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Mortal tide calls entire US strategy into question

The patrol from No 1 Company, the Coldstream Guards, was pinned down in a field at Babaji in Helmand, an area supposedly "liberated" from the Taliban during Operation Panther's Claw. As we took shelter in a ditch an American B1 bomber, called in for air support, came in low, huge and menacing. It was there for a "show of force" to scare the Taliban, but not to bomb them, an example of "courageous restraint" stipulated by General Stanley McChrystal. The Taliban did not get scared and continued firing. " How about some courageous bombing instead?" shouted an exasperated young soldier.

A year earlier, a unit of British troops in a similar situation south of Garmsir called down attacks from an RAF Harrier. Minutes later a B1 dropped two 500lb bombs with deafening noise. It seemed implausible anyone could survive, but the Taliban were heard on the radio reporting "they have dropped a big one on us".

The military advantage through air strikes on that occasion in Garmsir was, thus, negligible. Any women and children killed or maimed would have added to the anger felt over foreign troops. Gen McChrystal is determined not to alienate "hearts and minds", a key plank in his strategy since being sent by Barack Obama to turn the tide of a war which was looking increasingly un-winnable to the Western public and politicians.

The logic of Gen McChrystal's approach appeared unarguable. Commanders say he rejuvenated a campaign which had lost its way.

Now, however, questions are being asked as to whether the McChrystal "surge" of troops to seize and hold ground from the insurgents, while doing the utmost to avoid civilian casualties, would actually work.

Yesterday brought the news that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the UK representative to Afghanistan, has gone on "extended leave" after expressing his opposition to the military option. The "surge" is not working, he is said to believe – the only option is to talk to the Taliban.

It is true that the war is no longer confined to the south. The capital, Kabul, is regularly attacked, the number of roadside bombs have almost doubled in a year. But one of the main reasons for this rise in violence has been the presence of Western and Afghan troops in areas they have not been to before. The Taliban, backed by their supporters in the Pakistani secret police, the ISI, are fighting to hold their turf.

Despite the losses, one can see signs of civic society returning in some of the most violent parts of Helmand. However, establishing security takes time and that is what the commanders do not have. US officials repeatedly say that President Obama's deadline of July next year to begin the pullout is "conditions based", but with the President facing re-election, the faction led by Vice-President Joe Biden, strongly opposed to the "surge", is gaining ground. The new British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, and David Cameron have stated that the UK will "last the course" but there is little doubt both men would like the withdrawal to start as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai is said to be so disillusioned with the US and Britain that he is willing to embrace the most extreme factions of the Taliban. The two government officials most trusted by the West, interior minister Hanif Atmar and Amrullah Saleh, the director of the intelligence service, have resigned in protest.

Gen McChrystal and the military commanders still believe their strategy will work in the field. But they now talk privately of the possibility of the politicians jeopardising all that is being achieved.