Leading article: A pragmatic response to the difficulties of Afghanistan

Brown offers twin-track approach of more troops and an exit strategy
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The Independent Online

If the Prime Minister has been accused of constantly dressing up old announcements as if they were new policy initiatives, nowhere has this been more obvious than his statement on Afghanistan troop deployments yesterday. We have known now for two months that he was minded to send an extra 500 troops to reinforce the 9,000 already deployed in Afghanistan, taking the total to 10,000 including special forces.

Yesterday he repeated that intention, adding that the conditions he had put on the reinforcement have now been met. These conditions include the proper provision of helicopters, body armour and troop protection plus the commitment of other Nato countries also to increase their forces and for the Afghan government under President Karzai to commit itself to accelerated development of its own forces to take over from the occupying Western troops.

On the equipment side, let us hope he is right. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, says he is satisfied and he ought to know. We have yet to hear from members of Nato on their intentions, other than the US, which is widely expected to announce a troop "surge" of at least 30,000 today, but other nations are expected to make their decisions at a Nato meeting later this week. As for President Karzai's promises of a faster build-up of Afghan forces, he can only be taken on his past record, which is far from encouraging.

But then did it ever really matter what the conditions for the additional British troop deployment were and whether they were met? The reality of the Afghan venture today is that it is being driven largely by the domestic political pressures within the US as Britain, where the majority of the electorate is turning against the war, and the situation in Afghanistan, where relations between Kabul and the West have turned sour since Mr Karzai's disputed re-election as President. Washington, and with it London, now clearly feel that they cannot afford to lose the immediate battle with the resurgent Taliban. But equally they sense that there isn't the domestic support for an open-ended commitment to keep troops there for "as long as it takes".

The result is a Janus-faced policy of sending in more troops in the short-term to put the Taliban on to their back foot, and encourage them to the negotiating table, and a promise of withdrawal in the medium term. Gordon Brown has said that he sees British troops being withdrawn from next year onwards (without a formal final date). President Karzai has said that he wants foreign troops out within five years. President Obama has been less definite but is expected to mention a drawdown when he addresses the nation today.

This twin-track approach has its virtues. It may not be noble. It's certainly not open. But it does represent a pragmatic response to what was becoming an impossible situation in Afghanistan. We owe it to the Afghan people, having intervened in their country, to ensure as much security and stability as possible for them to run their own affairs. But we owe it to our own people not to send under-resourced troops to a quagmire with no proper plan in hand or end in sight.

As for the battle against al-Qa'ida, this seems to have fallen well down the Prime Minister's concerns yesterday after all his brave talk of fighting in Afghanistan to save us on the streets of London and other British cities. In truth it is – as President Obama has recognised – a threat better challenged in Pakistan than Afghanistan. But there a British or Western policy hasn't even begun to be developed.