Leader: Killed in the name of crooked Karzai

The tawdry spectacle of Karzai's "re-election" should shame western leaders

On 2 November, it emerged that a British soldier had died as he tried to defuse a roadside bomb near Sangin, in Helmand Province. Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of the Royal Logistic Corps, had been about to end his tour of duty after five months in Afghanistan.

Also on 2 November, the supposedly independent national electoral commission declared Hamid Karzai president of Afghanistan. It scrapped a planned second round of voting after President Karzai's sole challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the race, citing continued concerns about fraud.

Did Sergeant Schmid sacrifice his life so that Hamid Karzai could be "re-elected" unopposed in this tawdry spectacle? The British death toll in Afghanistan is still rising. As we went to press, the Ministry of Defence announced that another five British soldiers had been killed in a single gun attack, also in Helmand, by a "rogue" Afghan policeman. The latest killings brought the death toll for 2009 so far to 94, making it the bloodiest year for the British armed forces since the Falklands war in 1982.

The British government's U-turns on Afghanistan have been brazen. Back in August, our ambassador in Kabul, Mark Sedwill, said he was "pretty satisfied with how these elections have gone". Then, a fortnight ago, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, conceded that there had "clearly been attempted fraud on a large scale". Now the Prime Minister rings to "congratulate" President Karzai on his "re-election" and "welcomes the decision by the Independent Electoral Commission" to cancel the run-off. President Obama has performed similar contortions, welcoming the initial result in August, then condemning it in October, and now describing President Karzai as the "legitimate leader" of Afghanistan at the start of November.

Legitimacy, however, is precisely what President Karzai - who raked in more than a million fraudulent votes - lacks. It is therefore difficult to disagree with a recent Taliban statement: "What is astonishing is two weeks ago they were arguing that the puppet president Hamid Karzai was involved in electoral fraud . . . but now he is elected as president based on those same fraudulent votes, Washington and London immediately send their congratulations."

These elections do nothing to address the Taliban challenge. It is the insurgents, and not Dr Abdullah, who are the real opponents of the Karzai government, and of the western alliance. Whether we like it or not, they have support across southern Afghanistan and represent millions of ethnic Pashtuns. In his first remarks since being declared the winner of the fraud-marred election, President Karzai, a Pashtun himself, called on his "Taliban brothers" who have been fighting an insurgency against him to "embrace their land".

Meanwhile, brave British soldiers continue to fight and die on the roads, mountains and valleys of Helmand in an unwinnable battle against those same guerrilla fighters.

On both sides of the Atlantic, officials previously involved in the conflict have begun to express concern, and even opposition. In the UK, the former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells now thinks "it would be better to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women", arguing that the "present balance of territorial control is at best likely to remain, or more likely to shift, in favour of the Taliban".

Last month, Matthew Hoh, a diplomat who had been stationed in Zabul Province, became the first American official to step down in protest over the Afghan war. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy," he wrote in his resignation letter, "but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why, and to what end."

To what end, indeed.