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Troops to stay in Afghanistan

By Alex Thomson

Updated on 12 December 2007

Gordon Brown has said that Britain's 7,500 soldiers will remain in Afghanistan, and has pledged £450m to reconstruction.

The British army openly admits that it cannot win the war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 86 service personal have been killed in it so far - almost half, in the last year alone. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown disagrees, it seems, with his own army saying that they are winning the war, and that Britain does negotiate with the Taliban.

Well technically not. But in fact Britain is actively pushing Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, to buy, cajole or induce Taliban to change sides in the war.

Men like Mullah Rocketi - now an MP who once was a mujahedeen fighting the Soviets with rockets - hence the name, then a Taliban.

Gordon Brown told Parliament the Afghan government said recently 5,000 fighters had changed sides - but he didn't tell Parliament that there's no way of knowing if that figure is fact, or fantasy.

In fact the Foreign Office reckons there are perhaps a dozen or so Taliban leaders - mostly across the border in western Pakistan - who cannot be reached by negotiation. But on the Afghan side there's much more for Karzai's go-betweens to play for - with British backing.

What looked like more support for the Afghan Army from the prime minister - the hope to increase its trained men from 20,000 to 70,000 turned out to be just that - a hope.

That matters because it's becoming clear that the Afghan Army alone will now garrison Musa Qala, taken this week from the Taliban, who will see it as a prime target for counter offensives.

If improving the lot of ordinary Afghans is key to winning their allegiance - as western strategists often say - a promise of a further £450m in aid was paid. Sounds good -- but £9bn a year has been pumped into this country in a six year aid binge - and you still can't get paved roads or uninterrupted electricity even in the capital Kabul.

The prime minister then turned to the poppy trade - the biggest slice of Afghanistan's economy by far and perhaps Britain's biggest failure in Afghanistan. Our job is to tackle the trade. Under our watch it's enjoyed it's biggest boom in history. Production up again, 34 per cent last year.

There were no radical rethink of opium or the wider war today. That could fall to Paddy Ashdown - currently being lined up as the UN's envoy.

Meantime - next stop is Edinburgh on Friday, when another meeting will call yet again for more troops, equipment or just straight money for NATO's war against the Taliban. Thus far - most of the world simply doesn't want to know.

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