Leading article: Moving on from Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The rocket attacks on Kandahar, which forced the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, to change their itineraries in Afghanistan, are another humiliating reminder of the West's failure to bring peace to that country. The Afghan conflict just goes on and on. The President, Hamid Karzai, is holed up in Kabul while the resurgent Taliban roams the terrain beyond. Almost 10 years on from the start of the invasion by Western forces, with 10,000 British troops still in the country, little more is being perpetuated than an endless stalemate.

It is to be hoped that the exposure of Messrs Hague and Fox to the sight and sound of Taliban rocket power reminded both men of the need for fresh thinking on the realistic limits of Britain's military capabilities. In different ways, Afghanistan and Iraq should provide a warning of the folly of engaging in ideologically driven military adventures that are conducted essentially at the behest of another power and in the name of abstract principles that mean little to people on the ground.

What should cause concern is that this is not proving the case. Mr Fox has made clear that he wants to see British troop numbers cut. But he still falls back on the tired mantra that the troops are in Afghanistan to keep the streets of Britain safe; without providing a scintilla of evidence that the Taliban has any connection to the terrorist plots that have been manufactured in Britain.

On the Labour side, one would-be leader, David Miliband, blandly calls for Britain to "move on" from debates about Iraq, drawing the wrong lesson entirely from that blood-stained debacle. Two other contenders, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, hunting for the anti-war vote, now claim they opposed the Iraq war from the start. This looks like a self-serving pose. Like their mentor, Gordon Brown, they hid in the Treasury while Tony Blair was making the big decisions on Iraq. Lying low is not the same as taking a principled stand.

The Bourbon dynasty, it is commonly said, forgot nothing and learnt nothing. Our politicians are in danger of repeating that error over Afghanistan and Iraq if all they can do is tinker with the number of troops that should be deployed in the one or the other, or call for the debate to be shoved under the carpet. The Afghan mission can still be made a worthwhile one, but not if it is left to drift rudderless. The problem is that we never had a proper debate about the goals to start with. Mr Hague and Mr Fox should start one. Then, pace David Miliband, we can, perhaps, move on.