Realism fires its first shot in this mad war

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 19/10/08):

Will the war on credit outspend the war on terror? Or will one crash bring an end to another? Washington, London, Baghdad and Kabul last week saw concerted moves by the West to disengage from its seven-year war on militant Islam. When it comes to stupefying public spending, even super-policemen cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

The cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still far outstrips that of the credit crunch rescues of the past fortnight. Joseph Stiglitz, the economist, has put the cost of Iraq alone at $3 trillion, although he did impute the value of lives lost and other investment opportunities forgone. Even official figures are close to $1 trillion. The British war effort has topped £10 billion, and a further £3.5 billion was added this year alone. Such money might seem tolerable when it was “skim” from the West’s two decades of wealth. With national budgets collapsing, it is simply unaffordable.

Hence the onrush of realism. Last Wednesday America reached a draft agreement with the Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki to bring American troops under Iraqi sovereignty at the end of this year and to leave Iraq, in some shape or form, by 2011. Two days earlier the British government had agreed with Maliki’s statement that its 4,100 troops in the country were “not necessary” and should also leave soon, possibly next year.

As so often before, an invading power sucked into the vortex of occupation is now crafting a way of declaring victory and departing. The American election campaign offers a crucial rite of passage, with John McCain declaring Iraq a “success” and the recent “surge” a triumph. American voters overwhelmingly want to get out. They have even found a general, David Petraeus, whom they believe can deliver that outcome.

Petraeus’s surge, a delicate mix of high-intensity policing, tactical alliances with enemies and cool diplomacy with Shi’ite politicians, has capitalised on sheer exhaustion. The anarchy of 2005-7 could not last. Petraeus offers a sort of punctuation. The mind numbs at the waste of people and resources before his common-sense approach was tried.

Talking to Petraeus in London last month, I found him not just intelligent but extraordinarily hesitant for a soldier. His answer to any question about how he intended to progress the conflict was a crisp “by agreement”. Yet his standing-down of 80% of the Sunni Awakening militias is highly risky. The movement of insurgents north to Mosul and the Kurdistan border is full of foreboding. Christians and other minorities there are being driven from their homes and murdered.

Iraq is still the world’s most violent and precarious nation (after Somalia), and its infrastructure is not back to pre-invasion levels. There could hardly be a more damning indictment of the West’s incompetence. America’s voters have had enough. Iraqis, too, have had enough. It is a matter of how to retreat in reasonably good order.

The British abandonment of Basra last year led to Shi’ite militias and Iraqi soldiers fighting each other to a swift finish. It was the final chapter of what should have happened immediately after the invasion. You can topple a dictator but you cannot order the resulting strife. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, at least understood this with his “invasion-lite” strategy of hit and run, aborted by the neoconservatives.

Most tragic is that the painful lessons of Iraq have yet to be learnt by Nato and American commanders in Afghanistan. Even the otherwise sane Barack Obama campaign is in denial over that war. The same belligerence against the insurgents and reckless use of air power fuels rebellion and acts as a magnet for terrorists from all over the globe.

Briefings in 2006 by the gung-ho Nato commander General Sir David Richards (now head of the British Army) seem a distant fantasy. He talked of Malaya and winning hearts and minds. Now Vietnam is a better parallel, with talk of needing ever more troops to establish security. As in Vietnam there is the daily use of kill rates and assassinations of enemy leaders to imply impending victory.

The reassessments coming out of Kabul are devastating. A leaked White House report talks of a “downward spiral” in the war against the Taliban. Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the US joint chiefs of staff, told Congress that America was not winning, echoing similar phrases from the CIA. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador, reportedly gave the Foreign Office the gloomiest possible account of “the worsening security situation” and the corrupt state of the Kabul government – as if newspapers were not reporting the same.

The British and other Nato powers remain in the grip of Washington. They agreed to stage this summer’s absurdly expensive trek to get a generator to a Helmand dam to help the Americans at election time. They have agreed to a new drive against the Afghan poppy crop, a task of lunatic counterproductivity equalled only by the daily bombing of Pashtun villages in border areas. The rebels are handed on a plate the lucrative privilege of guarding Afghan peasants and their staple harvest against the devilish foreigner.

The reckless use of force along the border alienates Pakistan, without which any curtailment of the uprising is impossible. Western policy fails to understand that Islamabad has a massive vested interest in not antagonising the semi-autonomous tribes along its border.

The Afghan insurgency is widespread, tribal and conducted by the world’s toughest guerrillas, the Pashtun. They will never be beaten. They would prefer to hold sway only over their own uplands, but the war has drawn them into a wider, and to them nobler, conflict with the hated West, making them easy prey for the ideological warlords of Al-Qaeda.

Policy in Afghanistan has gone haywire. As a result, with painful slowness, Nato is sketching the scenario of withdrawal, even behind a smokescreen of force enhancement.

The code is that we must “talk to the Taliban”. This murky entity is in reality a roaming coalition of clans and opium traders along the Pakistan border. Its once horrific image is being softened by coalition spokesmen portraying it as sophisticated, good at public relations and ready to bring order to the country’s south and east.

The Taliban are suddenly not the problem but the solution. I wonder how long it will be before Al-Qaeda achieves this exotic status, one that it enjoyed in the 1980s during the fight alongside the CIA against the Russians.

Waging war in Afghanistan ranks with marching on Moscow in the canon of military folly. Yet such was the bombast of the Bush-Blair alliance that this folly was widely supported by liberal opinion. Now others must end it and also the slaughter spreading into the world’s most unstable nuclear power, Pakistan. It is obscene to justify this carnage by citing a few rebuilt Afghan schools and roads, as British ministers do. The country will never be at peace and Pakistan never safe until the West withdraws its troops – and probably not even then. We shall leave another nation in ruins.

The thesis that nation-building cannot start “until security is established” is an old soldier’s make-work scheme. It begs the question of how to achieve that security. Security is meaningless until foreign troops no longer claim authority over lands that are not their own. Politics must be left to work its messy magic. The West must get out with as much dignity as it can muster. Then it can afford to put its own house in order.