Leading article: Our forces for good must bow out

Related Topics

Our report today, that the Afghan National Police is unfit to take over responsibility for security, might be held to run counter to this newspaper's call for British troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. It might be argued that US and British soldiers should stay longer, to give the Afghan forces time to overcome the problems that have reduced British officers to "despair", and to build up the local police to the point where they can safely ensure law and order. On the contrary, we believe that our disclosure of classified Foreign Office documents strengthens the case that
The Independent on Sunday made last year: that it is time to plan the phased pull-out of British troops.

Our troops have been there for nine years now, on a mission that was justified, but the aims of which have become confused and open-ended. In those nine years, international forces have failed to fulfil the unrealistic promises to build up Afghan capability at anything like the speed that was envisaged. This newspaper has always drawn a sharp distinction between the British role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Iraq invasion was a terrible distraction from the task of rebuilding Afghanistan. But our report today suggests that Mr Brown continues to overclaim the progress that has been made, and to underestimate the difficulties that stand in the way of realising his rhetorical ambitions. The internal government documents admit that it "will take many years" to create an effective police force. The existing force is riddled with corruption and drug abuse, and non-existent "ghost recruits" may account for up to a quarter of its purported numbers.

If British and American troops continue to substitute for Afghan security forces, they will be drawn too far into the task of nation-building. Which might be fine, if poverty and the weakness of the institutions of civil society were Afghanistan's only problems. But in a country such as Afghanistan the mere presence of foreign troops on its soil is part of the problem, and a part that will get worse over time. The longer our troops are there, the more they act as a target for Islamist nationalism. Our judgement is that we have reached the point where the good that our military personnel do – and they do a lot of good work – is outweighed by this strategic consideration.

The ultimate test of our presence in Afghanistan must be whether it helps or makes worse the threat of terrorism on the streets of British cities. That is not the only test, of course, because a secondary motive in intervening there was the humanitarian one of hoping to make life better for the Afghan people. That altruistic concern was, again, entwined with self-interest, because prosperous and secure countries are less likely to sustain dictatorships or to harbour terrorists. (Although the experience of Pakistan should act as a warning against too simplistic a read-across.)

It ought to be clear, however, that we need to scale back our ambitions for our mission in Afghanistan. As Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, argued in an interview last week, al-Qa'ida is a "tiny fraction of what it used to be" – despite the fillip to its recruitment provided by the Iraq war. The threat of jihadist extremism now comes almost as much from the Pakistani Taliban and from similar organisations in Somalia and Yemen. The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, is, in Professor Gerges's view, a primarily nationalist movement.

That is why we argue for a scaling back – and reorientation – of our presence in Afghanistan. We should aim to contain the Taliban rather than defeat it, and to monitor the border with Pakistan, using intelligence, special forces and civilian support rather than regular combat troops.

President Barack Obama's troop surge provides an opportunity for a staged British and then American withdrawal. Already, as we have reported, British troops have been pulled back from the most dangerous positions in Helmand province as American reinforcements have arrived. The surge at least provides the space for the Afghan army and police force, however inadequate, to step up; after that, we should make clear, security will be the responsibility of the Afghan government.

Thus Afghans can take control of their own destiny and we can raise our eyes to the wider horizon, and devote limited resources in proportion to the many other more pressing threats to our own security.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral