Leading article: Mr Blair tries to win back lost hearts and minds

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Our relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan could be said to show the acceptable face of Britain's efforts to combat international terrorism, while the war in Iraq constitutes an almost unmitigated disaster (whether the Prime Minister admitted it or not). And it is tempting to see significance in the fact that Mr Blair is visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan, while his presumed successor dons his flak jacket to visit British troops in Basra. Iraq, this distribution of responsibilities seemed to say, is as much Gordon Brown's headache now as that of the outgoing Prime Minister.

But there are reasons to consider the state of Britain's relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan with a more critical and concerned eye than this contrast would suggest. The agreements announced yesterday in Pakistan are a case in point. Mr Blair announced a doubling of aid, to £480m, in part to help fund the reform of Islamic schools or madrassas. Some of these schools, attended often by the children of poor families because they do not charge the fees that other schools do, have been blamed for the spread of extremist thinking.

Whether this will make a great difference, however, is a moot point. First, because it is a drop in the ocean of funds that schooling in Pakistan requires. Second, because it seems to reflect a view that the madrassas are in part to blame for radicalising a section of Muslim youth in Britain. The so-called Pakistan connection, however, has probably been overplayed. This is not where Islamic militancy in Britain originated. Those extremists who visited madrassas in Pakistan were already committed to their path.

The increased aid is welcome, however, if - as it appears - it reflects a shift in Mr Blair's thinking away from the imposition of democracy by force and towards winning hearts and minds. Speaking in Pakistan, he stressed the importance of ideas and justice, pledging that "where there is injustice we must deal with it".

The visit nonetheless offered disturbing evidence of the wide gap between the real forces at work in the region and the progress made, as the British government appears to see it. President Musharraf of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan continue to argue about responsibility for combating al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. And while Pakistan contends that General Musharraf is walking a tightrope between the demands of the West and the pressures of Islamic hardliners at home, another interpretation is that he may have secured millions in aid and a major alliance with the United States by playing the two off against each other.

Whichever interpretation is right, the situation in both countries is far from conducive to tackling either terrorism or insurgency. Mr Karzai complains that Taliban commanders live with impunity on the Pakistan side of the border, and it is their forces that have been harassing the British troops in Helmand province. As we report from Kabul today, gun-running from across the Pakistan border is rife, and all the paraphernalia for international terrorism is easily obtainable.

Five years after the Taliban were toppled, the infrastructure in many places is still in ruins, the opium poppy is back and corruption is endemic. The rights of women are being steadily diminished, while popular dissatisfaction with the Karzai government is high. The distressing truth is that, having help oust the Taliban, Britain did precisely what it promised not to do: we "walked away" from Afghanistan and chose to fight a war in Iraq. The situation in the region now is too reminiscent of six years ago for anyone's comfort. Until this truth is acknowledged, we fear the deterioration in security will only continue.