanistan, their leader Mullah Omar remains at large and Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have relocated to Pakistan.

There are no good options left for Britain in Afghanistan. It is high time that Gordon Brown and David Miliband recognise that our war effort is "madcap" and "futile" and serves "no conceivable national interest" - the scornful judgement of Sir Christopher Meyer, who as ambassador to Washington had a ringside seat on the original decision to invade in 2001.

Poll after poll shows that the British public supports withdrawal. Now is not the time to consider - as Gordon Brown has - sending a further 500 troops to Afghanistan in the elusive pursuit of political stability and military triumph. On the contrary, the British government must formulate a credible exit strategy and follow the Dutch and the Canadians in setting a date for the withdrawal of our armed forces from the killing fields of Helmand.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London