Six years ago, British troops went into Afghanistan in a fevered, and near universal, mood of support for the US in its time of trouble. Six years later, as Bill Clinton reminded us on a visit to London yesterday, that mood of fellow-feeling towards America has been largely squandered around the globe. What the ex-president could have added, but was too polite to, was that the same could be said of our standing as well.
That we were right to support America against its enemies seemed obvious then and is still defensible today. What has not gone right, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, is our role as an occupying power widely seen as a Western prop to a largely discredited regime, intent on rooting out a crop (opium) which provides almost the sole source of income for substantial areas and locked into a war with local as well as outside Taliban forces that has brought with it growing civilian deaths and ever more destructive bombing. Our generals talk of winning the war but needing 40 years or more to ensure its success. The suspicion of less committed observers is that we have become bogged down in a long-term foreign entanglement where our role as Western intruders has made us a target for insurgents and a threat to the peace of the locals. We have, in the classic manner of invading forces, become part of the problem rather than its solution.
The invasion of Iraq has doubtless had much to do with this. It diverted a huge proportion of our resources and virtually all of our attention just when the Western alliance should have been concentrating on bringing security to all parts of Afghanistan and undertaking a concentrated programme of redevelopment there. It gave us a reputation for anti-Islamic action that has resonated throughout the Muslim world, including Afghanistan.
Gordon Brown and now David Cameron have now committed themselves to redoubling our efforts, partly in compensation for a policy of shameless cut-and-run in Iraq. But now more than ever, we should be debating just what is our aim in Afghanistan, how long we are proposing to stay, whether we should be charged with rooting out the drugs crop at the same time as ensuring security and whether indeed we are the right people for the task of reconstructing a viable and prosperous country in Afghanistan at all. Repeating an error twice over is a no way to correct it.