Facing defeat in Afghanistan

Nato troops plunged into a vicious new round of fighting with the Taliban yesterday as hundreds of Afghan civilians fled their homes in villages around Kandahar. The violence, in which about 50 militants reportedly died, again underscored how insecure and ungovernable large tracts of the south and east remain six years after "victory in Kabul".

The impact of the continuing bloodshed, said to be the worst since 2001, is being felt far beyond the battlefields of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan. Simmering tensions between Nato members over "burden-sharing" are bubbling to the surface in Berlin, Washington and London. All agree the alliance's mission is under-resourced and under-funded; none has a ready answer to the problem.

Despite a steady escalation of force levels from about 5,000 in 2003 to more than 40,000 today, the fight grows ever more desperate. The possibility of military failure, previously unthinkable, is now openly discussed. Few deny that Nato's first and biggest operation outside Europe is in trouble. According to a senior European diplomat, the alliance's cohesion and credibility is increasingly on the line.

"We are now in the most difficult phase in Afghanistan," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato secretary-general, in a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune. "If we do not prevail, the consequences ... will be dire." Not only was Afghanistan's future as a democratic, unified state in the balance; so, too, was Europe's security in the face of reviving terrorist threats emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Speaking after meeting Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, in London last week, Gordon Brown vowed Afghanistan would "never again" become the failed state used by al-Qaida to plot the 9/11 attacks. But other Nato members seem less certain.

Germany's parliament recently debated pulling out its 3,700 troops; public opinion supports withdrawal. Despite urgent US appeals for Germany, France, Italy and Spain to drop their "caveats" and switch troops from peacekeeping and training to combat duties, there is no sign they will comply. Even Canada, on the Afghan front line from the first, is reviewing its role.

According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, insurgency-related deaths, military and civilian, have topped 5,000 so far this year, up 1,000 on 2006. Suicide bombings and kidnappings targeting civilians are also on the rise. A report by thinktank Chatham House concluded meanwhile that the conflict is becoming "regionalised", involving tribal areas of Pakistan and alleged arms supplies from Iran.

Adding to the gloom, US research suggests the number of Afghans supporting a return to Taliban rule has doubled, to 15%.

Nato's difficulties extend far beyond the Taliban resurgence and burden-sharing disputes. Senior commanders stress military might alone cannot prevail in Afghanistan. But diplomats say the long-term strategy and the inter-agency coordination required to deliver political stability, economic recovery and reliable services are lacking. Nor, despite billions already disbursed, is there nearly enough money.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently advocated stronger local leadership, increased international engagement and tighter regional partnerships to help find a way forward. But in a sign of how bad matters have become, the UN was forced this week to plead with the Taliban to stop attacking its food convoys.

The deepening Afghan crisis is encouraging talk of peace, notwithstanding Taliban demands for the unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces. But according to Professor William Maley, writing in World Today magazine, Mr Karzai's recent offer to negotiate, and reported British-backed efforts to win over "moderate" insurgents, could backfire by inviting greater resistance. Such moves might also encourage rearmament among the Taliban's tribal foes.

Winter will bring a lull in the fighting. But the spring thaw will see the whole bloody cycle begin anew. Unless something drastic happens to break the pattern, this year's Nato fissures may become next year's all-out ruptures. The death toll will mount. And Mr Brown, with 7,700 British troops in the firing line, may find himself trapped between US-dictated strategic imperatives and a growing desire to bring the boys home.

Simon Tisdall