A bloody choice: Iraq or Afghanistan? Britain must choose

If it does not, according to MoD documents leaked last week, we risk failure in both. Raymond Whitaker on a bloody dilemma
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The Independent Online

At the beginning of October 2001,only weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the world stood on the brink of war in Afghanistan. Five years ago this Saturday, the first bombs fell.

With all that has happened since, it is hard to remember how much of a plunge into the unknown this first clash in the "war on terror" felt at the time. But the regime folded in less than six weeks. By mid-November, American and British troops were in Kabul; by Christmas an interim government was in place under Hamid Karzai.

After the horror of 11 September, it seemed 2001 was ending on a hopeful note, with billions of dollars being pledged in aid to rebuild the country and scores of nations offering peacekeeping troops. The world acknowledged that it had turned its back on Afghanistan after the collapse of communism, but Tony Blair promised that it would not happen again. So why is it that we have lost more British troops in Afghanistan in the past few weeks than in the preceding four years? Why are poorly-supplied British contingents fighting a full-scale war in the south, when we were told earlier this year that they were being deployed on a reconstruction mission? With a suicide bombing in Kabul claiming at least 12 lives yesterday, it is clear that security cannot be guaranteed even in the capital.

The blunt answer is that we did "abandon Afghanistan the second time", to use the Prime Minister's words. President Karzai sought 50,000 troops to provide security, but got less than a tenth of that number. Of $15bn (£8bn) pledged in aid since 2002, less than half has been forthcoming.

When I visited British peacekeepers in Kabul in January 2003, they were pleased with their progress. A strategy had been devised to spread the beneficial effects to other centres, despite the shortage of troops and aid money: the formation of "provincial reconstruction teams", or PRTs. Consisting of no more than a couple of dozen soldiers, these would go into regional capitals to foster stability, remind local warlords of their responsibilities to the central government, combat the drugs trade and give development a push.

It seemed a suicidally optimistic idea, but turned out to be an unexpected success - so much so that the Americans copied it in some areas under their control in eastern Afghanistan. They soon learnt, however, that it is impossible to assault a village one day and turn up offering to dig a well the next.

And in early 2003, everyone in Kabul was aware that the spotlight had already moved away from them to Iraq. The US was peeling away men and equipment for an invasion that came a few weeks later. The result of that overconfidence has long been evident in Iraq, but is only now dawning in Afghanistan. The Taliban has been allowed to regain momentum: it is clear that in Helmand province, where only a couple of dozen US troops were stationed when the 3,300-strong British contingent arrived earlier this year, nobody knew what was going on.

The UK, in the words of a Ministry of Defence paper leaked last week, went in with its "eyes closed". Troops expecting a PRT mission have instead found themselves battling an unholy alliance of the Taliban, drug traders' militias and local farmers whose poppy crops have been destroyed, and have taken up arms to feed their families. Just how close British troops in isolated outposts came to being overwhelmed in recent weeks is becoming clear in a stream of blogs and leaked emails, but their provincial commander, Brigadier Ed Butler, insisted last week that they had won a "tactical victory".

The intensity of the fighting has now ebbed - no British soldiers have been lost since 6 September - and supply failures are being rectified. Despite brave words by Nato 's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliancehas still not come up with the 1,500-man mobile reserve needed to prevent another close-run battle in the future, which does not augur well when Nato is due soon to take responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan.

British troops are all too aware that every day spent fighting the local inhabitants, and having to make up with American-style firepower what they lack in numbers, sets back the reconstruction effort by months, if not years. The aim is to hit the Taliban hard before winter comes, and to use the respite to sow the seeds of development, regaining local support, before fighting can resume next year. Next to nothing has been said about what happens after that.

It is clear that without considerably higher levels of men and money, Afghanistan could slip back towards anarchy, and not only in the embattled south. "We are very concerned that it will escalate next year, and that parts of Afghanistan will become no man's land," a senior official in Kabul said yesterday. General Sir Michael Rose, who led the SAS and British forces in Bosnia, said recently that with Nato's present resources and strategy "we simply cannot win". The leaked MoD paper appeared to agree, arguing in effect that unless Britain chose between Iraq and Afghanistan, it risked failure in both.