How “winnable” is Afghanistan?

The government has failed to define "victory". Ministers should set a date for withdrawal of British

In the week since our special issue on Afghanistan, Rifleman Daniel Wild, Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, Captain Mark Hale, Private Richard Hunt, Sergeant Simon Valentine, Fusilier Louis Carter, Fusilier Simon Annis and Lance Corporal James Fullarton have lost their lives in Helmand, taking the death toll for British service personnel there to 204.

And this toll is only a partial reflection of the "blood price" that Britain's armed forces have paid for serving in Afghanistan: 94 soldiers were injured in action last month, more than double the previous month's tally of 46, and more than the 85 wounded during the whole of 2006. As for the Afghan civilian casualties, who number in the tens of thousands, they remain largely nameless and faceless in our media.

The presidential elections on 20 August will have little impact on the overall levels of violence. British squaddies will continue to die. Opinion polls show that the majority of the British public does not back this war, but when or how will it end? The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth - the press picked up widely on his comments about "defeatism" in these pages last week - now says that our troops could hand over responsibility for fighting the Taliban to Afghan forces "in the next year or so". The outgoing head of the army says it will take "three to five years"; the incoming head says "as long as 30 to 40 years".

Such speculation remains largely irrelevant, however, while the wider mission remains unclear and success so elusive. As Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, wrote in the context of the war on terror, "we lack the metrics to know whether we are winning or losing". Nowhere does this apply more than in Afghanistan. Our own Defence Secretary claimed this past week that the war was "winnable", but how does Mr Ainsworth define victory? Until he and other ministers convincingly do so, we stand by our call for the government to set a date for withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?