Leading article: The only way forward

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This newspaper opened up an important debate last week with the call for British troops to be withdrawn from combat duty in Afghanistan. Public opinion supported the initial deployment of a small number of soldiers to help secure the country after the fall of the Taliban eight years ago. For most of the time since then, the British people have been prepared to give the mission the benefit of the doubt. But over the past year those doubts have grown, and our ComRes opinion poll today reveals that opposition to the deployment has reached a critical level: 71 per cent of those questioned last week agreed with The Independent on Sunday's argument that we should begin a phased withdrawal, "the aim being the end of combat operations within a year or so".

The state of public opinion is not, in itself, a sufficient reason for pulling out. We have argued our case for the winding down of combat operations because we believe it to be in the national and global interest. But it is also true that a military engagement abroad cannot – and indeed should not – be sustained indefinitely without solid support at home. It says something, furthermore, about the quality of the arguments made by political leaders and military experts, that they are unable to persuade the general public. No doubt, the advocates of "seeing it through" would say that this is because their case is complex: there are many links in the chain of reasoning, from firefights with the Taliban in the desert ranges of Helmand to safer streets in British towns and cities. But it is equally possible that some of those links are weak and unconvincing, or outweighed by other factors, and that the common sense of the non-expert is often a sounder guide to policy. It was, after all, the same politicians and experts who got Iraq so wrong.

In order to test these arguments, we have dedicated most of the coverage in our news and comment sections to examining the case for and against the phased pullback of British forces. Our readers, like the British public generally, are overwhelmingly opposed to what we described last Sunday as this ill-conceived, unwinnable and counterproductive war. Their elected representatives, on the other hand, tend to hold to positions previously adopted. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has been brave enough to admit that Barack Obama's adjustment of US strategy is the last chance to make the Nato intervention work – and that, if it cannot be pulled around, "withdrawal will become the only option". But it is not clear how or when Mr Clegg would make that judgement.

There is a similar division of opinion among the military. The commanders in the field and in Whitehall support the mission and say that the war is winnable. Rank-and-file soldiers, on the other hand, tend to be much more sceptical. Historians tend to be most sceptical of all. James Fergusson points out today that, although the Nato intervention is different from the Russian one of the 1980s, it is not that different.

Since last week, when we became the only newspaper to call for an end to combat operations, the reaction to our stand has reinforced our conviction that this is the right course. But there was one response that requires a direct reply – the suggestion that our editorial stance somehow showed a lack of respect for our troops. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Independent on Sunday was the first to press the Government to honour the terms of the Military Covenant, which acknowledges that our troops and their families are entitled to support, especially the equipment and medical care that they need, in return for risking their lives.

There is no contradiction between a free debate about war aims and wholehearted support of, and admiration for, the troops who have to carry out the orders decided by a democratic government. That is why we welcome Gordon Brown's willingness to engage with the arguments, as he did with a new fluency on the radio last Friday, and as he intends to do at the Mansion House tomorrow. And we are not naive about the calculations of crude interest that make a British prime minister reluctant to jog the elbow of an American president.

But we hope that, the more there is an open debate about the Nato role in Afghanistan, the more likely it is that Mr Brown will use the opportunity of Mr Obama's forthcoming announcement to scale back the British contribution to this ill-conceived, unwinnable and counterproductive mission. We believe it is the only way forward.