Has Nato's strategy in Afghanistan changed? Has Britain's? With so many conflicting statements, clarifications and re-clarifications following last weekend's spate of so-called "green-on-blue" killings, it is tricky to say with any certainty. What is increasingly clear, however, is that security is steadily deteriorating, British soldiers are more and more at risk, and any progress is coming at a disproportionate cost.
As regards the immediate confusion, the Defence Secretary maintains that, as per his original statement, British troops' commitment to working alongside their Afghan counterparts remains unwavering, despite the death of two servicemen at the hands of their allies on Sunday. In his second Commons appearance in as many days, Philip Hammond yesterday also reassured MPs that the Nato statement that appeared to be a significant scaling back of joint operations with Afghan soldiers – in direct contradiction to his own claim – was in fact no such thing.
Reading from yet another statement, issued by the International Security Assistance Force that morning, Mr Hammond dismissed the debacle as a misunderstanding, stressing that there is no substantial change of policy, merely a few tweaks to reduce the risk to troops from the current outrage at the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, none of which affect British forces.
It was a valiant attempt to rescue the situation, but hardly a convincing one. Indeed, tempers frayed to such an extent that one Labour MP was dismissed from the chamber for accusing ministers of lying. But even without such egregious charges, the episode can only reflect poorly on Mr Hammond, leaving him appearing at best cack-handed, at worst disquietingly out of touch.
Of greater concern, though, is the substantive issue behind such garbled communications. Whether a response to recent anti-US demonstrations or not, the fact remains that a cut to joint operations only underlines the continuing fragility of the security situation in Afghanistan.
The brute statistics are bad enough: more than 50 coalition soldiers have been killed by their Afghan allies so far this year, a sharp increase on 2011, which was itself bloodier than 2010. But it is not just the numbers that are on the rise, so too is the audacity of the attacks. Take last weekend. That two British soldiers on patrol were shot dead by a policeman pretending to be injured is appalling enough. That a Taliban force attacked Camp Bastion with sufficient success to kill two US servicemen, destroy six Harrier jets and damage two more has graver implications still.
From the start, a lack of clarity has undermined the West's military involvement in Afghanistan. The hunt for Osama bin Laden morphed into the toppling of the Taliban, then into the stamping out of the subsequent insurgency and the fostering of democracy.
In an ill-disguised admission of defeat, coalition forces will now be withdrawn by the end of 2014, despite it being far from certain that the Kabul government will retain control. But with our soldiers increasingly attacked by their supposed friends, as well as their foes, it is not clear what purpose is served by remaining in Afghanistan even that long. Will another two years trying to train ever more recalcitrant local forces really make a difference to the longevity of Afghan democracy or, say, the number of girls in school?
Mr Hammond hinted last week that some troops may come home earlier than planned. Absolutely right. After the latest attacks, the case for accelerating Britain's withdrawal is more compelling than ever. Too many lives are being lost, and too little gained by it.Reuse content