19 Nov 2010

Nato and the war in Afghanistan

Chief Correspondent

Our Chief Correspondent, Alex Thomson, asks what the NATO summit in Lisbon can possibly do or say about the war in Afghanistan that hasn’t already been said and done.

And so to Lisbon.

Another month, another capital for the ever-moving NATO carbon footprint to stomp into. Of all the items on the agenda, Afghanistan will dominate. As it should, for after almost a decade the west’s conduct of war has been public in its failures; tragic in its repetition of previous historical mistakes in that country.

British soldiers die in a land whose people they do not appear to understand, precisely as Victorian British soldiers did. Nothing has been learned, say the critics.

At issue for NATO: the usual item – how to get the hell out of a war America cannot win. And forget the NATO figleaf, this is an American war with Britain, as usual, following at the coat-tails of Uncle Sam, failing, and then leaving Uncle to pick up the pieces – of which more below.

So can they get out around 2014-15? Can they hand over power in Afghanistan’s 39 wild provinces? Or will the mission which has crept like a giant and bloodied sleepwalker, year upon year, simply creep beyond that date? It is evidence of the lamentable performance of the west in Afghanistan that even now it lacks some 2,000 trainers for the Afghan army.

Hang on, wasn’t the Afghan army the only plan in town? The only possible exit strategy from an unwinnable war?

Erm…yes. So how can it possibly, possibly, be, that – after all this time – NATO cannot muster the people it needs to train the Afghans? It literally cannot staff its own retreat plan! As evidence of catastrophic strategic failure this is hard to beat.

I mean we’ve got used to NATO pushing out the begging bowl to countries who wouldn’t to join the war. The begging for more countries to send soldiers will happen again later today and tomorrow from Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s uncharismatic boss, downwards through the organisation. Cameron and Obama will no doubt repeat it too.

But who wants to send its young men and women to be maimed and killed in a war that only this week the British military commander, Sir David Richards, said (again) cannot be won? And why, furthermore, when America wants out in 2014 at the latest?

As you see  – they are not exactly lining up to join.

Militarily, the British army is pulling out of bases like Sangin where so many young soldiers were killed or terribly injured by the effective combination of IEDs and sniping. The impossibility of static patrolling from Forward Operating Bases in places like Sangin was only very latterly changed by the Royal Marine Commandos in Sangin. By then it was far too late of course. So many were dead, so little had been achieved.

The British will talk on about how many new shops have opened in the bazaar in order to evade the larger reality: the British army leaves places like Sangin, but the insurgency does not. The British retreat: The insurgents do not. Deep down, both sides recognise this inescapable truth.

The replacement by the US forces, a hair’s breadth from outright humiliation.

Meanwhile, people like Sir David Richards talk about “hammering” the insurgents on the battlefield. That may be true but it is also pointless. Because in the same breath Sir David will tell you that the insurgents have no recruitment problem, no morale issues and cannot be beaten. Well if we can’t beat them, then what use is “hammering”?

Today, here in the UK another dead soldier is named. Another family doorstep will receive the knock they dread. Another family shattered as so very many more Afghan families have been shattered. All this, because they’re fighting a war in a country whose tribes are as expert at repelling unwelcome visitors as they are at resisting attempts to become a modern state under one strong, authoritative leader.   They want foreign armies out of their country so they can get on with slaughtering their own countrymen in the violence that will more than likely unfold after NATO leaves.

Britain’s most senior civilian official in Kabul said only this week that he expects such killing to be “eye-watering” in its scale and reach. Afghans whom I speak to feel the same and predict the same. All the insurgents have to do is wait and they have time, time and more time – unlike the Americans and the British.

Afghans simply want an end to it all. Like us they just crave security above all else. And many don’t much care whether it is the Taliban or whoever to impose it. The inescapable fact is that the only people who have managed to impose security over Pashtun Afganistan in recent memory were the Taliban. And most people there frankly don’t give a damn about banning education for girls; stoning gay people and all the rest of it. In truth the Taliban were no more murderous than any other Mujahideen group attempting to control this land.

What they are fed up with is what they see as the lies and broken promise after broken promise from their western invaders. How we could train the Afghan forces to take over. How western governance would take hold. How the poppy trade would be tackled. How Britain’s streets would be made safe from suicide bombers. And on and on and on it goes.