Andreas Whittam Smith: If the Afghans don't want us, why should we stay?

The issue is whether the lot of us can achieve anything worthwhile
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The Independent Online

The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, doesn't think we are doing a good job in his country. In the dangerous area where our troops are deployed we have, apparently, brought only more insecurity. Our decision to remove a brutal and corrupt governor of Helmand province was also a British error. "I made the mistake of listening to them. And when they came in, the Taliban came," remarked Mr Karzai.

Which is a pity. Especially since 87 British Forces personnel or civilians have died since the start of operations in October 2001 attempting to support the Afghan government. Of these, 61 are classed as killed in action or died of wounds sustained in action. In addition, about 1,000 personnel have been evacuated on medical grounds.

Shortly after Mr Karzai's criticisms came another story that raises questions about Britain's involvement in Afghanistan. A young man, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, who worked as a journalist, was sentenced to death by an Islamic court for downloading a report from the internet. He was accused of blasphemy after he publicised a report from a Farsi web site. The Independent, along with others, has drawn attention to this case, and it may be that international pressure will save the young man's life. But the question remains: is it for such barbarity that British troops are fighting?

The greater issue is whether the whole lot of us, the western coalition comprising American and Nato forces, can achieve anything worthwhile. The war with the Taliban is going badly. The rebels launched over 140 suicide bombings in 2007, with numerous attacks in the heart of the capital, Kabul. They have infiltrated many areas of the country, especially the south and the southeast, where the government is weakest.

According to the Afghanistan Study Group, a prestigious American think tank, the other day: "The prospect of again losing significant parts of Afghanistan to the forces of Islamic extremists has moved from the improbable to the possible."

Or we can turn to an Oxfam assessment, also published last week. Commenting on the use of the substantial amounts of aid that Western nations have contributed to support civil society, it had this to say: "While aid has contributed to progress in Afghanistan, especially in social and economic infrastructure – and whilst more aid is needed – the development process has to date been too centralised, top-heavy and insufficient. As a result millions of Afghans, particularly in rural areas, still face severe hardship. Conditions of persistent poverty have been a significant factor in the spread of insecurity".

Unsurprisingly, the amount of land under opium cultivation rose sharply last year, so that the total area in use in Afghanistan alone is now larger than the poppy-growing acres in all the countries of Latin America combined.

In theory, the coalition could be more effective. While the nations involved almost certainly don't wish to send any more troops, it would be a great advantage if those that have been committed could be used in a more rational manner. But many countries have placed restrictions on where their troops can serve. Hence the letter which the US Defense Secretary recently sent to the German government – described by the recipients as "impertinent" – asking that German forces be deployed in southern Afghanistan, where the fighting is fiercest.

We could also be more long-sighted in the poppy eradication programmes we support. Swift destruction by spraying pesticides from the air ruins the farmers financially and sends them into the arms of the Taliban. Without contriving an alternative livelihood from farming, nothing can succeed. That would be a 10-year programme.

What we cannot do, however, is create a capable and legitimate Afghan government, which the Afghanistan Study Group rightly argues is the necessary foundation for everything else. For how is the coalition to deal with the fact that the police are seen as a greater cause of insecurity than the Taliban in many parts of the country? Or with the reality that many senior political figures – provincial governors, members of the cabinet, and parliamentarians – are persistent human rights abusers?

If the coalition pulls out, the Afghan government would fall apart, we are told, paving the way for a new al-Qa'ida safe haven in that country. So what? In a recent British trial, it was shown that the men accused of terrorism had done their training in the Lake District. They didn't need to catch a plane to Kabul.

In truth we cannot do anything worthwhile in Afghanistan for which the life of a single British soldier should be sacrificed. Britain must make its excuses and leave. After all, Mr Karzai, it seems, would be glad.