Leading article: A more constructive approach to Afghanistan

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For almost six months, ever since Gordon Brown moved to Number 10, one familiar expression has been deafeningly absent from political discourse. Neither the Prime Minister, nor any member of his Cabinet, has allowed the words "war on terror" to pass his or her lips.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, spelt out the post-Blair thinking in the wake of the failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. "Let us be clear," she said, "terrorists are criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religions... As a Government, as communities, as individuals, we need to ensure that the message of the terrorists is rejected."

The only time Mr Brown came close to uttering the phrase was when he met George Bush for their first official talks, but again, he avoided the exact words, acknowledging "US leadership in this fight against international terrorism". He implicitly made clear that the "war on terror" was a foreign concept, not something his government had signed up to.

Now, it seems words and deeds are coming into line. In the Commons today, Mr Brown will report back on his weekend visits to Iraq and Afghanistan and, in so doing, signal a clear change of tack. With the number of British forces in the Basra region to be halved before Christmas, Mr Brown is effectively drawing a line under the combat role of British troops in Iraq. Their new function is "overwatch"; frontline responsibility for security now rests with Iraqis.

Something similar may apply in Afghanistan. As we wrote in an editorial yesterday, summarising some of what has gone wrong there since the Taliban was overthrown: "Too little aid has been delivered. Not enough wells have been dug. Too few roads have been built. The policy of destroying the opium crop has alienated Afghan farmers. So, too, has the US Air Force's bombing of Pashtun villages." Yet the purpose of our presence, once al-Qa'ida had been uprooted and the Taliban ousted, was to help Afghans rebuild their country.

With hindsight, Mr Brown's visit to Afghanistan may have marked a watershed if not exactly the sort initially claimed. At the time, British troops were engaged in a fierce battle to recapture Musa Qala. The battle was described as a turning point in the conflict against the Taliban. With the battle won, however, victory was attributed largely to Afghan forces who were said to have borne the brunt of the fighting. If this battle was a turning point in the fight against the Taliban, it may have been less in the fortunes of the Taliban given their propensity to fracture and regroup than in the nature of the engagement of British troops.

Mr Brown's report to Parliament is expected to focus on reconstruction and on the need for diplomacy among Afghans themselves. That would mean that, for British troops, what could be described as the "combat phase" here was drawing to a close, with a new reconstruction phase beginning. With fighting now the prime function of the foreign troops, and one that makes them ever less popular, such a shift would not be before time.

There has always been a limit to what foreign troops can do in Afghanistan not least because their numbers are restricted by the reluctance of individual countries to contribute more. If the country is to be peaceful, secure and out of the clutches of the Taliban, this has to be on terms negotiated by, and acceptable to, a majority of Afghans. This will mean talking to groups and individuals, including in the Taliban, who have hitherto been shunned by Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul, and its Western patrons. We must be committed to Afghanistan in the long term, but as facilitators of a better life, not just warriors.

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