By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 06/09/2006):
This time there are no excuses. Every scrap of intelligence warned the government not to fight a war against insurgency in south Afghanistan. Ask the CIA, MI6, the former service chiefs Lord Inge and Lord Guthrie, and Nato allies who thought the then defence secretary, John Reid, was mad. Ask the Americans, who were losing more men than in Iraq and were wisely withdrawing. Read the reports published throughout 2004/5 that the Taliban were back in strength. These were veteran guerrillas, well armed, who could count on the tacit support of tens of thousands of tribal militias. What made Tony Blair think he could beat them with just 4,000 soldiers? The Soviets lost with 120,000.
This expedition ranks among the stupidest in recent British history – and there is serious competition. It was undertaken under the aegis of Nato, designed for a different purpose and notorious for incoherent decision. This meant British forces would not be masters of their fate but at the mercy of a caravanserai of some 36 nations in Kabul, most with no intention of getting hurt.
When I met the effervescent Lieutenant General David Richards, currently head of Nato operations, in June, I shared the view of all who visit British troops on the ground. I was impressed by their morale and technical competence. But such visits (which rarely stray off base) risk buying into the dangerous assumption that military competence can compensate for political folly. These British soldiers are not fighting “against terrorism” or dying “for democracy”. They are dying because the Americans wanted out and George Robertson, the political head of Nato, craved a purpose in life. (The same Robertson, as defence secretary, protected the Eurofighter, aircraft carrier and Trident budgets at the expense of less glamorous kit now desperately needed in Helmand.)
What baffled me was Richards’s naivete about the Taliban, on whom there was already a copious and alarming literature. He was full of “Malayan inkspot strategies”, winning “hearts and minds” and not fighting the American way, such as bombing and strafing civilians. Richards said he had enough troops to do the job and was gung ho. I left his office in a daze. Was this how the British set off to the Dardenelles?
None of the objectives set by Reid in January was achievable. Commons bombast about gallant troops driving the “remnants of the Taliban … into their last bastions”, eradicating poppies and building schools, clinics and democracy, was drivel. So was Reid’s talk of the “fundamental difference” between US counter-terrorism and British reconstruction. Semantics about rules of engagement and “not firing a shot” was equally hollow; in Helmand the British are consuming ammunition faster than at any time since the second world war.
British ministers involved in this war are way beyond their pay grade. Asked by Lord Astor last year about the troop balance between Iraq and Afghanistan, the defence minister Lord Drayson (recreation: sword-fencing) replied dismissively: “My lords, I am sure that noble lords will want to join me in congratulating the noble lord on his birthday.” The aid minister, Hilary Benn, denies that British troops are waging war, “but supporting a process of reconstruction”. Kim Howells of the Foreign Office wants to “defeat the drugs trade” and plans to waste £270m doing so. Armchair generals are bad enough, but armchair ministers are a menace.
Within three months of their full deployment, British troops have reportedly had to abandon the “platoon house” strategy of securing bases in isolated towns and villages. They were being pulverised by Taliban mortars. The publicity attached to the Nimrod disaster at the weekend was excessive. Any plane can crash. Death tallies, on both sides, are merely a sign of failure. To have to kill 200 young Afghans to secure a village for a day indicates that hearts-and-minds is not working. This is classic Vietnam syndrome, the military fantasy that war is a setpiece battle against a finite enemy (in this case “1,000 terrorists”). It implies that when 1,000 are dead, you have won.
The Afghans beat the Soviets in the 1980s by generating exactly the spirit of nationalist insurgency now fuelled by the brutality of the Nato occupation, especially its casual use of air power. When the Taliban seized control in 1994, they offered the country a sort of order, and even prosperity, based on opium. There is no doubt that they will return, at least to the south. Kabul cannot stop them. Nato certainly cannot. For Blair and Reid, architects of the current deployment, to lump the Taliban in with al-Qaida, 9/11 and the Sunnis in Iraq is an invitation to false strategy. British troops in their £1bn camp in Helmand are as trapped politically as they are militarily. The government is in denial.
Finding a way out of this morass is near impossible. British policy is in hock to Blair’s Nato machismo, and early withdrawal is hard to imagine. Since British troops cannot conceivably “defeat” the Taliban, sending reinforcements will merely add to the latter’s target list. The present retreat from hearts-and-minds to search-and-destroy may be important for troop morale, but it is the same failed policy adopted by the Americans in Iraq’s Sunni triangle. And the Taliban make Iraqis look amateur. They fight as units, are better equipped and have rich allies over every border.
Karzai, besieged in Kabul, knows one thing. He must do a deal with the Taliban as he has with the northern and western warlords. His spring appointment of gangsters and drug-runners as police chiefs and commanders may have appalled his foreign paymasters. But Karzai has only one way to survive outside his capital: buying support from those who can repay with security. In the south that is commanders in league with the Taliban, even if it means Mullah Omar returning to Kandahar. The British could then argue that they have roughly honoured the pledge to achieve security. Either way there is no alternative to negotiation.
This is not a war that can be won on the battlefield. A prolonged campaign of attrition, as proposed by Des Browne, Reid’s successor, would demand a terrible cost in lives and money. The Taliban can fight for ever. It is no good politicians in London shouting: “We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan.” Such chest-beating at the expense of other people’s lives should be actionable. Blair and his colleagues have willed on the army a war they knew it cannot win. The least they owe it is an exit strategy.