Leading article: A policy overhaul is urgently needed


The war in Afghanistan is being lost. It is best to acknowledge that plainly. A survey coming out of Kabul conducted by the Senlis think-tank suggests that 54 per cent of Afghanistan is now in the control of the Taliban. The Foreign Office may dispute the figure but it cannot quarrel with the substance of the findings: armed Taliban checkpoints are increasing in parts of the country. Taliban recruiters have infiltrated refugee camps. Afghan shopkeepers have abandoned many of the arterial routes into Helmand province for fear of Taliban attacks. Rural workers, fleeing Taliban encroachment, are crowding into cities in search of work. All this against a backdrop of a war in which British troops, now in greater numbers in Afghanistan than in Iraq, are engaged in the toughest battles they have experienced since the Second World War.

More troops are not the answer, despite the pleas from British ministers for our Nato allies to pull their weight. Military occupation was only ever supposed to be security cover for the reconstruction of the country that was promised by the international community but which never materialised.

Instead of rebuilding physical infrastructure, government capacity and economic activity, our troops have set about trying to destroy Afghanistan's opium crop – threatening the only means many Afghans have for earning a living since the collapse of the economy and the market for cotton. Almost half the Afghan economy is now devoted to growing the drought-resistant poppy. The US policy of aerial bombing of insurgents, with its inevitable innocent casualties, has added only to the feeling that the forces who entered Afghanistan in order to drive out the Taliban are now not liberators but occupiers.

The policy of opium eradication has been a disaster. The Defence Secretary has said of the strategy that there is no alternative. We have to find one. Senlis has suggested a Poppy for Medicine initiative, which would license opium production to be sold to the pharmaceutical industry to make morphine. The European Parliament has endorsed the idea, and it should be investigated as a matter of urgency. In Turkey, such a scheme has been shown to work for the past 30 years.

But other efforts have to be made. Iran, Russia and India all have to be persuaded to promote a more stable future for their neighbour. And it may be time to stop regarding President Pervez Musharraf as the best friend we've got in fighting the Islamic extremism in the western provinces of Pakistan where the Taliban (and British suicide bombers) are nurtured.

What all that amounts to is the realisation that our present policies in Afghanistan are not working. It is time for some new ones.

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