Democracy is a fragile seed: if you want it to take root, it is probably best not to plant it in a hurricane. That, however, is what the Western allies have just tried to do in Helmand. In Babaji district, we learned this week, four British soldiers died for the sake of 150 votes. Has any sacrifice seemed more futile?
Gordon Brown, in Afghanistan yesterday administering more tonic for the troops, can smile all he likes. Operation Panther's Claw, a bloody offensive specifically designed to drive the Taliban out of central Helmand ahead of the presidential election – a Nato-Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) version of the lauded US troop surge that helped turn the tide of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq – was a failure.
Nato did not "secure the elections", as promised. Instead, there has been ballot-stuffing and fraud on a massive scale, particularly in the south. Votes have been so cynically manipulated by the incumbent, Hamid Karzai – the former darling of the West, now definitively exposed as a man more interested in power than the principles of democracy – that the credibility of Isaf, never mind the final election result, is in jeopardy.
The prospect of Iran-style protests looms. Renewed ethnic tension in this overarmed country looks a certainty. On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Taliban staged a car-bomb spectacular in downtown Kandahar, insouciantly murdering 36 people. As long ago as 2007, the election was depicted as a crucial milestone along the road towards the West's exit from Afghanistan. Instead, our blind insistence on democracy may just have made matters worse for the people who live there.
General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Isaf commander, will soon deliver a major strategy review in Washington. Let's hope it contains a frank admission that our military-led campaign is not working. The Taliban are not the Sunni insurgents of Iraq, they are Pashtuns on a jihad, who will not give up. "We are against war," a Taliban commander once explained to me. "It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. One year, a hundred years, a million years – it is not important. We will never stop fighting."
There is an alternative to this recipe for endless war, and that is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Karzai, with recently renewed encouragement from the West, has been chipping away at the insurgency by pursuing reconciliation with so-called "low-level" Taliban for years. That is sensible, but doesn't go nearly far enough.
Kai Eide, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, commented recently that if you want important results from negotiations, you have to negotiate with important people – in other words, with Mullah Omar and the leadership in Quetta – and he is surely right. The Taliban is as much an ideology as it is an army. It follows that we need to win arguments with them, not just battles – and you can't do that without talking to them.
The US Central Commander, General David Petraeus, calls the Taliban leadership the "irreconcilables", whom "we have to kill, capture or run off". But how does he know that Omar is "irreconcilable"? Irreconcilable to what, exactly? Has he ever asked him?
A parley with Omar would not entail the abandonment of our principal goal. "Let us not forget why we are in Afghanistan," Petraeus said this week. "It is to ensure that this country cannot become once again a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida." Forget, for the moment, democratisation, development, reform. They are all optional extras: desirable in themselves, perhaps, but nevertheless means to a greater end.
Omar wants the withdrawal of foreign troops and a return to political power. In return for a guarantee to keep al-Qa'ida out of Afghanistan, is it unthinkable now to grant him this wish? The Taliban are not our real enemy. Unlike al-Qa'ida, they have never posed a direct threat to Western security, nor ever will. They have no foreign policy; their agenda ends with the domestic establishment of their own version of utopia.
Our policymakers assume that Omar could never be trusted to keep al-Qa'ida out, but, again, have they ever asked him? The Taliban and al-Qa'ida are allies of convenience now in Pakistan, but historically there is little love lost between them. The Afghans were often unwilling hosts in the late 1990s, and fearful of the implications of al-Qa'ida's training camps. That was why Omar demanded that Bin Laden move his original headquarters from Jalalabad to Kandahar, where he could keep a closer eye on him.
The Talibs put up with the Arabs largely for reasons of Pashtunwali, the unique tribal honour code that prescribes sanctuary to any guest who asks for it. Adherence to this code ultimately cost them control of Afghanistan. As a mullah once bitterly complained to me: "You destroyed our government for just one man." Even if al-Qa'ida wanted sanctuary in Afghanistan again – and it is a big if – Omar is unlikely to repeat his mistake. Even if he did, we could enforce the deal with intelligence gathered by Special Forces, backed up by new-generation drones. Afghanistan is not the hiding place it once was.
Western troop withdrawal, phased and carefully timetabled, would not mean the abandonment of Afghanistan. On the contrary, it should be co-ordinated with a massive uplift in aid, paid for by savings from the military effort – the civilian-led development programme that we should perhaps have pursued in the first place.
Of course, such a deal carries risks. It also represents a betrayal of those Afghans who don't want the Taliban back and were brave enough to vote for a different kind of future. On the other hand, the war is killing them, too: 8,773 civilians directly killed since 2001, according to some sources. Which is the lesser of the two evils?
There was a time in the 1990s, often forgotten now, when the West did not consider the Taliban so bad. Texas oil firms discussed trans-Afghan pipelines with them. NGOs privately admitted they liked being able to travel without having their Land Cruisers hijacked. Lawlessness, corruption, poppies: the Taliban arguably dealt with all these better than we have over the past eight years.
We should learn to live with them again. Their worldview may be abhorrent, but the way to change that is through patient argument over cups of tea, not at gunpoint. Reconciliation is currently a kind of adjunct to Western strategy. It needs to be placed centre stage if we are ever to get out of Afghanistan.
James Fergusson is the author of A Million Bullets – The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies