Tim Collins: Afghanistan remains a worthy cause

If we shrink from the fight, subversion and chaos will come to the streets of Europe

With 184 men dead as a result of our involvement in the campaign in Afghanistan, many will now be asking: is it worth the effort? The bland riposte is always: "If we don't win the fight there we will have to fight it here." Unlike most spin that flows like a mighty river from the Government, this bit is actually true.

Critics will also point out that we have been engaged in this fight for eight years, and they invoke memories of failed British campaigns of the 19th century and the Soviet failure in the 1980s. One must deal with the facts here, however.

Technically we have been at war for eight years, but in reality this needs to be seen as a series of much shorter but connected campaigns. The first period was overwhelmingly successful. It looked terminal for the insurgents. But any doctor will tell you that if you have an infection – and an insurgency is an infection – you have to finish the course of medication, even if the symptoms disappear. If you do not, the infection will come back, more virulent and now impervious to the medication used previously.

In 2003, the coalition, on the point of annihilating the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, stopped, withdrew massive numbers of forces and support, and threw the lot at Iraq. That was never meant to be a long war. But it was. And as it dragged on, the infection of Taliban and al-Qa'ida stabilised and then once more flourished. This led to the second era where a woefully underfunded coalition tried desperately to pretend all was well even as the Taliban marched back from exile.

The third period began on 31 July 2006 when Nato became involved, taking over operations in the south of Afghanistan. In reality it was the usual suspects – the UK, the US and Canada – taking on the mission, with effective contingents from Holland and Denmark too. The rest of Nato did not stray too far from the relative safety of Kabul and Bagram.

In the war zone, commanders were pressured by government to avoid risking criticism from the media by casualties. This meant a remote, faceless war. Bombing by aircraft, artillery and drones was the order of the day at the least sign of what could be enemy. But it went down badly with the civilian population, and for that reason alone was a losing strategy.

We are now in the fourth period, marked by the election of President Obama and the appointment of General Stan McChrystal. It is what one US general described as the "decisive summer". This is a well-resourced, deliberate campaign with clear aims and objectives.

But it comes at a price. This is a fight to the death with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. It will be an incremental fight to clear and hold. The Taliban, with its fascist ways, must be driven from the towns and villages, and a permanent presence of coalition-backed Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) established.

That means no more remote bombing. It is all about protecting, not destroying, the civilian population. To do this we need to get in close. We need to be prepared to take casualties in order to protect civilians. And I mean protect civilians here in the UK as well as in Helmand province, because if we shrink from this fight, the subversion and chaos of Afghanistan will come to the streets of every city in Europe. It will not confine itself to Islamic fundamentalism either; it will result in a tsunami of organised crime too.

We know from experience from Northern Ireland, and now Iraq, that military solutions are ineffective in dealing with a largely a civil problem. It is better understood by what I characterise as a "spectrum of subversion".

Violence is at the centre of the spectrum, the visible light. To the right is politics. To the left, and crucial to the extremely expensive business of violence and politics, is crime. It funds and underpins the rest of the spectrum. It supports and corrupts the political end of the spectrum simultaneously by funding campaigns and corrupting officials. To succeed there is a need to defeat the insurgency across the spectrum. That means tackling the crime that is the oxygen of subversion, taking control to drive the struggle into the political part of the spectrum by encouraging dialogue, rewarding political progress and making violence increasingly counterproductive.

General McChrystal knows this. He well understands the extent to which the poppy harvest funds the violence. He is intellectually beyond the "just burn the stuff" logic that gave no thought to what the farmers would replace it with. He is acutely aware of the nature of Afghan politics. He understands the need to win over the population, and that means not killing them.

The bit of the war we see is the casualties among our soldiers as they liberate Helmand. What we do not see is the efforts to build a bureaucracy and a society, to sustain the gains that have been bought at such a price.

And this leads us to the crucial point. For once we are winning. We are winning the fight and the argument. The UK commander on the ground, Brigadier Tim Radford, has made this clear. Any successful counter-insurgency is not about body counts but about building a secure environment for normality to spread.

"Defeat the ideology and not the insurgent" has been our tactic since Malaya. By the institutions, education and bureaucracy that follow on after our troops, we are making the Taliban irrelevant in the Afghan society. This is a lasting victory.

Militarily the Taliban cannot sustain this rate of attrition. It is losing scores to our every one. Its bank is going bust and terrorist volunteers to go into this mincer are increasingly hard to find. Let's keep faith with our deployed troops. Let's support the judgement and experience of Brigadier Radford and his men. They are on the ground and we are not. If we lose, it will be because we have defeated ourselves by a lack of nerve, and if that happens the sacrifice will be in vain. Keep the faith.

Colonel Tim Collins served in Iraq and elsewhere and is now chief executive of New Century Consulting