Adrian Hamilton: We can do no good in Afghanistan


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Sherard Cowper-Coles, our loquacious former ambassador to Afghanistan, was on the radio yesterday practically breaking down in tears at the prospects for the country. We were leaving, he argued, without a proper international plan. The conference on Afghanistan which has just taken place in Bonn was a farce. Holding it without the Taliban or Pakistan was like holding one on Northern Ireland without including Sinn Fein or the Republic.

He's right on all counts. The massacre of Shia worshippers in Kabul on Tuesday and the bomb which killed nearly 20 civilians yesterday are the most shocking intimations of the violence and breakdown of security which could follow our declared withdrawal over the coming two years.

It's been madness, say those concerned with Afghanistan, including Cowper-Coles, to set a date for our leaving without organising a proper international plan to prepare for it. Even long-standing critics of our involvement worry that, by setting a deadline, we are encouraging a struggle for power which could tear the country apart.

The concerns may be justified. Yet it is hard to believe that the security situation would have been any better if we had not given a date. The presence of foreign troops is part of the problem, not a solution, however effective local pushes in particular areas may be.

Should there now be a descent into sectarian warfare – which one prays will not be the case – it will be the result of foreign intervention, not home-grown tensions. Sunni violence against Shias is a feature of Pakistan and Iraq rather than Afghanistan, which has relatively little history of it.

If the Taliban didn't carry out these atrocities – and they deny them – it seems far more likely that they were planned in Pakistan by those who have an interest in promoting a collapse of civil order, rather than domestic insurgents who see such intercommunal violence as self-defeating to their hopes of power.

For all US efforts, that is not a reason for hoping it might be possible to disengage the so-called "moderate" Taliban from their more extreme colleagues. So long as we are there as foreign invaders, treating with us will be seen as treasonable, and the government of Hamid Karzai is too weak and too implicated in the rule of the warlords to be a negotiating partner.

Cowper-Coles' answer would be a grand international conference of all the regional players to agree a settlement. It may be a good idea in principle but it's hardly workable. Britain, America and Europe are currently pursuing a policy of confrontation with Iran, the one country which could act as a brake on the Shia response to assault. Nor are relations much better with Pakistan, which, given drone attacks and Indian meddling, feels no incentive to act as a constructive partner in peace.

What few like to admit is that, as in Iraq, we went in to Afghanistan without an idea of what we would do once we'd unseated the regime, and now we are leaving it, just as in Iraq, largely unconcerned as to the future of the Afghanis.