Show Hide image

Our military presence in Afghanistan is part of the problem, not the solution

Britain should follow Canada's lead and set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is time we ac

On 8 August, Private Jason Williams was killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The 23-year-old member of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment could have saved himself, but heroically he had returned to the battlefield to recover the body of a fallen Afghan comrade. Williams became the 196th fatality for British forces in Afghanistan since 2001.

Are we winning this war? Not even the generals who have been in charge seem to think so. In March, the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, told the BBC that "we are not winning" in the struggle against the resurgent Taliban. In October last year, the then commander of British forces in Helmand, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, went further: "We're not going to win this war."

Their pessimism has been borne out by events. The latest UN figures suggest that violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, with the number of civilians killed so far this year up by a quarter compared to the same period last year. In July, there were more than ten attacks every day in Helmand alone. A secret Afghan government map, leaked this month, shows that half the country is either at high risk of attack by the Taliban and other insurgents, or is under "enemy control".

So, after eight years of fierce fighting, with billions of pounds squandered and tens of thousands of coalition and civilian casualties, have we reached a dead end?

And what of the Afghan people, so often ignored in the rows over body armour, Land-Rovers and helicopters for "our boys" on the battlefield? As Stephen Grey points out (page 18), "no one has suffered more from this war than the civilians in whose fields it has been fought".
In spite of mounting casualties on all sides, British troops, like their American counterparts, continue in their Sisyphean task of trying to pacify Afghanistan.

“Again and again," writes Grey, “politicians and generals have repeated the big lie, talking of tipping points and endless progress." Take Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw. The largest military offensive launched by the British army since it took over responsibility for security in Helmand in 2006, it was declared a success by the Prime Minister last month. But it required 3,000 British troops to defeat 600 Taliban fighters. And, with 22 deaths, July became the bloodiest month of the eight-year conflict for British troops - provoking renewed calls for withdrawal at home, where polls suggest a majority of the public remains opposed to the conflict, and to sending additional troops to Helmand.

Over time, the UK and US governments have offered increasingly bewildering justifications for war: counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, nation-building, liberating women, spreading democracy. Now, to bolster support, British ministers are following US attempts to assert a single, overarching mission. Early this month, the armed forces minister, Bill Rammell, stated: "Our troops are in Afghanistan to keep our country safe from the threat of terrorism . . . To prevent al-Qaeda having a secure base from which to threaten us directly." He was echoing a speech by President Obama in which he declared that the "clear and focused" goal is "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent its return to either country in the future".

Obama's new mission statement may seem sound, but it is unconvincing. First, the idea that al-Qaeda needs a "secure base", or safe havens, from which to plot or prepare terrorist attacks is as outdated as it is simplistic. Since the collapse of its Afghan headquarters in late 2001, al-Qaeda has metastasised from a centralised, hierarchical organisation into a decentralised, largely self-sustaining movement, dispersed across the world.

The London bombings of 7 July 2005 took place four years after British and US forces had toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and destroyed al-Qaeda training camps there. The 7/7 bombers were made in England, not Lashkar Gah.

Second, denying al-Qaeda safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan has not required US or UK forces to occupy the lawless frontier provinces of that country - or, for that matter, to occupy Somalia, Yemen or any of the other Muslim nations accused of harbouring terrorists or hosting terrorist training camps. So why should denying al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan require an indefinite military occupation by British or American troops?

Third, a large-scale and long-term ground presence of western troops only exacerbates Islamist terrorism. Occupation, as the misadventure in Iraq has so clearly demonstrated, has the disastrous effect of giving jihadists a powerful recruiting tool that they are quick to exploit. Fourth, though al-Qaeda does pose a security threat to Europe and the United States, the Taliban pose no comparable threat. Unless and until Taliban guerrillas establish a foothold in New York or London or Berlin, and continue to remain confined to the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, their threat to UK national security will remain several notches below that of al-Qaeda or even, say, the Real IRA.

Thus, there is no reason why disrupting or defeating al-Qaeda requires a perpetual war and occupation. Indeed, sending extra troops to fight in Afghanistan, as President Obama has already done and Mr Brown plans to do in the near future, will not win the war, end the conflict, or guarantee our security. Our leaders should reflect on the lessons of history: from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, Afghans have been fighting invaders for more than 2,000 years. Not for nothing is their country known as the "graveyard of empires".

Afghanistan does not need a military surge, but a political surge, centred around persuading the more moderate members of the Taliban to lay down their weapons and enter government. The former commander of British forces in Helmand, Ed Butler, tells us (page 24) that we missed a crucial opportunity to talk to the Taliban in 2006. Why wait any longer? Moreover, we need to engage not simply with factions within the Taliban, but also with Afghanistan's influential neighbours Iran, Russia and China, so that they, too, have a vested interest in securing peace and stability in the region and preventing Afghanistan's descent into chaos. But, above all, Britain should follow Canada's lead and set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Our military presence is part of the problem, not the solution. It is time we accepted that we are losing this war.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War