Top brass on the warpath

The Taliban is experiencing a renaissance and now has a permanent presence in more than 70% of Afghanistan: so claimed a report published yesterday by an independent thinktank, the International Council on Security and Development. Some of its conclusions appeared exaggerated, enabling the government to rubbish the lot. But few would quarrel with the underlying message, not least Britain's top brass.

They are on the warpath. Not against an enemy on the battlefield. Not against any military force. Their anger is directed at civilians - on their side.

Let us read remarks made by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence staff, earlier this month. "I and others have been saying for over two years that we have to get a grip of the civilian effort," he said, referring to "wholly inadequate support from UN headquarters in New York". He could have been speaking about anywhere in the world, but his lecture to the Royal United Services Institute was directed at Afghanistan.

More than two years ago General David Richards, a contender to succeed Stirrup, warned that the situation in Afghanistan was "close to anarchy" with feuding agencies compounding problems caused by local corruption. "The population is the prize," wrote Brigadier Andrew MacKay, the commander of British troops in Helmand province, a year later, quoting a classic counter-insurgency manual.

The prize is in danger of slipping away. Billions of pounds of foreign aid have had little impact on Afghan hearts and minds, let alone stomachs.

For years the generals have been saying - and their political masters have not dissented - that no military solution exists for any conflict in the modern world, let alone the counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan. That has been brought home this year, and the British army faces the prospect of being bogged down for years in southern Afghanistan.

The soldiers are caught in a vicious circle: their task is to prepare a secure environment to allow civil agencies, including UN experts and NGOs, to operate on projects that should give Afghans a better life; the civil agencies say they cannot operate because the security situation is too dangerous, and is getting more so. "The time has come - indeed, it's long past time - to fix this problem," said Stirrup. Meanwhile, he added, the Taliban are winning the information war. They "recognise the importance of perceptions," said Stirrup. "They realise that the substance of security is of less relevance than how people feel about it."

The number of "security incidents" in and around Kabul actually declined this year, Stirrup observed. "But that's not the sense that many people in the capital have, nor is it the sense that's reported. The Taliban have used their advantages of unpredictability and the impact of asymmetric attacks to heighten the sense of concern over security." Civilian casualties from allied air strikes do not help, he conceded.

Nato commanders are screaming for more troops, not just from the US. Washington has already agreed to deploy at least an extra 10,000, making the US contingent bigger than that of the rest of the coalition, including troops from non-Nato nations, put together. British military chiefs are saying that no more British troops should be sent to Afghanistan unless other countries make greater efforts to promote the economic and political development of the country. More troops will provide more targets for the enemy as well as more ammunition for the Taliban's argument that their country is being taken over by foreign invaders. Small wonder that the military are deeply, deeply, frustrated.

Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian's security affairs editor.