Troops out! It’s time to leave Afghanistan
The Army is lost in Helmand and there are better ways to crush al-Qaeda, says Robert Fox
It's time to bring British troops out of Helmand province and home from Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai, the man the British came to defend and build up, doesn't agree with our strategy there and the attempts by 10 Downing Street to smooth over the catty critique he dished out at Davos are a waste of effort, for they fly in the face of reality.
Karzai told the Times that he believed the British coming to Helmand in May 2006 had made matters worse. It opened up space for the Taliban, who are now operating across southern Afghanistan in far greater numbers than envisaged. "Both the American and the British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them," he said. "And when they came, the Taliban came."
The idea that everything was just fine in Helmand and across the drug-growing areas until the British and the Americans arrived is ludicrous, of course. Karzai has blamed the British for demanding the removal of Sher Muhammad Akhunazad as governor in Helmand in 2006. Yet he is credited with being the major drug broker of his district. Similarly Karzai decries the British removal at the same time of Abdul Wali Khan 'Koka' as police chief - whom the British accuse of still being an active warlord.
But Karzai has now proved himself a serial critic, and the British must start taking him at his word. He didn't want Lord Ashdown as the international coordinator, and he insisted on the removal of the two brilliant diplomats Martyn Patterson and Michael Semple of the UN and EU for talking to the 'wrong' people about the Taliban in Musa Qala. (The Karzai entourage then planted the story with the BBC that the two men were 'spies' running their own private intelligence networks.)
Karzai runs a highly idiosyncratic personalised form of government - "he rules by mobile phone," a disgruntled diplomat said recently. His personal network includes a number of provincial governors who carry more than a whiff of suspicion of being involved in drugs trafficking, and laundering drug profits. His own brother has never completely cleared the suspicion that he was involved in the drugs trade.
The continued sniping from Karzai comes at a time when the mission of the British forces, now too small for almost any major part of the task they set themselves when they first arrived, is dangerously fragmented and undermined, even by allies such as the Americans.
Our forces are in Afghanistan to deny ground to the Taliban, to rebuild, to reinforce democratic rule by Karzai and the Afghan parliament. But the primary task of scotching Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda is now all but forgotten.
Keeping seven thousand troops on the ground has meant getting caught up in a civil war, a multi-sided domestic fight between Afghans. It's the Bin Laden command that should be the target, and this would be much better dealt with by light special forces, able to get into the badlands in the border areas of Pakistan, than by the heavy infantry currently operating in Helmand.
The cost to UK forces is obvious, and it's unaffordable. They have been asked to do more in both wars - Iraq as well as Afghanistan - than they were designed or funded for. This is the conclusion of the unexpectedly biting annual defence audit by the House of Commons Defence Committee published today.
The effect is that key people are leaving the forces faster than they can be recruited and trained; and the pool of reserves is at almost zero. The budget is bust, and as former chiefs and The First Post have repeatedly warned, the defence train has hit the buffers. Even senior officers are facing the facts with brutal realism in private conversation. "We are now facing a decade of British military failure," a general said privately to me this month. ·
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