Leading article: The time has come for some realism

Share
Related Topics

Yesterday saw the 300th British fatality of the long Afghan war. It is, of course, an artificial milestone. As David Cameron pointed out, there is no reason why the 300th death of a British soldier in that conflict should be any more significant than the 299th or the 301st. But, rightly or wrongly, round numbers tend to capture the public's attention. This is a milestone, artificial or not.

The Prime Minister has called on the country to "reflect on the incredible service and sacrifice that the armed forces give on our behalf". And the public will certainly do so. But they will also, quite rightly, reflect on the nature of the mission itself.

Some truths about the UK's involvement in Afghanistan are now abundantly clear. First, the idea that Britain is able to extend an open-ended commitment to the country is dead. There is no popular support for that scale of commitment; nor are there the resources. The Army is already severely stretched on the ground. Troops lack body armour, helicopters and trained bomb disposal personnel. And with the defence budget facing a severe squeeze, things are most unlikely to improve. Second, the idea that we are masters of our own destiny in Afghanistan is a myth. The fig-leaf of the Nato command remains, but the reality is that this is a US-led operation.

It is a year since General Stanley McChrystal took command in the country. The results of his troop "surge" have been mixed. The Taliban have been driven from several southern strongholds by sheer volume of US and UK troops. But the operation to take the city of Kandahar, which has symbolic and strategic importance for the Taliban, has been delayed. And the Taliban's capacity to hurt foreign troops through roadside bombs remains undiminished.

In fairness to General McChrystal, he appears to understand the limitations of what can be achieved by military force alone in Afghanistan. His goal is to stabilise the country and build up the national security forces, rather than deliver a Western-style democracy. And he accepts that some form of political settlement with the more pragmatic elements of the Taliban is inevitable, indeed desirable.

To this extent, his efforts merit continued support. But the danger comes in deciding when enough is enough. Generals on the ground will always push for more resources and more time in the belief that a breakthrough is within reach. President Barack Obama has set a deadline of July 2011 for the start of the withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan. But some Pentagon officials are already suggesting that longer might be needed. To break that deadline would be a mistake. In the end, political leaders must tell their generals when it is time to withdraw.

The great fear of any politician when it comes to disengaging from messy foreign interventions is the accusation that they asked soldiers to sacrifice their lives in vain. But the force of that charge depends on the goals politicians set and the rhetoric they use in justifying a conflict. The old argument that British and American troops in Helmand are protecting civilians in London and New York is not only incredible, it has made it much harder to pull troops out.

Mr Cameron and President Obama need to lower public expectations of what can be achieved in Afghanistan. They need to explain where in the region the true threat to the West's interests lies and what is the most practical and effective way of safeguarding those interests. These leaders are already being increasingly realistic in private on such matters. They need to share that same candour with their respective publics, rather then peddling the same old comforting fairy tales about the purpose of the Afghan mission. It is time, in short, for some realism.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biomass Sales Consultant

£20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Java Developer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

£45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The legal definition of terrorism threatens to criminalise us all

Mike Harris
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game