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We have no imperial right to remake nations

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles sound like the kind of chaps who might have led skirmishes along the North-West Frontier in the days of the Great Game. Their names may be redolent of the era when an officer bound for the east set off from his St James's club with a volume or two of Kipling in his trunk; but this should not make us overlook the wisdom of their judgement about the resilience of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The brigadier, Britain's most senior military commander in Afghanistan, and Sir Sherard, Our Man in Kabul, both warn that the current strategy will not work. "We're not going to win this war," said Carleton-Smith. Sir Sherard reportedly thinks the approach is "doomed to failure". Given that Britain has suffered 120 military fatalities since 2001, there is urgency in their advice.

Some have already dismissed such talk as defeatism. But 170 years to the month that Lord Auckland, governor general of India, issued the Simla Manifesto justifying British intervention in Afghanistan, it is high time we learned lessons from our long and dismal history in central Asia.

The first Anglo-Afghan War ended with the massacre of the retreating British forces in 1842. Only one man, Dr William Brydon, survived out of 16,000 who attempted to reach Jalalabad from Kabul. ("Where is the army?" he was asked on arrival. "I am the army," he replied.) Subsequent attempts to impose our will on a population with the misfortune to be caught between two empires, those of Britain and Russia, were scarcely less happy.

That the Taliban are reactionary and barbaric is not in doubt, even if they no longer object to kite-flying or frown on a clean-shaven chin. But after Iraq and the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, there should be no less doubt that Britain should exercise greater caution before committing militarily to the remaking of nations. "The Great Game", Kipling's coinage, reflected the ambitions of an imperial age. It has no place in our discourse today.

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This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks