Leading article: An unwinnable war

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The Independent Online

There are precious few ways of measuring progress in the war in Afghanistan, but there is one concrete measure by which it can be judged and that is the number of coalition troops killed in the conflict. By that yardstick, this has been yet another grim month for US troops: more of them have been killed in July – 66 – than in any other month. As for UK forces, 80 have died this year, in comparison with 109 in the whole of 2009.

This weekend, British forces have been marking a gain in the latest campaign in the south of the country, Operation Tor Shezada, having secured territory around the town of Saidabad, but advances like these, however creditable to the troops involved, are sometimes made, then lost, without leaving the British public any the wiser about whether we are winning or losing the war. The Taliban may temporarily withdraw, then regroup; this is unlikely to be a decisive advance. The truth is we are not winning the war; the larger truth, which we must sooner or later acknowledge, is that in military terms this is not a winnable war.

One of the more positive aspects of the Prime Minister's whistlestop world tour is that he has explicitly spoken about the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. This paper has argued that we should be preparing to begin a staged and orderly withdrawal in November – though any timeframe is contingent on events. And that means expediting the political negotiations that must accompany our withdrawal, including doing what some commanders have already envisaged: negotiating with the Taliban.

The political context for this conflict has been brought rather brutally to public attention by David Cameron in another speech during his international travels when he pointed out that there has been collusion between elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence and the Taliban. That plain speaking, about the ability of parts of Pakistan's elite to look two ways in engaging with terrorism, has already resulted in the cancellation of the visit to Britain of the head of Pakistani intelligence services.

We may deplore the Prime Minister's astonishing tactlessness in making these comments in India – and it is this that has caused most indignation in Pakistan – and we may equally deplore his failure to acknowledge that Pakistan has suffered more in casualties from the fight against extremism and against al-Qa'ida, than almost any other player in this conflict. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron did speak openly about a reality that is normally only voiced among experts and diplomats.

This appears to be borne out by some of the military files leaked this week to Wikileaks, the whistleblowers' website. This does not, however, justify the publication of those files. Certainly, they did confirm realities that have previously been disputed, including the extent of civilian casualties. And granted, any leak of any military intelligence is going to be condemned by the authorities as a security threat. But in this case, where thousands of files were made public, it was beyond the scope of the site to screen material for risks to individuals.

Real people's lives have been put in danger by publication, including those of Afghans who have co-operated with coalition forces and now live in fear of retribution. This paper favours the maximum transparency possible in the conduct of public affairs, but lives are too high a price to pay for that principle.

The priority now is to discuss this war rationally, to address the reality that, so very far from diminishing the threat of terrorism in Britain, which is its ostensible purpose, the war in Afghanistan may well be contributing to extremism at home. The recent devastating analysis by the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, of the way in which the Iraq conflict actually contributed to the alienation of British Muslims is relevant here. Afghanistan is not so potent a cause of disaffection as Iraq was, but the conflict adds to the problem of domestic extremism rather than diminishing it.

Without denying the courage of British and coalition forces in the conduct of this war, we should now be thinking through a political strategy for withdrawal, which will include engaging with the Taliban within Afghanistan, and Pakistan outside it. Most Britons would be reluctantly prepared to accept British casualties in a conflict which had a plain, achievable and recognisable purpose. This war has no such purpose. The best we can hope for is to help establish a post-conflict Afghan government that does not play host to al-Qa'ida and that includes sufficient power-sharing to avoid a return to outright hostilities. What we cannot do is bring that about by military means alone.

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