The summer fighting season in southern Afghanistan is under way once again. Yesterday – as if to highlight the tenuousness of control exercised by the occupying forces – came news of 15 guards being killed in a prison breakout in Kandahar, when hundreds of Taliban supporters – and many others – escaped. Earlier in the week, five paratroopers were killed, bringing to 102 the number of British dead since 2001. The last two British deaths were noteworthy for being the first in nine months to be caused by bullets rather than bombs. Like one of the elusive djinns that superstitious locals say haunt the desert, the ever-adaptable Taliban insurgency continues to change shape.
Last week, the current Helmand Task Force commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, announced that the insurgency was on the back foot, and that its local leadership had been "decapitated" by British and Isaf (Nato's International Security Assistance Force) operations. Yet the beast the British are trying to slay is like a hydra. So far, the Taliban has had little problem finding replacements for its martyred commanders. This hydra's heart, moreover, is not in Helmand but safely out of reach in Pakistan, a country whose government has recently struck a peace deal with its militants – a development that even Isaf says has led directly to an increase in attacks on its troops in Afghanistan.
Suicide bombings were once almost unknown in Afghanistan, even at the height of the Mujahadeen war against the Soviets in the 1980s. They are commonplace now. According to recent UN figures there were 140 suicide bombings in Afghanistan last year, an increase of 70 per cent over 2006. It is perhaps the most frightening insurgency technique imported from Iraq and the Middle East. Roadside bombings and booby traps involving trucks, cars and bicycles have also increased dramatically.
The vast majority of the bombers' victims are Afghans. At the same time, the British are more vulnerable to such "asymmetric" tactics than ever before. This is partly because, while troop numbers in Helmand have risen from 3,300 two years ago to 8,000 today, the number of Chinook helicopters available to ferry them around has remained static. Troops are therefore obliged to travel by road more often instead. (The RAF possesses a mere 40 Chinooks. Thanks to what the chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, Edward Leigh, recently called a "gold standard cock-up" by the MoD, eight new machines will not be ready for front-line deployment until the end of next year – seven years after they were first delivered.)
An Army spokesman based at Camp Bastion, the Task Force's Helmand HQ, recently assured an interviewer that 8,000 troops were "more than enough for the task in hand". But is it? US General Dan McNeill, just retired as Isaf commander, says the mission is "under resourced". He claimed that 400,000 troops were needed to do the job properly: about 250,000 more than are presently available. And even if they were available, President Karzai has made clear that deploying so many would be politically unacceptable.
Is it not time for a new approach in Afghanistan? To scale down our ambitions there from what is desirable to something that might actually be achievable? The primary purpose of Britain's military involvement – to help deny al-Qa'ida a base of operations – was achieved long ago. It is increasingly apparent that a secondary objective, the destruction of the Taliban, al Qa'ida's erstwhile hosts, is beyond our means. Britain's army is too small, and our Nato partners are unwilling to commit the forces necessary.
Last year, in the winter lull between fighting seasons, I visited a Taliban cell set up in a narrow valley in Wardak, a province 30 miles south-west of Kabul. The commander, Abdullah, had recently returned from fighting the British in Helmand. Doing so, he explained, was his holy duty.
"We are against war," he said. "It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. One year, 100 years, a million years, 10 million years – it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgement Day, Allah will not ask, 'What did you do for your country'. He will ask, 'Did you fight for your religion?'."
How can Britain hope to compete with such zeal? So far the "military effect" has cost taxpayers nearly £2bn and 102 British men are dead.
Rather than trying to bomb the Taliban into submission, might it not be more productive to try to accommodate them? The movement has been demonised through years of violence, but they are not necessarily as they are painted.
A decade ago, the US oil firm Unocal, with Washington's approval, planned co-operation with the Taliban regime over a trans-Afghan gas pipeline. In the mid-1990s, many among the NGO community privately approved of the Taliban, who had brought to rural areas the peace and security that allowed the NGOs to go about their work. Relations with the West were once almost warm. Could they not be so again?
In Wardak I argued long into the night with Abdullah's mullah, his cell's chief ideologue, on the topic of girls' education. The Taliban had torched dozens of girls' schools in Wardak, some of them newly built with aid money, and I wanted to know why.
"We are not against girls' education per se," the mullah replied. "We burned only those schools with Western curricula, where girls were being taught pornography." The mullah, it dawned on me, was not speaking metaphorically. He appeared to believe that pornography was literally being taught in the US-funded schools.
The return of the British Army for the fourth time since the 1830s baffled the mullah, despite my protestations that the British wanted to help secure economic development.
"You British are clever people," he said. "It makes no sense.... A clever man does not get bitten by a snake from the same hole twice." "Of course," said the mullah, if we had come unarmed, "you would have been our guests, just as you are our guest now. If your engineers and agriculture experts had come to us and explained what they were trying to do, we would have protected them with our lives."
Notwithstanding episodes as gruesome as Friday's prison breakout, it is time, surely, to start talking seriously to the Taliban. In any case, a negotiated settlement is the likeliest outcome of the struggle, as senior Army officers know full well. "The ultimate legacy will be a government in Afghanistan, in X years' time, with Taliban representation," said Brigadier Ed Butler, one of Carleton-Smith's predecessors in Helmand, who announced his resignation a week ago. Historically, there are very few insurgencies that have not ended in negotiation; and even President Karzai – who, let it be remembered, supported the Taliban in the regime's earliest days – is in favour of reconciliation with the movement's more biddable elements.
Negotiating with the Taliban is, of course, not something Western liberals would choose to do, but it is surely the lesser of two evils: a realpolitik solution rather than a totally impractical "ethical" one. The Taliban will never be "defeated" in the conventional sense. The alternative to dialogue is go on with the war, in which case many more young British soldiers will die, perhaps for nothing. Our strategy will have to change direction. The sooner it does so the better.
James Fergusson's 'A Million Bullets' is published by Bantam Press, £16.99Reuse content