Dominic Lawson: The only options are to double up in Afghanistan or leave

At a risk of sounding callous, the number of casualties is actually small for a war

Related Topics

On the first Friday of 2002 – 4 January, to be exact – the Foreign Minister of the new US-backed Afghan government, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, announced that the world's most famous one-eyed Mullah, the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, was "under siege and surrounded". Dr Abdullah's boss, Hamid Karzai, confidently added that Mullah Omar would be "delivered to the US" to stand trial – presumably on the basis that he had given hospitality and security to Osama bin Laden and the other al-Qa'ida leaders behind the assault on the World Trade Centre.

As it turned out, Mullah Omar had not been completely surrounded. He managed to flee Helmand on a motorbike, and found refuge somewhere in Pakistan. Where he is now, neither the Afghan government – nor probably the Pakistan government – know. All they do know is that Mullah Omar is still the leader of the Taliban, and still commanding its operations against the American troops – and ours – in Afghanistan.

If, eight years ago at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, anyone had predicted such an outcome, he would have been ridiculed – just as it might have seemed incredible when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, that 10 years later they would leave in despair, having lost 14,000 soldiers in combat, with many more terribly injured.

We make predictions about Afghanistan at our peril, therefore; and anyone who says with certainty what will happen in that benighted region if the international force withdraws – or if we stay – should be treated with about as much respect as we would accord a fairground Tarot reader. To use the language of the former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, the best we have are "known unknowns".

So when Lord Ashdown writes, as he did last week, that "withdrawal would mean the certain fall of Pakistan", we should not regard this as anything but a reasonably educated guess – and certainly worthy of no more credibility than the prediction that if US forces abandoned Vietnam, the whole of South-east Asia would fall to Communism like a pack of dominos.

Although strategists like to divide the world up into zones of influence, the truth is that most conflicts are intensely local in origin. It is especially true of Afghanistan, which is not really a nation at all, but a mess of competing tribal rivalries. This is presumably what the senior US official in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, meant when he declared "I fail to see the value in continuing US casualties and expenditure of resources in what is really a 35-year civil war" – and quit.

If we are to pull out our forces, however, it should not be for the wrong reasons. While arguing for staying, Lord Ashdown was writing in the immediate aftermath of the killing of five British soldiers by an Afghan police officer they were training. He portentously declared that this incident had "fractured a central plank of the only strategy we have". Many other commentators took a similar line, seeing this incident as an example of the uncontrollable treachery of the Afghans we have been training to enforce law and order.

Yet, according to an investigative report by the Sunday Times' Christina Lamb – who has been covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for the best part of 20 years – this incident was no plot against the Brits. It turns out that the killer was a young officer, called Gulbuddin, who had been serially sexually abused by a much more senior officer (these things happen in Afghanistan); he swore revenge against his abuser, and targeted him with a machine gun while the senior officer was in the company of a number of British soldiers.

According to an eyewitness report: "The five British soldiers were killed simply because they were present and considered to be the officer's protectors." So if we are going to have a debate about pulling our forces out of Afghanistan, let it not be because of some entirely random act of sexual revenge by a deranged young man.

It is true that those deaths brought the tally of British soldiers killed in active operations in Afghanistan to over 200; and for every one of those we need to multiply by the number of close family members bereaved to get a sense of the scale of personal grief caused. At the risk of sounding callous, however, the fact is that the number of fatalities is remarkably small for a war – and it is a war – that has lasted for eight years.

The same would be true for the Americans, who have, over the same period, lost just over 600 soldiers, with about 4,400 wounded. Moreover, this is not like Vietnam, where thousands of conscripts lost their lives; the US forces in Afghanistan, like ours, are career soldiers, volunteers all.

However, the continuation of such casualties is tolerable, both to the armed forces and to the nation as a whole, only if they are borne in a campaign which has a definable purpose and an end in sight – preferably the end which was defined at the outset. In this country Gordon Brown has been abject in defining its purpose. He gives the impression that it is purely to safeguard Britons from al-Qa'ida threats which would otherwise be launched from Afghanistan. If that is the basis of our argument, we should have invaded Pakistan and put troops on the streets of Bradford.

When General McChrystal asked President Obama for an extra 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, he did not do so just to limit al-Qa'ida attacks on New York City – it is because he is attempting to defeat the Taliban. Like most military men he is not a counter-terrorism expert – he is trying to win battles against a rival force. What the US army is engaged in is counter-insurgency, not counter-terrorism, although admittedly the distinction between the two can get blurred.

It does worry me – it should worry all of us – that the British Government is committing our troops to a joint operation with the Americans, if the objectives being pursued are not the same: that is only a recipe for confusion. For this is an international operation, led by the Americans, but supported – in blood and treasure – by many other nations apart from ours.

The debate in this country about whether or not "we" should withdraw is conducted as if this was an autonomous British military exercise in Afghanistan, as it was in the 19th century. This is a ludicrously anachronistic and parochial way of looking at it. It is a UN-mandated international mission, although obviously the US has the dominant role.

President Obama has now dallied and fretted for almost three months without giving a response to General McChrystal's plea for an extra 40,000 men. The reason for his hesitation is obvious: none of his civilian advisers wants to make that commitment. Obama, however, is commander-in-chief, and will probably find a compromise number of extra troops, fewer than the military believes it requires, but not so small as to appear to be letting the soldiers down. It will be the worst of all outcomes, since it will satisfy no one, and risk greater casualties without giving the force required for even the hope of a conclusive military victory.

I am no military man, but I suspect there are only two rational approaches at this stage: either a massive additional force from the Americans, bigger even than McChrystal has called for – or rapid withdrawal, with all the loss of face that that would entail. A halfway house would be political cowardice; and a poor reward for the immense courage of our soldiers.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Passengers sit and enjoy a quiet train journey in a bygone age  

Why I'm shouting about the tragic demise of the quiet carriage

Simon Kelner

Why black cats make amazing pets, and take good selfies too

Felicity Morse
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star