Leading article: A war with high costs and doubtful benefits

Share
Related Topics

When British troops joined US forces in Afghanistan almost seven years ago, there was little doubt, and even less controversy, about the mission. It was to capture Osama bin Laden, the presumed mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US, destroy the camps where the 9/11 attackers had trained and prevent Afghanistan from ever sheltering terrorists again. The flight of the Taliban regime as the Northern Alliance advanced, and the talks from which Hamid Karzai emerged as President, seemed to hold the prospect of a brighter future after three decades of occupation and civil war.

The task of foreign forces was clear: it was to help Afghans rebuild their ravaged land and transform it into a law-governed state. It was a task of peace-keeping and reconstruction that enjoyed widespread international support. The notion that it might become a long-term combat operation was very far from anyone's mind. Last weekend, with the deaths of three British servicemen at the hands of a suicide bomber, the number of British casualties reached 100. The vast majority were killed in the past two years.

It is, of course, invidious to treat the 100th death as more significant than any other. Each, from the first to the 99th, has left grieving relatives and friends. But the day on which British casualties reached three figures inevitably prompts reflection, not only on the human cost of the Afghanistan mission to date but on the likely cost of our involvement into the future. This is not an operation whose end is anywhere in sight.

The expression "mission-creep" has been used, justifiably, of what has now become –for many British troops, at least – a war. But it is worth noting that until two years ago only seven British servicemen had died. The cost and benefits seemed proportionate; the undertaking seemed eminently worthwhile. What is more, foreign involvement was positively welcomed by many Afghans, in a way that it never was in Iraq.

Iraq, regrettably, explains much of what has gone wrong. For more than two years, the US and Britain were otherwise engaged. As the war in Iraq turned bad, manpower and hardware, along with political will, were all concentrated there. In Afghanistan meanwhile, the Taliban emerged from hiding, President Karzai's power contracted ever closer to the capital, Kabul, and the opium poppy crops multiplied.

In 2006, the US asked the British to try to wrest back control of Helmand province. What had begun five years before in the centre and north of the country as a high-minded, light-touch exercise in peace-keeping and rebuilding has now degenerated into messy warfare in one of the most lawless regions of the world. Just holding the line against the resurgent Taliban is increasingly regarded as success. Britain now has many more troops stationed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Military commanders describe Helmand as more dangerous than Basra and Baghdad ever were, and even as they acknowledge that the Taliban cannot be beaten by military means alone, it is military means they must increasingly apply. And the more the dangers outstrip the prospects of success, the less other countries want to risk their troops. Afghanistan is straining the unity of Nato even more that its disputed operation in Kosovo.

Now is not the time to end our commitment to Afghanistan. But it is a time to review what has been achieved, and what can realistically be achieved in the months to come. Commenting on the 100th military death yesterday, the Prime Minister said this of British casualties in Afghanistan: "They have paid the ultimate price, but they have achieved something of lasting value." We wish that we could share his confidence.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference