By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 12/12/07):
Musa Qala has “fallen” to coalition troops and the Mercian Regiment’s nine dead have been remembered at Westminster Abbey. Surely it is time to reassess the British operation in southern Afghanistan. The House of Commons public accounts committee – not the patsy foreign affairs committee – should travel to Kabul and conduct a full audit into the venture and ask what conceivable value to Britain lies in its continuance.On Monday the prime minister visited Helmand. He was right to prefer this photo opportunity to the ridiculous EU-Africa junket in Lisbon, but only if his eyes and ears were open. In Helmand’s Camp Bastion, he declared that defeating the Taliban on the ground was vital to “defeating terrorism all around the world”. While prime ministers may sometimes have to talk nonsense to troops at the front, nonsense it remains.
Brown knows he will not “defeat the Taliban”, a term for shifting groups of anti-western Muslim fundamentalists across the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan crescent. Brown knows that terrorism is not an entity but a weapon, and is not susceptible to defeat. Brown knows that his troops in Helmand are boosting the drugs trade, antagonising the population and recruiting insurgents. He knows it because, we must assume, he reads his intelligence.
It is now a year and a half since British briefers in Kabul were giving absurdly optimistic forecasts about the ease of suppressing the Taliban. American bomb-search-and-destroy, said the first Nato joint commander, General David Richards, would be replaced by his strategy of winning hearts and minds. It was a sure-fire winner, he said, and would need no more than 3,000 British troops. John Reid, the then defence secretary, even talked of completing the Helmand deployment “without a shot being fired”, and eliminating the opium harvest as “vital to the defeat of terrorism”. The whole Helmand expedition has from the start been a suicide mission. Since last year, 81 British troops have died and untold numbers been maimed for life. The United Nations calculates that violent incidents have risen by 20-30% since the British took over Nato command, with as many as 5,000 local deaths. The policy of using high-altitude bombers did not cease, despite the pleadings of Afghanistan’s elected ruler, Hamid Karzai, who knows that every bomb recruits 10 Taliban.
This week Musa Qala was attacked with B52s before the Americans and British entered what was left of the town. Who knows how many civilians have died? As the Americans found with Falluja in Iraq, there is no way you can “conquer” an urban settlement unless you intend to colonise it for ever. You can only stun it into temporary submission and long-term antipathy. There is no military solution in Afghanistan, not even a military start to a solution. Can Brown not see this?
Last year the British cut a deal with tribal leaders in Musa Qala that was clearly a dud – except insofar as cutting deals is going to be the only exit strategy from this morass. Gen Richards’s model required an intensive follow-up of aid to win hearts and minds. This did not happen. The Taliban simply walked back in. Does nobody hold inquests into these murderous mistakes? And what now but a return to the status quo ante? A “small British platoon” cannot hold Musa Qala, nor can the Afghan army. The Taliban can go wherever they like outside the Kabul area.
The only ingenuity shown by British policy-makers is over ways of spending large sums of Treasury money. In pursuit of what the retiring British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, calls a “30-year haul”, the British taxpayer is building a £1bn base in Helmand and the biggest British embassy outside Washington in Kabul. Random millions in aid are spent, mostly on consultants arriving on short contracts and entombed in a Kabul compound. There is no point in the Department for International Development blowing millions on “democratic education” or “voter encouragement” or “gender awareness” in places such as Kandahar, where women go in fear of their lives and teachers flee “night letters” or are hanged at dawn. One one-day “civic” course cost taxpayers £40,000 and yielded a few T-shirts.
To spend budgets, agencies and NGOs are dumping millions on the doorstep of the Karzai regime, which vanishes goodness knows where. Some $18bn a year is disappearing into Kabul’s budgetary hinterland. You cannot get a penny to employ a health visitor in Britain but you can get tens of thousands a year to “consult” on some awareness programme in Afghanistan. You cannot get a properly armoured car in Helmand, but armoured land cruisers are two a penny in Kabul. If the National Audit Office opened a branch in Kabul, it would have a seizure.
The six-year western operation in Afghanistan has all but failed in its goal of stamping out lawlessness and turning the country into a stable pro-western democracy. It has failed in eliminating the opium trade and in ridding the anarchic Afghan-Pakistani border of terrorist academies. While the concept of “Taliban” may be inexact, as Jason Burke wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, its discipline is re-infecting almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces. Western agencies can, falteringly, build roads, bridges and schools, but they cannot sustain them without central order. That this does not exist is evident in the restrictions on westerners moving outside the capital.
The “smart” estimate of how many troops – fully committed and equipped western troops – would be needed to hold Afghanistan for Karzai against the insurgents has risen in the past year from 150,000 to 200,000. Since an army on this scale is completely inconceivable, what is the purpose of the mission? It is not protecting British citizens from terror. It is undermining security next door in Pakistan. Were it not for the poppy crop, which Nato now proposes to spray from the air, Afghanistan would be an economic basket case.
British soldiers should never be sent to fight and die because ministers will not face a simple truth. As for Britain’s politicians mouthing hypocrisies about “our brave boys”, they are a disgrace. When asked recently what he thought of the Helmand expedition, the Tory leader David Cameron shrugged and replied, “We can’t just stand by and do nothing.” That is Britain’s post-imperial disease in a nutshell. Do anything, however stupid. In Afghanistan there is no realistic mission, no achievable objective, no long-term strategy, only the fruitless pursuit of failure.