Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with these arguments. This time from Paddy Ashdown.
This awful mistake mustn’t claim more lives
We cannot pretend there is any more to do in Afghanistan. The urgent priority is to get out
It is not worth wasting one more life in Afghanistan. All that we can achieve has now been achieved. All that we might have achieved if we had done things differently, has been lost. The only rational policy now is to leave quickly, in good order and in the company of our allies. This is the only cause for which further lives should be risked.
It is now crystal clear that we have lost in Afghanistan. We have succeeded in only one thing, albeit the big thing we first said we went to war for — driving out al-Qaeda. In almost all the other tasks we set ourselves, especially the establishment of a sustainable state, we have failed. The word “defeat” is only inappropriate because it confers some stain upon the extraordinary young men and women who have fought our cause in a foreign land. They emerge from this anything but unscathed but, in large measure, untarnished. They were not beaten. In the battles they fought against the Taleban they invariably won.
Our failure in Afghanistan has not been military. It has been political.
This was a war that was proper to fight and that the international community could and should have won. We went in under a UN Security Council mandate, in support of international law, consistent with our own national interests and with the overwhelming support of the Afghan people. Eleven years later we have recklessly squandered all these assets and in the process written the definitive textbook on how to lose these kinds of war.
The reasons for this are not new. Many of us have been warning about them for years.
The international community in Afghanistan needed to speak with a single voice in pursuit of a single plan with clear priorities. Instead we have been divided, cacophonous, chaotic. We should have concentrated on winning in Afghanistan where it mattered, instead of distracting ourselves with adventures in Iraq. We should have engaged Afghanistan’s neighbours, instead of going out of our way to make them enemies. Our early military strategy should have been about protecting the people instead of wasting our time chasing the enemy. We should have made fighting corruption our first priority instead of becoming the tainted partners of a corrupt Government whose writ, along with ours, has progressively collapsed as that of the Taleban in the South has progressively widened.
We should have understood that victories on the battlefield are meaningless if you can’t translate them into political progress and better lives for ordinary people. We should have placed more emphasis on political means than military ones, instead of looking to the soldiers to win the war for us. We should have understood the culture and history of Afghanistan instead of imposing an unaffordable Western-style centralised constitution on a country that has been decentralised and tribal for more than a thousand years. And at the end we should have grabbed the best opportunity for a negotiated peace three years ago instead of continuing our blind pursuit of the illusion of outright military victory.
Up to now the price for these follies has been paid in lives — those of our young soldiers and far too many Afghan civilians. Now there will be a political price to pay in diminished Western influence and increased instability in what is one of the most unstable regions in the world. We may not like that, but we are not now in any position to alter it.
There is only one thing more we can do now to buttress Afghanistan after we go, and that is not military, it is diplomatic: try for a regional treaty to underpin the integrity of the Afghan state.
Beyond that, what can be done to stop Afghanistan unravelling into chaos has already been done. The only outcome of staying longer is more deaths for no purpose; most of them now caused not by the enemy in front of our troops, but by the enemy among them. This year 61 coalition soldiers have been killed by members of the Afghan National Army or Police — 14 of them have been British.
So now is the time to abandon the pretence that there is more of substance to be achieved in Afghanistan. The main thing to do now is leave as quick as we decently can, providing as much protection for our friends as we can, in the best order that we can and with as much of our equipment as we can.
Soldiers call this “a fighting withdrawal” and it is the most difficult military manoeuvre of all. To succeed it needs clarity of purpose, speed and perfect co-ordination. None of these are in place but they soon must be.
Our commanders are not clear about their tasks. Do their political masters really mean what they say, that there is still more to be done? Or can they now concentrate on what they know is sensible, getting out in good order? Someone should tell them which — soon.
Meanwhile, a deadline has been set: all out by 2014. The military says it will take that long to get the kit out. Maybe. But the longer it takes, the greater the sacrifice. Maybe we have to balance a quartermaster’s perfection against the lives lost in delivering it.
Meanwhile, our allies by their actions seem to think co-ordination a dirty word. Most are now rushing headlong for the exits. The US hints darkly about leaving earlier. Barack Obama’s re-election probably means they will. But no one knows for sure. The Government should be pressing them hard for clarity on this. Young, brave lives — theirs and ours — depend on it.
“In together, out together” may remain the best policy. But our other motto for the moment should be “quick, neat and soon” if we are to avoid having to answer the famous question that Senator John Kerry asked over Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”