We're on our way out of Afghanistan. The politicians know it. The generals know it. The Afghans know it, as do their neighbours. The only people who are apparently not meant to know it are the soldiers fighting this hard-slogging war and the public. We know the start of withdrawal. President Obama has made it clear. It's July of next year. And that has been held to (despite the efforts by the Republicans to force him off the commitment) by General David Petraeus on Tuesday in his Senate confirmation hearings as Stanley McChrystal's replacement to head the forces in Afghanistan. But over what period the withdrawal is expected to take place is surrounded in ambiguity.
David Cameron has now put the time frame at five years, which is at least some indication of allied thinking. The Americans won't give any commitment – although there is the strong suspicion that Obama wants his forces out before his re-election campaign in 2012, which puts an even harder deadline on the nine-year-old venture. It all depends on how the surge goes and how ready the Afghans are to take over. Announcing target dates would only encourage the "enemy" and make withdrawal more difficult.
You can see the military logic, but in political terms it's too late for such obfuscation. The success or failure of the current surge – which, as Petraeus admitted, has become bogged down in some pretty heavy fighting – obviously affects conditions on the ground. If it's working, local handover is made easier. If it doesn't, then handover becomes more difficult if not impossible.
But then are we saying that the less successful the military strategy the longer we have to remain? Of course not. It just influences the extent to which we can get out without appearing to be cutting and running. The central problem – the impossibility – of the McChrystal strategy was that a policy of "hold and build", of retaking ground and then putting in a major effort at civilian reconstruction to win the hearts and minds of the locals, could only work without any deadline. And it could only be effective if it was part of a policy of total occupation – neither of which America or its allies could countenance.
Petraeus knows this. He also knows that the conditions which made the surge seem successful in Iraq – the decision by the Sunnis to stop fighting the Americans and the Shia at the same time and the sense by the Shia that they had gained most of what they wanted – don't apply in Afghanistan. As the most political of generals, his main aim now is to get out without a blot of failure on his or the armed services' record.
That essentially means supporting, through gritted teeth and swallowed words, President Karzai in doing whatever deals he feels is necessary to keep in power, whether that means cutting deals with good or bad Taliban and good or bad local feudal lords. It betrays the principles of democracy and the rights of women. It also raises some very big and worrying questions within Afghanistan about the future of the non-Pashtun minorities once the Taliban deals are done. But the truth is that the politicians of the region are already making their moves in the expectation of the withdrawal of Nato troops and there is very little we can do now without making things worse by meddling more.
Our main concern may well have to be directed towards ourselves. This campaign has not only done a great deal of harm to Afghanistan, it has also done considerable damage to the Western Alliance. It was begun as a Nato operation and now threatens to fall apart as a joint enterprise. The Dutch are heading for the exits this year, the Canadians in 2011 and the Polish in 2012.
As Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the Defence Minister of Germany (which has the third largest force in Afghanistan and has lost more than 40 men there) said in London this week, the experience of this war should lead to a radical rethinking of the criteria under which Nato went "out of theatre" in future operations. He's right. Every country is now rethinking its defence budgets and strategies. Before we get too carried away with the idea that old-fashioned Cold War armaments should be replaced by the fleet-footed forces for ventures abroad, we need to think whether we should embark on foreign interventions at all.
Why did Goldsmith change his mind?
While Afghanistan poses new questions, all the old questions of the Iraq venture are being replayed at the Chilcot inquiry, which resumed its hearings this week. Biggest new revelation is the publication of Lord Goldsmith's initial advice saying that invasion would be illegal. Like so much else in this fascinating inquiry, the revelation is not new as such. Lord Goldsmith has already said that he changed his mind before giving his final advice in support of the war. But it does raise all sorts of questions as to why the Attorney General underwent quite such a radical conversion. Whether the Chilcot committee ends up concluding that the war was illegal, I doubt. But one wonders whether the Cabinet Secretary would have allowed publication if Chilcot was still sitting under Labour.
What sticks in my craw, however, is the inquiry's claim to be full and comprehensive. It spent, it boasts, part of the period during the election when it was in purdah visiting France and the US to find out recollections there. The one place it didn't get to, of course, was Iraq itself and the one set of people it is not going to interview is the Iraqis themselves.
How a so-called independent committee, which includes two historians (admittedly neither of them known for expressing any sympathy with the Arab point of view) can claim to understand what went on without finding out the view from the other side beats me. But until we do, we'll never learn the lessons of these conflicts, in Afghanistan no more than in Iraq.
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