Afghanistan: dash for the exit | Editorial

Barack Obama will not be judged as kindly by history in Afghanistan as he was over his withdrawal from Iraq

There is every indication that the end of Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan will be as politically driven as its disastrous entry was. The Helmand that British troops leave behind after 2014 will be as far from David Cameron's mind as Basra was from Gordon Brown's in 2007. It was not a defeat, Mr Brown said defensively at the time. Well, it certainly was not mission accomplished and our impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is not looking any better. In the meantime, British and US commanders have to ask themselves a question: what are foreign troops doing on the front line other than to prolong the misery? A week which started with the deaths of six British soldiers, ended when a US soldier went on a shooting spree killing 16 Afghan civilians, among them nine children and three women.

The reactions to the latest shootings were instructive. Nato officials referred to the deaths of civilians, not their killings, and said they were not part of an authorised Isaf military action. Hamid Karzai called the shootings "intentional murders" and demanded an explanation from the US. This is not the first time that US soldiers have gone on shooting sprees in this area. Four soldiers from a Stryker brigade are in prision for the killings in 2010 of three unarmed men in Maiwand district. They were accused of being part of a "kill team" murdering civilians for sport and dropping weapons near their bodies to make them appear as if they had been combatants. This year alone, a video showing US marines urinating on the bodies of the men they had killed caused outrage, and US troops burning copies of the Qur'an sparked nationwide protests in which 30 died and six US service members were killed by their Afghan colleagues. Further, the area where the latest killings happened is crucial to the US mission of subduing the Taliban in its rural strongholds. Panjwai, southwest of Kandahar City, is no less than the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

All the signs are that the fighting will intensify in the run-up to 2014. General Sir David Richards, the head of the armed forces, said that Britain would hold its nerve in Afghanistan in the wake of the six deaths. But to achieve what? The International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a recent report, Afghanistan to 2015 and Beyond, that foreign troops would leave behind massive corruption, a huge increase in heroin production and a country reliant on foreign aid for years to come. This report highlights the unvarnished complexity of finishing what we blundered into. Stability, it says, depends on drawing the wider Pashtun community into the ruling coalition, while increasing the capabilities of the state and balancing the interests of neighbours and regional powers. To achieve any of these three objectives – as over 2,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year, the fifth successive year-on-year increase – might be regarded as ambitious. To achieve all of them must be regarded as near to impossible.

Barack Obama will not be judged as kindly by history in Afghanistan as he was over his withdrawal from Iraq. He escalated the fighting with the troop surge. He continues with night raids and drone attacks to kill the very Taliban commanders whose presence is needed to keep the peace, if it comes. He continues to prop up a regime in Kabul which is a byword for corruption. The Afghan state continues to fail its citizens, which is one reason why the Taliban is allowed to run a parallel state in large parts of the country.

Talks are in their infancy. The Taliban said that substantive discussions will only begin after the release of its top commanders held in Guantánamo Bay. But even if that hurdle is crossed, the gap in positions looms large. Hillary Clinton in her testimony to the House foreign relations committee said the Taliban would have to renounce violence, abandon al-Qaida and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar wants it rewritten to include him as the country's supreme leader. Should we be keeping our nerve, or examining our conscience?


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Afghanistan: Groundhog day
Editorial: Kim Howells is saying publicly what many in government must be thinking privately: that troops are dying needlessly in a war that is unwinnable, with a strategy that is unworkable, and that we should be thinking of the alternative now


04, Nov, 2009 @12:05 AM

Article image
Don't abandon Afghanistan after 2014 handover, plead generals
Exclusive: British commander voices fears that Taliban will exploit power vacuum in Afghanistan after west quits

Nick Hopkins in Kabul

10, May, 2011 @5:41 PM

Article image
A decade of western folly has erased hope from Afghanistan | Jonathan Steele

Jonathan Steele: With the exit of US troops the Taliban are poised to fill the gap. The Afghans' mood is febrile and gloomy

Jonathan Steele in Kabul

10, Dec, 2012 @11:07 PM

Article image
British and US troops to launch new Afghanistan offensive
Announcement of operation to wrest Helmand areas from Taliban control comes on eve of peace talks in London

Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor

25, Jan, 2010 @9:01 PM

Article image
Afghanistan: Advances made, but country stands at perilous crossroads
After many critical periods over the past decade, Afghans now face their most important yet – and the problems are huge

Nick Hopkins in Kabul

10, May, 2011 @5:43 PM

Article image
US soldier's killing spree puts Afghanistan on a knife-edge

Tensions increase as nine children among 16 shot dead by lone gunman in Zangabad village in Kandahar

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

12, Mar, 2012 @12:56 AM

Letters: End the Afghan war
Letters: Two days ago, I received a 13-day prison sentence for my role in a 2009 protest outside Britain's military nerve centre in Northwood against the bombing of Afghanistan

01, Mar, 2012 @9:00 PM

Article image
Burhanuddin Rabbani's death changes little | Stephen Grey

Stephen Grey: The peace process in Afghanistan is largely a sham – there has been no meaningful dialogue with the Taliban

Stephen Grey

21, Sep, 2011 @8:30 PM

Article image
The pressure grows for a quick Nato exit from Afghanistan
There is a growing realisation that nothing useful can be done by US and British troops exposed on the front line in Afghanistan, writes Richard Norton-Taylor

Richard Norton-Taylor

07, Mar, 2012 @2:16 PM

Letters: Secrets, lies and this dirty war
Letters: It is important to note that the invasion of Afghanistan, like the invasion of Iraq, had no legal justification in terms of UN security council resolutions

26, Jul, 2010 @11:05 PM