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The great gamble

As the Karzai government succumbs to pressure to rerun elections and ever more coalition troops die,

On 24 September I attended the funeral service for Fusilier Shaun Bush, a young man born and bred in Coventry, the city I represent as an MP. He was killed in Operation Panther's Claw in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He died going to the rescue of two comrades, fellow fusiliers blown up by an explosive device. Another fusilier was at the funeral, gruesomely injured, in a wheelchair, yet immaculately turned out in full uniform to pay tribute to Shaun.

It was a moving experience. Many among the congregation at Coventry Cathedral were in tears. Yet something was lacking. You couldn't put your finger on it. But as I looked up at Graham Sutherland's majestic tapestry of Christ, the Lord's countenance seemed to ask: was it really worth it? What was the purpose of it all?

Much about the war in Afghanistan may have to await the judgement of history. But one thing is clear already: any claim that Operation Panther's Claw provided a secure environment in Helmand for the presidential election is a hollow and cruel pretence. Although there are no official figures available for voter turnout in the province as a whole, the report that in and around Babaji - the area cleared by British troops in the campaign - only 150 people of a possible 80,000 voted, at the cost of ten British soldiers' lives, has not been contradicted.

The stark futility of the operation in these human terms is compounded by the massive fraud, which was both predicted and predictable. The sheer scale of the fraud, and the defiant sense of impunity with which Karzai and his supporters conducted it, sends an unmistakable message: I am president, intend to remain president, and have the means to remain president, and don't care for or have need for legitimacy. There seems little point in rerunning the election. No one would believe the result if Karzai won; no one believes that Karzai could or would run an honest election even with tighter supervision by the Electoral Complaints Commission.

Eerily, this same dilemma was posed by President Ngo Dinh Diem to the Kennedy/ Johnson administrations in the early years of the Vietnam war, where the solution was a ghastly CIA-organised assassination, with disastrous consequences. No level-headed person would contemplate, let alone recommend, such action. But one way or another, President Karzai must be persuaded to relinquish some levers of executive power, sharing them with Abdullah Abdullah and perhaps a wider international support group with defined executive administrative powers. If such an agreement could be negotiated - surely much preferable to another election - what are the chances then of an outcome satisfactory to US objectives?

Reconcile our enemies

First, what exactly are Washington's objectives? In March this year, Barack Obama said the policy was "to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al-Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan". These two objectives are not causally linked in either direction. A campaign to defeat al-Qaeda is what George W Bush should have undertaken instead of the tragic and counterproductive invasion of Iraq. Preventing the organisation's return to Afghanistan is not tantamount to defeating it; for even if the Taliban were to be defeated outright, al-Qaeda terrorists - including, it appears, a still alive and active Osama Bin Laden - will be able to relocate and rebuild in places such as Yemen and Somalia, and to operate from the border areas of Pakistan, as they seem to be doing now.

McChrystal, in his report, settles for the limited objective of preventing a Taliban takeover in, and thus al-Qaeda's return to, Afghanistan. This, he maintains, can be achieved by "creating a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the state". A healthy dose of realism: a limited war for limited objectives. But McChrystal warns that even if Obama approves his request for 40,000 extra troops on the ground, bringing US forces to 108,000 (level with the Russian commitment at its peak), this limited objective will be "uncommonly difficult" to achieve - such is the parlous state of the Isaf forces and the strength of the Taliban, who reportedly now control 50 per cent of the population. He sombrely concludes that "no strategy can guarantee success". Not great odds for a president to gamble his office on.

If Obama does meet the demand for additional troops, he will be banking heavily on Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. Both have recently made prominent visits to Britain, addressing influential think tanks and lobbying the government at the highest level for more British troops. They make the case persuasively in the language of the new counter-insurgency policy: "Our conventional warfare culture is part of the problem . . . we need an entirely new strategy . . . change the operational culture to connect with the people . . . less armour, less distance from the people . . . less bombing, more engagement."

There are so many quotable one-liners in McChrystal's report that it reads in parts like a conference speech. No doubt the "partnering" will make a difference to the morale and hence the fighting capability of the government forces in due course. But the idea that the Afghan National Security Forces will be "mature" enough in a year's time to carry out the grinding process of gaining and holding territory, and winning over the locals, is just not credible. The social/ tribal relationships of Afghan society and the pattern of its geography are too varied and difficult - "uniquely complex", in the report's terms - for that to be possible.

My judgement is that the generals are much too realistic to be counting on that. They both have outstanding counter-insurgency records. Petraeus advocated and implemented the surge programme in Iraq. He claims that the deployment of additional troops, by showing America's ongoing seriousness and commitment, convinced doubters in the Sunni insurgency that accommodation with the Shia majority is possible and could be in their own interest. The surge certainly accelerated the process: 100,000 Sunnis signed up with the national forces of Iraq in a matter of weeks.Unfortunately, as McChrystal's report makes clear, there is no such strategic move of accommodation readily available in Afghanistan. There are no quick fixes. It is a much more complicated set of circumstances. There are three main insurgent groups, loosely co-ordinated but separately directed. Their leaders are all based in Pakistan.

The most important group is the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), whose power centres on Kandahar and its approaches. The second main group is the Haqqani network (HQN), active in the south-east of the country; and the third is Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by the former mujahedin Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which maintains bases in three Afghan provinces. Each has a different source of funding (narcotics, smuggling, foreign financial support, and so on).

The McChrystal report is silent about negotiations with any of these groups. The insurgents, particularly QST, led by Mullah Omar, must feel they are winning. Omar's organisation has established a shadow government administering sharia law and generally showing itself to be more effective than the official provincial or district administration of the corrupt and shambolic Karzai regime. However, if no deal is possible now, it must not be overlooked that deal-making - switching sides - is a very Afghan way of doing things. Afghans will "side with the winner", Fotini Christia and Michael Semple wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in August this year. It is an encouraging sign of pragmatism and a desire for self-preservation. Hence the generals' requests for more troops, to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency's momentum.

The plan seems to be to win over villages and districts and then, casting the net ever wider, those insurgents who are currently working at different levels and more or less tightly under the control of one of the three main groups. Many experts believe that, provided security can be guaranteed to those changing sides, the prospects for making arrangements are good and the "surge" is a means to this end. Any eventual overall accommodation with the leading Taliban groups would definitely exclude Karzai, but could well involve a figure such as Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who has general respect on all sides.

None of this, for obvious reasons, is spelled out in McChrystal's report. But the fact is that winning and holding territory throughout 360 districts and innumerable villages by foreign-led military operations would take too long and cost too many lives for impatient democracies to endure. No one can precisely foresee how the alternative process of reaching a political accommodation with the insurgents will work out. It will require much patience and tea-drinking. But if jaw-jaw is better than war-war, so is tea-drinking. And so is an arrangement with the Taliban, messy though it may be.

Decision time

As President Obama ponders his alternatives, he will be acutely aware that the McChrystal report offers him none. The report dismisses any alternative strategy in negative terms, arguing: "The long-term risk of not executing this strategy is greater." That is not good enough. Would an "unstable Afghanistan" really pose a strategic threat to the US and Europe? How and why? The 66 pages of the report state so without any supporting argument, let alone evidence.

However, Obama is not short of conflicting advice, and while the situation is tough from a military point of view, he should ask his team to take time out and read - or reread, one hopes - George Kennan's "X Article" and the chapter "Lessons" in Robert McNamara's classic of recantation In Retrospect. Both offer a sobering caution as to what is and is not achievable by foreign military intervention, however noble the mission and however superior the technology are thought to be.

In this context, the rerunning of the election will give the president some limited time to work out an answer to the generals' request for more troops, or an alternative to it. But not much will have changed if, as is highly pro­bable, Karzai is re-elected. Rather, a strong, co-ordinated effort should be put into achieving a power-sharing agreement with Abdullah, together with high-level international executive involvement. Such an agreement will no doubt be difficult to arrive at, but it seems a more practical proposal than another pointless election.

However, all this takes time. The midterm congressional elections take place in 2010. Obama can go with the flow of his party - Kerry, Biden et al - and delay now. But decisions will get increasingly difficult next year. Having heard all the arguments, President Obama will seek his own counsel. He might well conclude that his bottom line is that he cannot accept a Taliban takeover of Afghan­istan. He cannot delay much longer and must find a way to deploy at least part of the military commitment in anticipation of the new Afghan administration being formed. His generals and their troops are ready.

The US people may not be much in support of the war at present, but if the US decided to withdraw or scale down its presence, and a major terrorist incident involving the US took place or things went horribly further wrong in Pakistan, the president and the Democratic Party would be extremely vulnerable to Republican electoral propaganda.

Obama is in the position politicians hate most - he must choose the least bad option. His generals offer him a clear policy: to conduct a limited military campaign aimed principally at reconciling and reintegrating the insurgent forces. They have a track record in Iraq, though of course the countries are very different. The alternative is dither and delay in apparently worsening conditions. Whichever way the US president turns, Karzai is "the elephant in the room". But decide he must. As with all major political problems, the essential question is a very simple one: to commit more troops or not. In this case, the president needs to insist on a simple condition - the formation of an effective partnership with Abdullah.

In the end, Obama will probably get enough concessions from Karzai to enable him to back his generals and send the troops they require. Though reconciliation and reintegration of the insurgents are fundamental to the military policy, there will inescapably be some tough fighting in reaching an accommodation. There will be groups of hardcore insurgents who will spurn any form of reconciliation and will have to be confronted and defeated militarily. British troops are bound to be involved, however large our eventual contribution proves to be. There will be more cathedral funerals, I'm afraid.

Geoffrey Robinson is MP for Coventry North-West and co-chairman of the New Statesman

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