Leading article: A just war – but only just

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Almost the only question not addressed in the several novels' worth of coverage of Prince Harry's tour of duty in Afghanistan is: should British troops be there at all? In a way, this is as it should be. Harry's desire to serve his country is entirely admirable, as even George Galloway, the anti-war Respect MP, conceded on the BBC's Question Time on Thursday. The justification for the British military presence in Afghanistan has no bearing on his wish to serve in the armed forces.

All the same, as Leo Docherty writes in our report today, the images of Prince Harry in Helmand "seem dangerously close to propaganda". If you had read the newspapers on Friday, you would have learnt little of the problems of poppy eradication or of why support for the Taliban – the unseen enemy – might be increasing.

So now is in fact a good time to ask, again, is this a just war? What are we hoping to achieve? How, therefore, do we define success? Our view is that it was a just war, but that its conduct over the past six years has seriously weakened its legitimacy. The overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was overwhelmingly supported by the nations of the world and by the people of Afghanistan. It was accomplished quickly and with relatively little bloodshed. The election of Hamid Karzai as president in 2004 concluded the first – and an uplifting – part of the story of a nation rescued from theocratic tyranny by a world community acting from the highest motives. But that was also, looking back, the easy part.

Since then, two problems have come to dominate: that of fostering economic progress in one of the poorest countries in the world, whose farmers are dependent on the opium trade; and that of resisting the resurgence of fundamentalist Islamic nationalism. Both have proved harder than expected, and neither has been handled well.

When the going got tough, other countries that had pledged to stand with the Afghan people for the long term ended up failing to honour that promise. The Nato force in Afghanistan is still several thousand short of the numbers needed to provide the protection without which economic development is impossible.

But there is a more fundamental problem with the Western military presence in Afghanistan, which Mr Docherty identifies.

Early on in the British deployment in Helmand, which began in 2006, "the most basic tenets of counter-insurgency were abandoned in the Army's haste to see action". The British Army, which has experience second to none of "hearts and minds" operations, seems to have repeated many of the elementary mistakes of the past. History is littered with military operations that began as liberations but ended with the withdrawal of the hated occupiers.

Prince Harry's experience seems to fit this depressing trajectory, from the plaintive question, "Where's the Taliban?" to the use of long distance ordnance with all its certainty of civilian casualties.

From the start, the British aims in Helmand have lacked clarity. The deployment began with John Reid, as Secretary of State for Defence, carelessly saying that he would be very happy if British forces completed their three-year mission "and had not fired a shot at the end of it".

This suggested that troops on the ground were not being adequately briefed or supervised, but were simply left to get on with dealing with the Taliban insurgency as best they could. Mr Docherty presents a highly persuasive account of how the Army's desire to see real shooting action led it to adopt counter-productive tactics – thus illustrating the truth of the maxim of Abraham Maslow, the psychologist: "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

It ought to be clear, therefore, that something has gone wrong in Afghanistan.

But we do not accept that it has become a hopeless cause. The errors can be identified and should be put right. Some of the lessons are being learned. The embassy in Kabul is now the biggest British embassy in the world. Schemes to diversify cultivation in the poppy fields are working.

The situation in Afghanistan is very different from that in Iraq. But Prince Harry's tour of duty should draw attention to the impossibility of winning the support of local people by calling down air strikes. The tactics have to change, but we British must play our part in seeing the mission through.

If the saturation media coverage of the soldier prince does anything to encourage us, and our political leaders, to look again at these issues, then a higher purpose will have been served.

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