Afghanistan could be lost in the bars of Britain

The clamour is growing for us to withdraw from Afghanistan. And the tragic loss of five British soldiers at the hands of one of those we are supposed to be fighting alongside will make that clamour louder.

There is a real chance we will lose this struggle in the bars and front rooms of Britain before we lose it in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan — particularly as we have a Government that has completely failed both to make a cogent case for this war or to convince us that it has a strategy worthy of the sacrifices being made.

The blunt truth is that the events of yesterday have fractured a central plank of the only strategy we have. Before deciding what to do next, it is worth considering what happens if we withdraw or fail in Afghanistan — apart, of course, from abandoning its people, an overwhelming majority of whom, despite all, still want us to be there and only 5 per cent of whom want to see the Taleban back.

First, failure or withdrawal would mean the certain fall of Pakistan. Pakistan could, of course, fall of its own accord. But it would inevitably do so as a result of failure in Afghanistan. So abandoning Afghanistan doubles the chances of a jihadi government in Islamabad. Would this certainly result in jihadi hands on a nuclear bomb? Maybe not. But do we want to take the risk?

Second, it would greatly increase the vulnerability of our own country and our Western allies. We don’t need to look in the crystal ball for this — 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bombs, Bali, we know what al-Qaeda can do. If we leave or fail they would be able to do it again, not from a small corner of northern Pakistan where they are under pressure, but from the whole of southern Afghanistan, where they would be under none.

Third, it would mean a deadly and probably mortal blow to Nato, which would lose the respect of the world and the confidence of Washington.

Most important, it would be a mortal blow to those of our Muslim friends fighting to defeat ignorance and medievalism in a struggle to win back their great religion for the values of tolerance, understanding and moderation that are just as much a part of Islam’s teaching as they are those of Christianity.

These are, to put it mildly, outcomes we should seek to avoid.

The problem is that we are not succeeding in this war; we are failing at an accelerating rate. If we cannot turn things round soon, the judgment we will have to make will turn not on why it is important not to fail but whether we can succeed at all.

Some things are positive. The Taleban are under increasing military pressure in Pakistan. In General Stanley McChrystal and our own David Richards we have a Rolls-Royce team, who will, I believe, make life more difficult for them militarily too.

It is at the political, not the military, level that we are failing. And if we did not have enough problems already, we now have a Government in Kabul whose legitimacy has been fatally damaged and for whom respect has reached a new low. The international community invested hugely in blood and treasure in the recent elections, but only the Taleban have taken a dividend from them.

The democracy they oppose has been damaged, the Kabul Government they are in competition with has been weakened and so has the international community, who are their ultimate enemy.

Some say this can all be solved by some minor legerdemain and a major makeover for Hamid Karzai. That might have worked if we were making progress towards success in Afghanistan, rather than seeking to turn round an accelerating descent into failure.

It might even have worked if, in President Karzai, we were dealing with someone whose record showed strengths in areas that must now be addressed — building a government of national unity and tackling corruption. But these are his weaknesses. A government of national unity is what he started off with when first elected, but it broke up under his leadership and because of his policies. To ask him to attack corruption is to ask him to attack the pillars upon which those who support his Government (and some say many of those in it), depend. I have no objection to trying to reinvent Karzai. I just don’t think it will work.

This looks to me like a moment where what is required is not a course correction, but a game changer. And that has to come from Washington. With Peter Galbraith gone and Richard Holbrooke lost in the bowels of the State Department, it now falls to President Obama to provide the policies to change the game.

One might deal with the problem of the legitimacy of Karzai by making him matter less, through shifting our emphasis from national institutions to local ones. We have been trying to make a Western-style centralised government work in a country whose traditions have been local and tribal for 1,000 years. There are local elections next year. Could we turn the present Karzai problem into an opportunity, by rebalancing the government of Afghanistan away from Kabul and towards more local structures?

Much of this can be done without constitutional change, just by shifting the emphasis of our support. But there could also be value in holding an Afghan supreme council or loya jirga to consider constitutional change and greater local autonomy — something that would be supported by nearly all the key tribal leaders of the country, especially in the South.

This would not be easy to achieve. But it would be easier than trying to convince the Afghans that the recent election debacle was, in fact, a success and continuing to prop up a Government in which they have diminishing trust and confidence. It would also create the best climate for reintegrating the tribal-based Taleban where we can.

This would give us at last a form of government in the country that runs with, rather than against, the grain of Afghan tradition. And it might, finally mean that we would no longer be sacrificing so many young men’s lives for a Government and a President in which there is so little confidence and support.

Our own Government needs to make this case and make it powerfully. The British people are not squeamish and if they understand why we are fighting, they will back the cause. But being half-hearted is not an option in war. Afghanistan must become the nation’s No 1 priority or the people will withdraw their support.

Paddy Ashdown. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon was the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia.