Face down the militarists and get out of Afghanistan. No strings attached | Simon Jenkins

Obama must call time on the Afghan war. Retreat can be spun as victory. But it can't be conditional on impossible objectives

Go to Washington any time in the past eight years and ask what influence Britain has over America's Afghan policy. The answer is a thumb and forefinger joined in a simple zero. The same was true in Iraq. Ever since Tony Blair kowtowed to George Bush at Crawford in April 2002, Britain has been the patsy, the poodle, the dumb ally in Washington's wars of ideological empire.

Britain's military failures in Basra and Helmand, rescued in both by the Americans, increased this subservience. While French and German governments assess their nation's interest, Blair and Gordon Brown have been me-too kids on the block, panting after Washington's every wild venture. Despite 412 British soldiers dead, Brown indicated in his speech on Monday night that nothing had changed. The torture continues. London twitches only when Washington kicks.

Almost nothing Brown says on Afghanistan makes sense, and he seems painfully aware of it. He must say that soldiers are dying in Helmand to make Britain's streets safe, even when intelligence reports say the opposite. He must remain obsessed with "training bases", as if the 9/11 plotters had learned to fly in Tora Bora. He must believe that building an Afghan security force and ridding Hamid Karzai's regime of corruption can be achieved, and that they hold the keys to a British withdrawal. Pigs will fly.

Brown must also know that his Foreign Office thinks the Afghan venture mad, and sets up its hapless boss, David Miliband, to repeat that counter-insurgency is counter-terrorism. It is not. It is counter-insurgency. To equate the two is like the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blaming foreign states for what is essentially a domestic threat – in Britain's case from a tiny fraction of its Muslim community.

The favoured military option said to be emerging from Obama's agonising review of Afghan policy is to "fall back on the cities". This seems the only way of marrying the military's desperation for ever more troops to the raw, bleeding fact that the Afghan war is hopeless. The killing can go on for ever, but the war is lost.

Falling back on cities was the last gasp of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. It can work if you are a native population ceding countryside to an invader. But in Afghanistan Nato is the invader. Cede the country to the Taliban and you cede every city market place and street corner. It will not work. Nato has hi-tech weapons but it forgot to pack its rucksacks with an old-fashioned, mark one historian.

As for the even more desperate idea of "talking to the local Taliban", what do you say to a tiger in mid-leap? Could you eat just an arm and a leg and leave me the rest? It is on a par with Boris Johnson's brainless argument that to pull out would be to betray those who have given their lives so far. Nobody dares call a spade a spade. Were Osama bin Laden given to laughter, which I understand he is not, he would split his sides.

The suspense of Obama's "decision" on Afghanistan is acquiring epic proportions. It recalls the Delphic oracle's reply when Croesus asked if he should declare war on Persia. If he does, the oracle said, "He will destroy a mighty empire". It turned out to be his own.

We assume Obama favours withdrawal because, if he had thought more troops would defeat the Taliban, it was criminal not to have sent them a year ago. His decision has thus become a trial of strength between his view and the massed ranks of America's military/industrial complex, with its $1bn-a-day interest in the continuance of war.

If militarism wins and Obama commences a 10-year battle over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, it will spell the end of America's status as cold war victor and putative world policeman. The complex will have him trapped. The Taliban will have him cornered, as will Bin Laden. America's democratic leadership will have been pitted against American militarism – an informal component of the republic since the founding fathers – and will have capitulated. So will Britain's compliant party leaders as they continue to utter weekly banalities over the coffins of Wootton Bassett.

If, on the other hand, Obama takes courage in both hands and announces a withdrawal, by hook or by crook, next year, the impact will be dramatic. Enemies at home will declare that America's first black president has led his country to defeat. But the boil will have been lanced. Afghanistan and its patchwork of tribal chiefs, warlords and Taliban commanders will have to write "the invaders" out of their script. Karzai must cash in the deals of the past seven years. The Taliban, no longer a monolith, would forge pacts and coalitions, as they were doing prior to 2001. Terrible things will happen in many places but, as in Iraq, they were bound to happen from the moment the west intervened.

An American withdrawal would force Pakistan once again to be the power broker and guarantor of regional stability, albeit on new terms. The Pashtun would lose interest in their al-Qaida guests, who in turn would lose their anti-American rallying cry and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The region would regain an equilibrium it can never achieve under western occupation.

Britain and America should demilitarise the war on terror, surely the most counterproductive main-force deployment in recent history. They need no longer rely on grand armies, popinjay generals and crippling budgets; on bringing death, destruction and exile to hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the faint belief that this might stop a few bombs going off back home. They would hand that job to the appropriate authorities; to the police and security services.

The modalities of withdrawal need obvious attention. Only idiots talk of leaving "overnight", but only idiots make departure conditional on some unachievable objective, such as more European troops or an operational Afghan army or honesty in Kabul. Defeat must be spun as victory. Retreat must be covered by the smokescreen of a loya jirga or "surge, bribe and leave". But it cannot be conditional on fantasy.

This war was never to be won, any more than that in Iraq. Both were neocon nation-building stunts that ran amok on too much money. Three million Iraqis, including almost all Iraq's Christians, were driven into exile. The same is starting in Afghanistan and will become a flood as Nato retreats. That nation's agony is not over yet, but the end cannot begin until the invaders depart. That will happen only when the pain outweighs the pride. The question is, how many corpses will that take?


Simon Jenkins

The GuardianTramp

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