The international blame game for the troubles in Afghanistan has started with a vengeance. When John Reid, as Defence secretary, told the nation earlier this year that Britain would be taking the lead in bringing stability and development to Afghanistan, he left the impression that it was going to be a relatively benign task, and the UK could cope on its own. He even hinted that the three-year mission might not involve any shooting.
The rapid and tragic succession of servicemen's deaths has put paid to such hopes. Now we are told that the fault is with Nato in failing to provide sufficient resources to back us up, and that the mission is at risk without a stronger commitment from our allies. From the US comes the message that Nato's credibility is on the line. All this when Nato assumed responsibility for southern Afghanistan seven weeks ago, after more than five years of US military power had failed to bring order.
So has Nato fouled up, or are some players looking for a fall guy to take the blame? You might wonder why Nato is in Afghanistan in the first place. After the terror attacks of 9/11, the alliance volunteered enthusiastically to help the US as it launched its offensive against the al-Qa'ida training camps in Afghanistan. The answer from George Bush and his defence secretary was: "Thanks, but no thanks." We were in the dark period when Donald Rumsfeld believed that "the mission defined the coalition", and that Nato was never going to be appropriate. The US did not want to be constrained by allies.
Once the bombing was over, and the Taliban regime deposed, the UN agreed a reconstruction and development aid mission. Security was provided by nations volunteering forces to an International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). President Hamid Karzai said he needed 50,000 troops to provide security. He got just a 10th of that, and initially the force did not operate beyond Kabul. Meanwhile, the US-led coalition continued its war against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban under the banner of "Operation Enduring Freedom".
The reason Nato became involved in 2003 was that the UN was running out of volunteers to take on the Isaf task. Starting in Kabul, Nato operations were extended from Kabul successively to the north of the country, and then to the west. In all these areas, provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, have begun to make a difference to the lives of ordinary Afghans, which in turn has helped to supply at least a modicum of popular support for the Karzai government. It has been another story in the bandit territory of the south and east. Here, special forces, helicopter gunships and fighters under US control have done nothing but pulverise what are claimed to be al-Qa'ida targets. Belatedly, the US has tried to adopt the PRT model, but has made little headway in the face of hostility and its own half-heartedness.
Make all the allowances you like for ethnic factors, the proximity of Pakistan, which provides a safe haven for Taliban and Islamic extremists, and the economic dependence of the south on the opium poppy harvest, which adds a dimension of crime and corruption to the thuggery. The stark fact remains: over the past five years, Nato has brought some stability, development and the rule of law in the areas for which it has had responsibility, while the areas looked after by the US coalition have remained a battleground, with little sign of rebuilding or good governance.
Not the least important reason for that, of course, is that in 2003 the US and Britain diverted their attention and resources to Iraq. Germany and France, with other European allies, were left holding the baby in Afghanistan. It is less than fair to blame them now for inadequate support. Redeploying German or other forces from the north would put at risk the hard-won achievements of recent years, and for what purpose? To allow more of Afghanistan to become unstable?
The declared purpose of the Nato move into the south was to continue its good work in providing security to allow reconstruction and development. The military were meant to be there to enable the Afghan government, the international agencies and NGOs to do their work. We now seem to have moved into a different mission, where success is measured by numbers of enemy dead, rather than by new places in primary schools. Nato members are right to question whether that is the mission that they should undertake. If five years of pounding the Taliban by US forces has achieved so little, what is the plan for the alliance to do better? The story is one of Nato always being brought in too late, when it has to pick up the pieces left by excessive use of military force.
Instead of accusing Nato of faint-heartedness, it is the strategy in the south that needs rethinking. Despite the presence of American-led forces in the area for so long, we seem to have been surprised by the situation on the ground in Helmand. The Taliban are more numerous, better organised and more prepared for sustained fighting than had been expected. Any military planner preparing to go into a hostile area looks at how to cope if things turn out badly, and a reserve force is a routine precaution. Yet it seems that this was not thought necessary.
If the intelligence was so poor that we need urgent reinforcements, then we must also reassess what they are supposed to be doing. Throwing more soldiers at an unchanged, faulty plan is a strategy for failure. We must reverse the process, and decide first the right strategy in the south, then provide the necessary resources. It may be better to consolidate success further north, and accept a slower expansion of the Nato mission in the south. Plans for the alliance to take over the even more violent east of Afghanistan in the new year should at the very least be reconsidered.
It is now unlikely that we will make much progress before the winter sets in. In the short term, we had better be prepared to concentrate forces where they can do most good, rather than overextend into an unplanned Afghan war. While we try to work out what to do in the longer term, it is a dangerous game to undermine Nato when the blame properly lies with the White House and Downing Street.
Tim Garden, a former air marshal, speaks on defence for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords