Leading article: Let this operation be the last

What, we must ask again, is this war for? There is an alarming familiarity about the objectives of the offensive launched by American-led forces in Afghanistan on Friday night. Clear, hold and build has been the basic template, ever since our attention turned back to Afghanistan from the disastrous distraction of Iraq. Seven years on, it has not worked, and it is a definition of folly to repeat an action and expect a different result.

Let us be clear. This newspaper supported the use of military force against the Taliban regime when it refused to surrender Osama bin Laden in 2001 – in contrast to our view of the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. We even supported Tony Blair in his promise to the Afghan people that Britain would stand by them for the long haul. The issue now is whether standing by the people of Afghanistan requires a greater military presence in the country, or whether the "soft power" of development assistance or even straight bribery might be more effective.

We concluded, on Remembrance Sunday last year, that it was time to scale back our ambitions in Afghanistan and to begin to bring British troops home. We argued that the best way of fulfilling our obligations to the Afghan people was to promote political dialogue and economic reconstruction. Plainly security is important, but our role should be focused on training and supporting Afghan forces while reducing our soldiers' front-line role in their policing.

As for war-fighting, that has come over several years to resemble "mowing the grass", in the common Army phrase. The Independent on Sunday was the first and only British newspaper to call for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, and none of the arguments advanced by rival newspapers (when they have addressed the issue at all) or by the Government, or by either of the main opposition parties, has come close to a compelling rationale for the opposing case.

Indeed, everything about the selling of Operation Moshtarak adds to our doubts about the wisdom of the strategy. As Patrick Cockburn writes today, the offensive seems to be designed for ready consumption by the US media. The very language of offensive, stronghold and the seizing of territory seems inappropriate to describe a military action against guerrilla forces. It seems likely to lead up to a set-piece "victory", after which Western attention will subside and the Taliban will trickle back.

It might be objected that the surge worked in Iraq, although it is notable that this is not an argument put forward by informed supporters of Barack Obama's deployment in Afghanistan. That is because the situation in Iraq is so different, where a political deal has been struck between the representatives of the Sunni minority and the US-supported government in Baghdad.

In Afghanistan, nothing has happened in the country's religious, ethnic or economic structure to ensure that the temporary gains of military action can be turned into permanent advance. US and British forces, if there were enough of them, could try to rule the entire country outside the canton of Kabul ruled by President Karzai. They could maintain some semblance of military order. But they would, over time and even more than they are now, be perceived as an occupying foreign power. The situation would more and more resemble a quagmire, which is the one word Mr Obama's foreign strategists are dedicated to avoiding.

We respect our armed forces – indeed this newspaper has led the way in pressing the Government to honour its obligations under the military covenant – and we lament the loss of life, including that of at least one British soldier yesterday. We admire what our soldiers are doing and hope that the gains they make for local people are not erased too soon.

But the best way to respect our soldiers is to give them clear objectives that can be achieved and stay achieved. This means accepting that Afghanistan will not be adequately democratic, stable or prosperous in the next few years. It means, in effect, accepting that the Taliban and its allies will continue to control some parts of the country, but that they should be hedged in by propaganda, intelligence and special forces.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said last July that "there won't be a military solution" in Afghanistan. He was right. After Operation Moshtarak, it will be time to start to act on his words.