Too little too late

So Britain is sending more troops to Afghanistan. This week the British government announced a major new deployment. Another 230 soldiers will be heading east.
Yes, a whole 230. This is apparently worthy of a speech by the defence secretary to Parliament. The Taliban must be laughing into their beards.

Last week 1 200 inmates broke out of the main jail in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-biggest city. During the operation, which lasted several hours, the militants in effect held half the town. The Afghan national army, the local forces on whom the international coalition is pinning its hopes of an early exit from the country, took hours to respond. In part, it is this failure to build efficient and stable government institutions—an army, a police force, a civil administration and a judicial system—that has provoked the latest deployment.

Of course, as senior Nato officials point out, it is true that numbers are not the only metric in the struggle that has gripped Afghanistan for the past seven years. ‘We don’t need more troops,” one official told me earlier this year. ‘We need the right troops in the right place.”

The new soldiers—a fifth of the number of the Kandahar escapees—should be just that. They are specialists in disciplines such as engineering and training who can help build up Afghanistan’s civil infrastructure and train its army and police forces. Progress in these areas has been virtually non-existent in the badlands of the southeast, where civilian organisations cannot operate. Perhaps there will now be some.

But it is desperately late. British senior military commanders long ago complained that civilians were unable to deliver the kind of development assistance—or even hearts and minds-winning instant aid projects—that were necessary. In Helmand in 2006, the senior commanding officer of the British deployment told me that his biggest frustration was that his troops could not, due to British government guidelines, offer aid to villagers.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, has apparently directed it to draw up plans for ‘permanent cadres of stabilisation specialists” and envisages a ‘multi-disciplined and inter-agency organisation that would be capable of both fighting alongside local forces and delivering tasks in areas where the civil agencies cannot operate”. Again, this is all very welcome. But why has it taken seven years of operations—a war won, a peace lost, and a second war killing thousands a year—in the country to work this out?

The problems in Afghanistan are of a mind-blowing complexity, made worse by a series of unforced errors by Western governments. There have been successes—it would be wrong to pretend otherwise. For anyone who spent time in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the sight of a bustling Kabul or the repopulated Shomali plains or the crowded bazaars of towns such as Mazar-e-Sharif, Pul-e-Khumri and Jalalabad, is impressive. And it is equally true that though violence continues to rise, it does so in the same relatively restricted areas.

But when the failures are listed—the explosion in opium production; the inability to restrict Taliban resupply and training bases in Pakistan; the continuing support for a president who has shown himself incapable of fighting corruption and cronyism in his own government and warlordism outside it, and who is given to outbursts such as promising interventions in Pakistani sovereign territory to hunt down militants; the expensive and wasteful delivery of aid that has meant many Afghans have yet to see benefits from the removal of the Taliban regime, while Western consultants go home with healthy bank balances—it is hard not to believe there is some structural factor that prevents developed Western democracies making the decisions, or commitments, necessary to win modern counter-insurgency campaigns, or succeed in the impossibly complex nation-building tasks that they set themselves.

Senior British army officers who have served in Afghanistan privately ask the same thing. They know the best the troops can do is buy time for some kind of political solution. The opportunity for soldiers to be withdrawn is some way away, despite the evident and thoroughly understandable desire of almost everyone, civilian or military, to declare victory and head for the exit. When these officers worry about public opinion, they are not talking about the Afghans but back home.

Afghanistan is rightly seen as a justified and important conflict. But is the United Kingdom really prepared to see hundreds of its soldiers killed there? Even if it is, their Nato allies, with the exception of the Americans, are not. Is the UK prepared to spend much more money and energy and political time and will over decades to rebuild the country, or would it really rather settle for a compromise that would mean the whole vexed problem would go away, whatever that means for the Afghans?

Back in the first months after the fall of the Taliban, Afghans often asked me if my country was really committed to helping them or whether, like other erstwhile friends, our interest would wane. I gave them the positive answer they wanted to hear. I am no longer sure I was right to do so.

Jason Burke is an Observer special correspondent and author of On the Road to Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World

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