Afghanistan,  Pakistan

Why are we in Afghanistan?

It seems like a good question to ask again right now as the West stands at a moment of change in regards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is one and the same when it comes to some kind of solution and stability.

Finally it feels that things are being pulled into sharper focus. Sadly, the Pakistani terror attacks on Mumbai (and to be honest I’m not sure why anyone grants Pakistan leeway when in action has led to this) are partly responsible for that. Some good might come from those events and Pakistan might wake-up from its stuttering somnambulism.

So why are we in Afghanistan? We all know why we went there in the first place. The US, Britain, Canada and a few other members of the coalition of the willing went to Afghanistan to hit Al-Qaeda and find Osama Bin Laden following 9/11. It was the right thing to do.

That saw the Taliban routed and a democratic government (sort of) put in place. Now we are still there and trying to re-build Afghanistan into a stable state and it isn’t working.

Gordon Brown was there at the weekend visiting British troops in another bad week for UK forces as four Royal Marines were killed by a 13-year old suicide bomber. Thirteen? I don’t even know where to start.

It isn’t working. and we know the reasons why. Today in the Times President Hamid Karzai has a long letter thanking Britain for our costly efforts.

Cheers, Mr President, but as The Times points out we would rather he sort the endemic corruption in his government, which is up to its neck in cash and drugs, that is part of the problem.

If that does not change, if corruption is not weeded out, then Afghanistan is always going to be broken and the democratic framework put in place is meaningless.

Secondly, we don’t have enough troops. The Americans are going to send another 20,000 more troops. Barack Obama wants Britain to send more to our existing 8,400 and Gordon Brown is apparently likely to say no. 

Our small and over stretched, under funded, but highly professional military is starting to feel a little beat up.

Increasingly it looks like there will never be enough troops. Not when the current force of 67,000 is barely enough to keep the Taliban at bay.  What Nato needs in Afghanistan is not just a few more troops, but a lot more troops. However we already know France and Germany and others refuse to pull their weight and are unlikely ever to do so.

There is, of course, another reason why there will never be enough troops and that is because of Hotel Pakistan. Or that’s Pakistan with its head in the sand and its thumb up its arse. While its busy holding this posture (which in yoga is called Fucked Dog) the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the attacks on Mumbai, is busy busy.

On its own Laskar-e-Taiba would be bad enough, but that group is the tip of the iceberg. It is just one of a cabal of terror groups based in Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qeada are all based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. It’s where Mullah Omar lives, the Taliban leader. It’s where Bin Laden might be if he’s alive. Apparently, but who knows. The bottom line is that a lot of terrorists live and operate with impunity in Pakistan and probably have some tacit backing from the security services.

Pakistan has always denied that it supports the Taliban, but the fact remains it is where they live and where they control the border from along with vast swathes of Afghanistan.

As The Guardian says in its special report today on Afghanistan the frequency of Taliban attacks is now higher this year than at any time since 2001. Supply routes are getting attacked and depots (in Pakistan) are getting destroyed. Two hundred and sixty vehicles torched last week alone.

The areas controlled by the Afghan government is shrinking and turning into fortified bubbles and city strongholds that are porous in the extreme.

“The Americans and the Afghan army control the highway, and five metres on each side. The rest is our territory,” as one Taliban commander tells the Guardian.

As Gordon Brown put it, as he head to Pakistan after, Afghanistan and India, we need “action, not words”. It will come down to Obama and what he can and what pressure he can bring to bear on President Asif Ali Zardari and “break the chain of terror”.

I’m guessing it is likely that Asif Ali Zardari will never be able to completely control his own country and kick the Taliban out. Maybe the best we can hope for is increased pressure that restricts the Taliban’s ability to operate so freely and stops Pakistan being such a terror resort, a place to rest, reorganise and retool.

Increasingly it looks like the only settlement in Afghanistan must be a military and political one. Karzai’s government can not fail, but at the same time it seems that a military victory and total defeat of the Taliban is not possible.

Britain has previously held secret talks with elements of the Taliban and someone is going to need to do so again.