Great Game – shame about the strategy
Nato, Pakistan and Afghanistan are as divided as the Taliban, says Robert Fox. It’s time to talk
After nearly a month of intense fighting against the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan, involving a surge of 3,000 US Marines, the Americans are changing the guard. Their top US commander General Dan 'Bomber' McNeill is to hand over the command to General David McKiernan. It will mean a change of style, and perhaps a change in tactics, but don't expect the fierce fighting across Helmand and Kandahar to die down any time soon.
For all of this month, troops of the British 16 Air Assault Brigade and the US 24 Marine Expeditionary Unit, supported by Dutch and Canadian forces, have been battling to carve out a safe area round Garmsir in Helmand province.
Garmsir is a main route into Helmand and its neighbouring provinces for Taliban recruits coming north from Pakistan. It is also a junction for shipping out paste from the opium poppies, which are enjoying a record bumper harvest for a third year in a row.
Since 2006 the fields along the Helmand river have been producing very nearly half of Afghanistan's exported morphine, according to the country's president Hamid Karzai. Nowadays Afghanistan is said to be the generator of more than 90 per cent of the heroin for the world's junkies.
Karzai likes to point out that 2006 was the year the British arrived in Helmand. But his criticism should not be taken at face value, particularly as there is more than a whiff of suspicion that some of the wider Karzai entourage - and the acolytes of some provincial governors - are deeply involved in narcotics trafficking.
However, Karzai's continual carping and criticism of European allies, particularly the British, underlines the severe strain the allies and the whole international effort are now under in Afghanistan. It is no rhetorical cliche to say that things cannot go on as they are because they simply can't. Karzai does not seem to realise that Western backing for his government and rickety army is not limitless. The British, the Canadians and Dutch have agreed to rotate the command of international forces in the south for a year each and this autumn Major General Jacko Page of the UK 6th Division will take command. But in a year's time he will probably hand over to an American, because by then it's likely the Dutch and Canadians will have quit Afghanistan altogether.
"The problem with the allies' thinking about Afghanistan is that it's all tactics and no strategy," said a senior British general with a great deal of experience of Afghanistan in private recently. He might have added that all parties seem to have a different set of tactics, whether the individual Nato and international force members, Karzai, the local Taliban commanders, the tribal leaders, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the increasingly muddled political leadership in Pakistan itself.
The new government there wants to talk to Taliban leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the recruiting ground for fighters heading to Afghanistan. Some Afghan leaders want to talk to the Taliban, and so do the British and the Dutch, but they're not necessarily the same Taliban, and usually not the Taliban President Karzai wants to talk to.
Gen McKiernan needs a clear strategy for Afghanistan and one that doesn't depend on force and fighting alone. The operation has cost 503 US military lives and 96 British and has already lasted longer than the British were in the Second World War, and twice as long as the Americans were in it. However, there is unlikely to be an American strategic rethink before the removal vans have called at the White House.
As for the British, they cannot delay rethinking Afghanistan until the tenancy changes at Number Ten. If they do, there might not be any forces left to do the job at all. ·
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