Adrian Hamilton: If terror is the problem, we won't solve it in Afghanistan

Justification for the war on anti-terror grounds is largely specious
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So here we go again, in a war which half the population does not believe in, in which we are committing ourselves ever more deeply at the behest of the US and over which politicians display no real sense of purpose.

The most depressing aspect, once again, is just how hopeless the UK political system is in throwing up real debate. Instead of discussing objectives we have an increasingly bitter exchange of accusations about the availability of helicopters, the armoured protection of vehicles and the number of troops on the ground.

These are serious deficiencies, no doubt, and have been since the beginning. But talking about them is not going to do much good at this moment. Even if you allocated the money for dozens more helicopters and several thousand more troops, they would not arrive to help in the surge which is causing so many deaths this summer. The row over numbers is becoming just part of the political blame game – good for a pre-election spat but no use in deciding what the present numbers are there for, never mind more of them.

According to the Prime Minister they're there to ensure security for democratic elections to take place in the country this August and to deprive the enemy of safe havens where they can train and plan attacks on the West. But that simply begs the question of whether pouring troops into Helmand is the best way of achieving this, or indeed whether it can manage it at all. Three quarters of all the plots detected in Britain, according the Government's own intelligence are, after all, connected to Pakistan. Very few with Afghanistan.

Al-Qa'ida, insofar as it does exist as a centralised organisation bent on bringing terror to the West, has affiliates in a range of countries difficult to get at including the Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. It doesn't need Afghanistan as a training ground. Lose Afghanistan, answer ministers, and you lose Pakistan as well. Yes, but to lose Helmand Province doesn't mean that you necessarily lose Afghanistan as a whole.

There is a perfectly sensible strategy that would have coalition forces withdraw to concentrate on ensuring the main lines of communication throughout the country and keeping secure those parts of the north and west as well as the north-east, where the Taliban haven't had much of a hold but are beginning to make inroads (as recent deaths among German and Italian forces testify).

Insofar as the central problem is the Afghan-Pakistan border – as the military keep saying – then our troops might well be better employed sealing the border rather than trying to dominate a province. Pakistan, which has now undertaken a full offensive to take control of its border areas, complains that the co-alition efforts on the other side of the border are far too little and ineffective. And it may have a case.

If counter-terror and Pakistan's stability are our real concerns – as they ought to be – then that is where we should be concentrating our resources on, not waging a war in a land that has only rarely been controlled from the centre and which has always bitterly resented the presence of foreign troops. Most of our terror plots, and those of Europe, are home-grown. In so far as the would-be terrorist receives training abroad rather than from the internet, your best means of control is through the supervision of the coming and goings of young men and women from the country, particularly to Pakistan.

And if Pakistan stability is your main concern, then tackle it directly by helping that country develop a prosperous democracy instead of putting all our efforts in propping up a particular weak regime in Kabul.

The justification for the Afghan war on anti-terror grounds is largely specious. We're in Afghanistan because we – like others – wanted to support the US after 9/11 and removing the bases of al-Qa'ida seemed obviously right at the time. We're in the mess we are in now because we allowed that initial impulse to drift into a confused and under resourced attempt to impose security for the government, stamp out drug dealing, rebuild society and defeat the Taliban. We're suffering higher casualties now because we've joined a US-led surge which Washington has adopted for its own reasons and in which we have precious little say.

No-one seriously believes that the present policy of trying to do everything without the resources to do it is a viable option. But the only alternative is not to double up the ante. There are other perfectly viable possibilities. We could scale down the enterprise to concentrate on preserving rule and communication in the key parts of Afghanistan, leaving it up to the Afghans themselves to make deals or enforce control in the outer parts.

We could withdraw most of our troops, continuing with just a basic anti-terror force and border patrols or indeed we could announce a date for leaving altogether, as we and the Americans have done in Iraq.

The one thing we cannot do is to go on as we are, led by events and the despairing claim that "we cannot afford to lose this war". History is littered with the graves of the soldiers who died obeying that call.