The tragic death toll in Afghanistan means it must now be time to rethink the UK's military strategy and involvement.
The UK and US were 100 per cent right to enter Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities, to deliver a swift hammer blow to the Taliban regime. The mistake we have made is to stay too long and allow our troops to get bogged down in a futile struggle in a land in which life is cheap.
A prolonged ground presence by our troops was never going to work, simply because UK public opinion, rightly, is not willing to accept unnecessary troop deaths and injuries in a distant land of debatable relevance to UK security.
We should focus solely on the bare minimum necessary to secure our own borders from terrorist atrocities. Out should go the dewy-eyed commitment by Messrs Bush and Blair to transform Afghanistan into some form of showcase democracy, something that was always culturally, historically and religiously at odds with Afghanistan's tribal past, and likely to inflame Muslim opinion.
Out too should go our blanket troop presence in Afghanistan, to be replaced by a much more measured approach involving intelligence-led precision strikes where necessary to prevent terror-training camps being re-established. In all of this, our leaders also need to recognise three fundamental points. First, Afghanistan is a distraction from other world "hot spots" where the terrorists are gaining a foothold. Second, the war on terror will be won or lost at/within our borders, not by rupturing British lives in a distant tribal land.
Finally, the only sure-fire way of suppressing the terrorists is to cut off their supply of funding and military technology. This involves seriously ramping up the pressure on Iran, and dealing with a UK border policy that is a shambles.
Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis
Bureaucrats cause the NHS problems
Who wouldn't be incandescent having read Ian Birrell's piece (Opinion, 21 August) about his experience of the NHS. I was. Then I ignited. My wife told me that the local care trust has instructed community nursing staff to stop using the majority-preference primary-care software package for their clinical record-keeping. Instead, they are to hand paper copies, from their minority-user system, to the health centre staff to duplicate-type into the main system.
It is this sort of management-derived incoherence (or "creative destruction") that underlies much of the NHS's problems. Underlying the management is the gross, incompetent, unforgivable, culpable stupidity that passes for political direction on health. We used to have a rational template for healthcare delivery but no funds and now there is a surplus (literally, in some places) of funds but the template is purposely destroyed and the mayhem of the market has been let loose on the nation's sick and injured. There's the problem.
Effective health-care delivery is absolutely dependent on coherent, collaborative, rational behaviour amongst all functions in autonomous, locality-based, cohesive multidisciplinary teams. No barriers, no wasteful, distracting competition, no futile bureaucracy, no raving ideologues/apparat-chiks, no empire-building, no duplication of any element, provision of all services as close as is practicable to the patients, all the things any sane person would list if asked to describe a practical health service.
Competition and care are incompatible. Period. The emergence of winners is inescapably linked to the emergence of losers and yet the ideologues would have you believe this is progress.
I found Ian Birrell's article on the NHS both opportune and relevant, written as it was with a painful personal insight how the organisation works and treats those of its clientele who are highly dependent upon it.
Mr Birrell also gets to the heart of the matter when he alludes that a principal problem is the ethos of the NHS. A distinct impression has been engendered by the NHS management, employees and, indeed, clientele that the NHS is a charity, an attitude that is relentlessly emphasised by its slogan, "Free at the point of delivery". Clearly this is not true, because it is paid for in its entirety by the taxpayer and not, somehow, by a benevolent British government.
This aura of a charity certainly does not exist in the more successful health services that are to be found in countries, such as France, where it is perfectly understood that the health service is the contractor and the patient is the patron who pays the bills. The entire ethos of these services is transformed into a service where it is clearly understood by all concerned that everything is directly, or indirectly, paid for by the client who therefore has a clear choice and control of whom he/she employs and where the contractor will treat them at the earlier possible opportunity.
Dr David Payne
Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan
Our NHS is better than the American pay-as-you-need system, which prevents the poorest from accessing treatment. The expensive middle management which exists in our system absorbs far too much of the money better spent on treatment. The penalising of our poorest citizens through prescription charges is immoral but Daniel Hannan refuses to oppose that state of affairs.
The Tory party has really shown its true colour with Cameron's refusal to throw Hannan out of the party. Cameron may care for the NHS because of how they looked after his late son Ivan but that sentiment doesn't inhabit much of the shadow cabinet. Come on, Dave; sack the lot of them and get some compassionate people in post.
Admissions officers look beyond grades
Exam chiefs are right to call for a review of A-level grade boundaries but should extend this to a full review of grade inflation per se, and to conduct this without undermining the hard work of students and teachers ("Calls for tougher marking after yet another A-grade bonanza", 21 August).
Research by ACS International Schools among university admissions officers this year show more than half believe that students and teachers working harder is a contributing factor to grade inflation, but three-quarters cited the ability to resit exams several times as a key factor, and 70 per cent cited "teaching to the test".
Fortunately for students, admissions officers look beyond grades, and cite independent inquiry, self-management skills and an open mind as the qualities needed to thrive at university. These may not be the qualities best nurtured by A levels due to the relentless pressure to "think within the exam box"; they can be demonstrated through other means such as work-experience, citizenship and other interests and activities.
Interestingly, admission officers cited the international baccalaureate as the qualification that best prepares students for university, and more than three-quarters wanted to see more state school offering the qualification. Looking at assessment boundaries of qualifications such as the IB may be a good starting point for a review.
Superintendent, ACS International Schools, Cobham, Surrey
Last week, the shadow schools secretary revealed plans to reward schools that teach traditional academic "A" subjects with more league table points, and remove vocational qualifications from league-table rankings, discouraging schools from teaching vocational subjects.
For years, UK businesses have been saying that education does not prepare young people sufficiently for life after school, and that a more rounded approach is required. Prioritising so-called "pure" academic A-levels over vocational subjects is a backward step, and will leave many employers, parents and young people disappointed.
Education should be challenging for young people, but pure academic learning is not the only valid challenge. As an economy, we need entrepreneurs and skilled practitioners, as much as we need academics. Our education system should value both.
Chief Executive, Skillfast-UK, Leeds
Scotland right to release Megrahi
Compassion is pity or mercy for another; it is not a two-way sentiment, like an eye for an eye. There is every reason why I should feel compassion for an individual dying of cancer even if he is (or may be) a callous and brutal murderer. I have no wish to act in the same way as he has. Similarly, I feel compassion for the 47 million US citizens who cannot afford medical insurance.
Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish government were right to release Megrahi, and the Americans, it seems, have something to learn
Megrahi returns to Libya as our fine, upstanding democracy buddies up with Gaddafi and big business. MacAskill's oily excuse for freeing him is lost on Libyans who view his return not as an act of compassion, but as reparation for an injustice.
Our conniving government breaks trust with the people every time it shrugs off an inconvenient responsibility to serve its own ends. It acts shamefully and with impunity in our name because we as citizens demand nothing more of it. Shame on us all.
Total support for human rights
We were shocked to read your article (14 August) supporting the idea that Total is using forced labour for its pipeline operations in Burma. Since the beginning there we have been constant in upholding human rights, despite a difficult environment.
In the specific case to which the article refers, the alleged facts are unrelated to any works or activities on our pipeline. Neither are they attributable to our local security team which is unarmed and respectful of human rights.
The allegations referred to concern a small group of soldiers who demanded unpaid work from the villagers in Zimba at the end of March. The work involved building four bamboo shelters. As soon as Total heard of this, our teams immediately requested the end of such construction which required two to three villagers per day over five days. We also expressed our strongest rejection of such practices to the authorities. We interceded and ensured that the shelters were handed over to the villagers.
Total tries to and successfully prevents possible human rights abuses or organises for compensation in the few cases when such abuses have already occurred. In no case, has forced labour ever been used by Total in Burma.
Vice President Public Affairs, Total, Paris
Credit where it's due
Gratifying as it is to have the finding in Orkney of the oldest representation in Scotland of a human figure reported in your esteemed organ (23 August), but local pride requires that Independent readers be informed that this priceless artefact was found in the Orkney island of Westray.
Brahms Mass unlisted
Nicola Christie asks why a child would put on a Brahms Mass when returning from school rather than turning on the television ("All white on the night", 19 August). Not only schoolchildren would find it hard to put on a Brahms Mass; the composer wrote no settings of the liturgy. His German Requiem is a setting of biblical rather than liturgical texts.
C D C Armstrong
Congratulations to Richard Dawkins for joining the campaign seeking an official apology for Alan Turing ("Dawkins calls for official apology for Turing", 19 August). This shameful incident is perhaps one of the worst examples of the hypocrisy of the English establishment on homosexuality, which is only recently being exposed and corrected. The Church should also be a party to this apology to atone in part for its long history of the persecution of gay people. Where can I join the campaign?
Walsall, West Midlands
Greed is really good
Michael Gilbert is repulsed by the thought that the best-performing investment bankers appear to be driven entirely by greed (letters, 20 August). Given the option, I'd rather have my pension-fund decisions made by some avaricious, money-grubbing, cigar-chomping banker than some gentle soul geared to seeing both sides of every argument and wringing his hands at the thought of making too much money. Merchant banking still requires the men and women in this trade to be "red, in tooth and braces".
It is a rare treat indeed to catch out Howard Jacobson (Opinion, 22 August). His reference to himself as "a succour for pomp" recalls the post-war reconstruction of All Hallows church on Tower Hill, funded largely by an American patron. A recording of the service was sent to him, with dire results when he misinterpreted the reference in one prayer to "gratitude for this succour from America".
Kington Langley, Wiltshire