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Columnists

Hell manned

Paul Vallely

VallelyIn war the Glorious Dead fight on longer than you might suppose. When I was a reporter in Ireland in the 1980s, and the first rumblings of political peace were stirring in the Republican movement, one of the most persistent arguments against finally abandoning the bullet for the ballot was that to do so would somehow betray the sacrifice of those who had died in the struggle. As we look back this month on Britain's ten years at war in Afghanistan we should remember that.

We are in Afghanistan, we are told, to fight al-Qa'eda and keep the streets of Britain safe. That may have been true in 2001 or 2003 but is it now? It was not the Taliban who turned out to be harbouring Osama bin Laden but our ambiguous ally Pakistan whose military and political establishment is complex and dangerous. There must be serious doubts now as to whether Afghanistan is the base for al-Qa'eda's terrorist operations.

But there is another classic Just War determinant. Besides asking about the purpose there is the question of whether this war is winnable. Received wisdom is that in the end the Afghans always win (though Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan might disagree) but in reality the history of Britain's three military adventures in the territory in the days of Empire suggest that might can succeed, though only where its objectives are more limited than a full invasion and sustained occupation. So what are our objectives now?

Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is a much more primitive society. Indeed it is a little more than a collection of competing factions. Different warlords hold sway in the gas-rich more industrialized north, in the mountainous Tajik north-east with its emeralds and lapis lazuli, in the Iran-backed Persian-speaking Shia region of Herat, and in the Sunni villages of the Pashtun south where opium cultivation and local bandits rule. In the midst sits President Hamid Karzai, a pawn of the CIA since the 1980s, and the preferred placeman of the West still, ruling an economy fed by Western aid, choked with corruption and nepotism and where some of the richest drug barons have been members of the president's family.

Afghanistan is the politics of partisanship. When Karzai was installed in Kabul in 2002 he started a robust poppy eradication programme in the Pashtun south but ignored the areas populated by supporters of the West's ally, the Northern Alliance. It is a country of unending blood feuds and honour killings and mutilations. Apologists for war made much of the need to defend the rights of women against the Islamic obscurantism of the Taliban but violence against women has a long and dishonourable pedigree which stretches back far beyond the Taliban and the Pashtun ethnic areas from which most Taliban come. Women have been brutalised by rural tribal custom for generations; 70 per cent of them are married off between the ages of 10 and 14, often offered as compensation for unpaid debts of money or honour.

What does unite the Afghan factions is opposition to foreign forces. Eight years ago it did not. Many were grateful for liberation from the oppressive force of the Taliban government. But the troops stayed too long. Now they are fed up with the self-serving corruption of Karzai and his cronies, which is not keeping them safe from bandits, feuds and warlords. A couple of years ago the Department for International Development commissioned an Afghan NGO to conduct surveys on how people compared the Taliban to the Afghan government.  More than half of the male respondents in Helmand, where British troops were serving, called the Taliban, who remain in substantive control of all but a few population centres, 'completely trustworthy and fair' - though they did not like the Pakistani Taliban.

We have lost the battle for hearts and minds. And though the overwhelming firepower of the US and British forces defeat the Taliban in every major battle, those tactical successes are strategically meaningless. Our exit strategy is to train the Afghan army and then withdraw. Training is having some success but what is missing is any sense of building loyalty to a central Afghan government. That will certainly never come under Karzai. But will it under any one leader in this fractured land?

The West is now talking of 'talking to the Taliban'. But why should they want to talk to us? They and their allies effectively control two-thirds of the territory. They have said they will not talk to president Karzai until foreign forces withdraw. They will just wait us out.

The truth is that we remain in this intractable hell-hole because, as in Vietnam, the West cannot be seen to lose to a ragbag bunch of local people. But our highest aspiration for the final outcome must now be what one commentator has called 'controlled warlordism' rather than conventional democracy. Marxists would have talked about maintaining the imperial hegemony. In our more messy world Afghanistan is little more than a desperate attempt by the West to maintain a grip on a world order in which power is slipping slowly to the East.

Meanwhile our young soldiers - and many more Afghans, innocent and guilty alike -  continue to pay the price for what increasingly seems a decade of delusion as well as disorder. It brings to mind another war. In the trenches in the First World War young British soldiers were fond of taking traditional tunes and giving them new ironic texts. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne they sardonically sang: 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here.'  It is not a good enough reason, as they knew then, and we know now.

We have enough Glorious Dead. And their memory is best served by a more sensible geopolitics rather than a self-deluding or face-saving determination to persevere with a war in Afghanistan in which Britain has now been involved for longer than any war in the past 100 years. 

Paul Vallely