Fall back, men, Afghanistan is a nasty war we can never win

The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, flies to Britain this week to meet a crisis entirely of London and Washington’s creation. They have no strategy for the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. They are hanging on for dear life and praying for something to turn up. Britain is repeating the experience of Gordon in Khartoum, of the Dardanelles, Singapore and Crete, of politicians who no longer read history expecting others to die for their dreams of glory.

Every independent report on the Nato-led operation in Afghanistan cries the same message: watch out, disaster beckons. Last week America’s Afghanistan Study Group, led by generals and diplomats of impeccable credentials, reported on “a weakening international resolve and a growing lack of confidence”. An Atlantic Council report was more curt: “Make no mistake, Nato is not winning in Afghanistan.” The country was in imminent danger of becoming a failed state.

A clearly exasperated Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, has broken ranks with the official optimism and committed an extra 3,000 marines to the field, while sending an “unusually stern” note to Germany demanding that its 3,200 troops meet enemy fire. Germany, like France, has rejected that plea. Yet it is urgent since the Canadians have threatened to withdraw from the south if not relieved. An equally desperate Britain is proposing to send half-trained territorials to the front, after its commanders ignored every warning that the Taliban were the toughest fighters on earth.

Meanwhile Nato is doing what it does best, squabbling. Gates has criticised Britain for not taking the war against the insurgents with sufficient vigour. Britain is furious at America’s obsession with spraying the Helmand poppy crop and thus destroying all hope of winning hearts and minds. Most of the 37,000 soldiers wandering round Kabul were sent on the understanding that they would do no fighting. No army was ever assembled on so daft a premise.

Nato’s much-vaunted 2006 strategy has not worked. It boasted that its forces would only be guarding reconstruction and training the Afghan police. There would be no more counterproductive airstrikes against Pashtun villages. The Taliban would be countered by American special forces, with the Pakistan army attacking their rear. Two years ago anyone expressing scepticism towards this rosy scenario was greeted at Nato headquarters in Kabul with guffaws of laughter. Today that laughter must be music in Taliban ears.

Kabul is like Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. It swarms with refugees and corruption while an upper crust of well-heeled contractors, consultants and NGO groupies careers from party to party in bullet-proof Land Cruisers. Spin doctors fighting a daily battle with the truth have resorted to enemy kill-rates to imply victory, General Westmoreland’s ploy in Vietnam.

This is a far cry from Britain’s 2001 pledges of opium eradication, gender-awareness and civic-governance classes. After 87 deaths and two years of operations in Helmand, the British Army cannot even secure one dam. Aid successes such as a few new schools and roads in the north look ever more tenuous as the country detaches itself from Kabul and tribal elders struggle to make terms with Taliban commanders.

There is plainly no way 6,000 British troops are ever going to secure, let alone pacify, the south. More soldiers will simply evince more insurgency. More American raids across the Pakistan border merely offer propaganda to Al-Qaeda in its radicalisation of the tribal areas. It was just such brutalism that preceded the Soviet escalation of the counterinsurgency war in the 1980s, and the rise of the (American-backed) precursors of the Taliban.

The best news out of Kabul is the increased disenchantment of the wily Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Last week he vetoed the West’s offering of a former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, to co-ordinate operations in Kabul, whatever that might mean. Liberal democracy is not high on Karzai’s priority list.

He attacked the British for drawing the Taliban into his unregulated domain. When outside agents were thought to be negotiating with Taliban elements behind his back, he instantly expelled them from the country.

Meanwhile he has taken to making his own choice of provincial governors and commanders, often warlords enmeshed in the booming drugs trade. That trade offers Afghanistan its one staple income.

While the international community in Kabul wails that Karzai is too close to the druglords, the warlords and various sinister Taliban go-betweens, they are at least his warlords and his go-betweens. When Britain sacked the ruthless tribal chief, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, as governor of Helmand, Karzai was furious and rightly predicted it would lead to a surge in Taliban aggression.

For all his faults, Karzai is both an elected leader and a canny one. He is a virtual prisoner of the Nato garrison in Kabul but Afghanistan remains his country and if he thinks he can cut deals across its political heartlands, let him. If he wants Nato to stop bombing Taliban bases in Pashtun villages and killing Pashtun tribal leaders, then it should stop.

Withdraw the opium eradication teams from Helmand. Let Karzai barter money for power and power for peace. The foreign “governance” pundits in Kabul might dream of Afghanistan as a latterday Sweden, but they are never going to bring Pashtuns, Baluchis, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks into a stable federation.

Only an Afghan stands any chance of doing that, and the one Afghan on offer is Karzai.

Common sense advocates a demilitarisation of the occupation, with a withdrawal of western troops to Kabul where they can try to protect the capital and the northern trade routes. In provinces to the south and east, Karzai’s money, weapons and negotiating skills must deliver what results they can. The West cannot possibly police Afghanistan with anything remotely like the resources it has available.

Behind such a policy shift should lie an even more crucial one. For the past two decades intelligence lore has held that nothing happens along the Afghan/Pakistan frontier without agencies of the Pakistan army being involved. The latter’s pro-Taliban strategy through the 1990s was based on its obsession with “defence in depth” against India. Pakistan wanted Afghanistan stable, friendly and medieval. The security of the Punjab rested on the containment of the Pashtun tribal lands straddling the Pakistan/ Afghanistan border.

George W Bush’s reckless elevation of Al-Qaeda after 2001 promoted a small group of alien Arab guests into global warriors for Islam. It also destroyed Islamabad’s hold over the Taliban. America bribed the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf with $1 billion a year to declare a U-turn and fight his former allies.

Musharraf duly broke his non-intervention treaty with the Pashtun and sent his army against them. The Taliban’s influence increases with every attack and with every American bombing of villages. The Pakistan army is suffering greater losses in this war than either the British or the Americans.

Wise heads in Islamabad know that they must withdraw from the border and restore respect for tribal autonomy. Nothing else will incline the Pashtun and other tribes to reject Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. The alternative is a growing insurgency that must destabilise whatever democratic regime might emerge from this month’s Pakistan elections. That prospect is far worse than whatever fate might befall Afghanistan.

There is no sensible alternative to ending military operations against the Pashtun, flying under whatever flag. Like Iraq’s Kurdistan, Pashtunistan is a country without a state. It has been cursed by history, but it returns that curse with interest when attacked. Fate has now handed it a starring role in Britain’s nastiest war in decades, and offered it the power to wreck an emergent democracy of vital interest to the West.

To have set one of the world’s most ancient and ferocious people on the warpath against both Kabul and Islamabad takes some doing. But western diplomacy has done it. Now must begin the agonising process of escaping that appalling mistake.

Simon Jenkins