Sir David Richards, the head of British forces, has declared that a military victory against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban is not possible.
Attempts by the West to achieve this were unnecessary, said Sir David Richards, the Chief of General Staff, who also defended the right of fundamentalist Muslims to adhere to beliefs which underpin their lives. He stressed that one cannot defeat ideas merely through fighting wars.
Gen Richards warned that Britain would continue to face danger from Islamist terrorism for at least 30 years, and that the militancy that spawned it was unlikely to be resolved in the near future. The threat could not be eradicated, he said, but could be contained, in an effort to prevent attacks.
Gen Richards's views may lay him open to accusations of defeatism. But the former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan stressed that, in his view, progress was taking place in the Afghan campaign and it was imperative that there should not be a premature withdrawal of troops.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, Gen Richards insisted that the sacrifices made by British forces in Afghanistan, where 343 have been killed so far, "have been worth it". Nato was "in the right parish ... Don't give up, folks, it's all to play for". But he also said the British Government and the military had been "guilty of not fully understanding what was at stake" in the mission and acknowledged that many Afghans were "tiring" of Nato's inability to deliver on its promises.
Meanwhile the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has charged that the current intensity of US-led military operations is creating dissatisfaction among his people.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Mr Karzai called for an end, in particular, to night raids by special forces aimed at eliminating Taliban commanders on the ground. "The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan ... to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan lives," he said.
Although US authorities publicly said they sympathised with Mr Karzai's views, there was private irritation that his pronouncements come at what is considered to be critical time in the campaign, when Western forces are attempting to wrest back ground from the Taliban.
Speaking of the feasibility of achieving victory through combat, Gen Richards said: "You can't. We've all said this – David Petraeus [the US head of Nato forces in the country] has said this, I have said this. In conventional war, defeat and victory is very clear cut and is symbolised by troops marching into another country's capital. First of all you have to ask, do we need to defeat it [Islamist militancy] in the sense of a clear-cut victory? I would argue that it is unnecessary and can never be achieved.
"I don't think you can probably defeat an idea. It's something we need to battle against as necessary, but in its milder forms why shouldn't they be allowed to have that sort of philosophy underpinning their lives?
"It's how it manifests itself that is the key and can we contain that manifestation – and quite clearly al-Qa'ida is an unacceptable manifestation of it," said Gen Richards.
* A British soldier from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment has been killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said yesterday.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies