Mary Dejevsky: It's a war for our hearts and minds

Was George Bush right to see an act of war rather than a criminal act?
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The Independent Online

The multiple policy re-launch has been a speciality of this government, whether under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Even so, it took some gall for the Foreign Secretary to go to the Nato headquarters, as he did yesterday, and present as an adventurous new departure the notion of Talking to the Taliban.

Not only were the principles of just such a policy set out by our US allies in some detail almost six months ago, starting with no less a figure than Gen David Petraeus, Commander of US Central Command, but even then Britain seemed already to have embraced such a policy. It was a full 18 months ago – Christmas 2007 – that two British diplomats were embarrassingly expelled from Afghanistan by President Karzai for, as it later emerged, treating with the Taliban.

It appears that they had held secret meetings with a famous/notorious commander in Helmand Province and tried to persuade him to set up an independent operation – one that would divide the insurgency and facilitate its incorporation into what passes for a political process. The rationale, as presented in typically straight-talking fashion by Gen Petraeus last February, was "to identify and separate the 'irreconcilables' from the 'reconcilables', striving to create the conditions that can make the 'reconcilables' part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem".

Still, the fact that a policy has been around a bit does not make it any less valid. Talking to the Taliban in one form or other is something that will have to happen sooner or later, if there is to be any reconciliation. And it could be argued that David Miliband's speech has Britain and the US finally singing in harmony on Afghanistan after half a year or more of dissonance.

At the Munich Security Conference, where Gen Petraeus set out the new US administration's preliminary thinking on the Taliban, a series of British speakers, Mr Miliband included, seemed still to be humming the tunes of the Bush era. If his speech to Nato means that Britain has now caught up with the programme, so much the better. With operations in Afghanistan fast becoming a solo American show, this would not be before time.

But the Foreign Secretary's well-spun speech at Nato just before the holiday season suggests something else as well. Coinciding as it did with the announcement in London that the costly combat stage of Operation Panther's Claw in Helmand province is now complete, it betrayed the Government's growing concern about the hearts-and-minds aspect of the Afghan campaign. Not the hearts and minds of Afghans this time, but ours.

With all but a small number of British special forces now withdrawn from Iraq, there is now no distraction from the progress, or lack of it, in Afghanistan, and the casualties are mounting. As the recent controversy about helicopters showed, the British public is now taking a closer interest in the detail of Afghan operations, and views are beginning to polarise. It may not be long before the country is embroiled in a hammer-and-tongs debate between those who want more helicopters to help the troops finish the job and those who baulk at any more money being spent on a mission they believe is going expensively nowhere.

The divide will never be as impassioned as over Iraq, where legitimacy and trust were at issue, still more than practicality. And there is, when people are reminded of it, a latent sense of guilt. As foreign secretary when the West's military intervention began, in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jack Straw promised: "We will not turn our backs on the people of Afghanistan again." It is a vow he and others, in and out of Government, have renewed again and again.

Yet even as he undertook not to forsake Afghanistan one more time, Mr Straw formulated the double-headed objective that has hobbled the Afghan enterprise from the start. As well as preventing terrorism – to uproot it there so it does not spread here, as ministers like to say – Mr Straw pledged that the West would "place the future back in the hands of the people of Afghanistan themselves" and "help to bring peace and justice to people who have suffered for too long".

This remains the clearest definitiion of the mission's purpose. From the perspective of today, however, it looks like an ambition far too far. In particularly jaded mood, you might feel simply that peace, justice and returning government to the Afghan people are, in present circumstances, incompatible. You might feel this even more strongly if you are not completely convinced by Jack Straw's additional guiding principle: that any Western intervention should help "uphold the values to which we are committed" – which surely means, among other things, making it possible for girls to go to school. Should it? Can it? I wonder.

Less cynically, and less hopelessly, it might rather be worth looking back to the way in which the threat emanating from Afghan instability was dealt with before the US suffered the cataclysm of 9/11. Almost exactly 11 years ago, 7 August, 1998, the US was targeted with twin suicide bomb attacks on its embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The US responded days later with air attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan.

Bill Clinton, US president at the time, came in for much flak in the days afterwards. It was a disgraceful diversionary tactic, his many enemies said, to take attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then at its height. Much was made of parallels with a contemporary film, Wag the Dog. Yet targeted air attacks were exactly how the US had dealt with previous terrorist attacks on its interests.

It can be argued that the attacks of 9/11 were of a different order, that they struck not just US interests, but its territory – though this is strictly true also of the embassy attacks. Politically, George Bush had no choice but to order a military response. But was he right to see an act of war where others might have seen a crime, best punished by a short, sharp and selective demonstration of force? With hindsight, it should be clear that the 9/11 plotters struck lucky. Our eight-year military campaign, and counting, risks sowing the seeds of new resentment, and nothing more.