Leader: There is no good reason for our troops to remain in Afghanistan

The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the worse things will become.

The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue US soldier, in a house-to-house rampage across two villages just 500 metres from a US base in Kan­dahar Province, has led to much soul-searching. The dead included nine children and three women. A Pentagon spokesman described the 11 March shootings as a deplorable but "isolated" incident. They were not. In 2010, a group of US soldiers killed three Afghan civilians "for sport" and posed for pictures with the corpses; in January this year, a video emerged of US marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans.

We cannot ignore such crimes. On page 11, Frank Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer and author of the acclaimed book Losing Small Wars, argues that the soldier accused in the most recent case "must take personal responsibility for his actions". The rest of us, he adds, "must reflect on our own willingness to send young men and women into wars such as this, time after time".

Why are we still in Afghanistan? Does anyone believe in the cause? The inconvenient truth is that most al-Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan long ago. US officials estimate that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters left inside Afghanistan; the Pentagon has conceded that the last time US troops killed an al-Qaeda fighter in the country was in April 2011.

Whether or not the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was justified following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 is irrelevant now; few imagined Nato forces would still be fighting the Taliban more than a decade later in an intractable conflict that has dragged on twice as long as the Second World War.

The New Statesman has repeatedly called for a full withdrawal of British forces from the killing fields of Helmand. In August 2009, in a leader, we called on the previous Labour government to "set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Our military presence is part of the problem, not the solution." We pointed out then that our heavy-handed military presence had become a recruiting sergeant, both for the anti-infidel Taliban insurgency and for al-Qaeda sympathisers in the UK. Since then, 208 British troops have died in Afghanistan, the killing of six soldiers in a roadside explosion on 6 March taking the death toll to 404 - more than twice as many as were killed in Iraq.

What of the blighted civilians of Afghanistan, so often forgotten? Tens of thousands of innocent Afghans have been killed since 2001; a recent UN study claimed that the number of civilian casualties had risen for the fifth year in a row.

Our Afghan misadventure has been a humanitarian and political disaster. And yet, writing in a joint editorial in the Washington Post of 13 March to coincide with David Cam­eron's visit to the US, the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama said that Afghanistan "remains a difficult mission. We honour the profound sacrifices of our forces, and in their name we'll carry on the mission."

This is wilful blindness. Soldiers will continue to kill and be killed; the UK's humiliating pull-out is merely being postponed. The year 2014 has been agreed as an end date for military operations but, as the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, one of the west's shrewdest observers of Afghanistan, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 12 March: "It is only a deadline: we are not obliged to stay till the last day."

The western allies could once have negotiated with the Taliban from a position of strength. That time is long past. The violence and bloodshed will continue, whether we stay or go. However, as Stewart wrote: "The longer we stay, the worse things will become."

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.