In Depth

Run up a white flag: We've surrendered to the Taliban

If we've decided to 'cut and run' by holding talks with Afghan insurgents, why not just cut and run now?

Crispin Black

WE might as well run up a white flag: NATO has just surrendered to the Taliban. After 11 years of fighting, the US and its allies have agreed to open direct negotiations with Taliban representatives. One key condition of the talks was that the Taliban renounce violence.  Astonishingly, the US dropped its long-standing demand that the movement renounce ties with al-Qaeda as a precondition for the talks. In other words, the central aim of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan – to stop it being a safe haven for al-Qaeda, has been abandoned. The first meeting is due to take place today in Doha, the Qatari capital, where the Taliban have opened their first official overseas office. Needless to say, within a few hours of agreeing to 'renounce violence', the Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram airbase outside Kabul in which four American soldiers were killed. I feel sorry for President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron. Afghanistan was not of their making. And whatever we might feel about the PM's strategic judgement over Libya and, now, Syria – he was always a reluctant warrior in Helmand. The two men are merely trying to clear up the hospital pass they received from their predecessors. Not that either George Bush or Tony Blair will ever face a reckoning for their incompetence. In the UK, certainly, we live in a 'fire and forget' world. The politicians who despatched our troops abroad – in this case to (another) defeat – are subject to no sanctions other than the ballot box. That is deemed sufficient. And the generals who make tactical errors that would embarrass a school cadet force seem to accumulate ever more medals and honours. The initial mistake, from which our forces never really recovered, was the army high command's responsibility alone. It was so basic as to take one's breath away. They decided in 2006 when our troops first entered the country in force, to disperse them in 'platoon houses' – isolated little bases that were cut off from each other. They were very nearly overwhelmed – saved only by air power and the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of the Paratroopers, Gurkhas and Irish Rangers inside them. This style of fighting went against every known military maxim in every age of warfare. Concentration of force is a principle of war. Never 'penny packet' your troops. A Roman centurion would have been astonished. A moustachioed 'grognard' in Napoleon's army would have laughed out loud. Even General Percival, the most unsuccessful British general in history never made that mistake. As if British soldiers did not have enough to put up with, some of our senior commanders in Afghanistan dreamed up a whole new military vice previously unknown in Western warfare. They devised ever more complex, finely-tuned, military plans – usually with over-the-top names and explained in macho military jargon – that would be admirable and effective against a conventional opponent but were entirely pointless against a guerrilla enemy who could melt away into the community at will. The Tyrie report suggests that we should jail reckless bankers – perhaps we should do the same for reckless politicians and military men? At least, let's put the military commanders on a 'no win, no gongs' contract.  The overall head of the British armed forces during the initial disastrous phases of our Afghan deployment, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, was made a Knight of the Garter by the Queen on Monday. Obama and Cameron may not be responsible for the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan but they are currently in charge and appear to have no answer to a rather obvious question. If we are cutting and running, why don't we just cut and run right now? As the young John Kerry, now US Secretary of State, then a decorated Navy lieutenant just back from a tour of duty in the Mekong Delta put it in his April 1971 testimony to Congress: "How do you ask someone to be the last person to die for a mistake?" As our troops return, this war will become more and more difficult for those of us back home to accept. Until now, even doubters have been sustained by a heroic narrative. Forget the politicians and the generals and concentrate on the traditional virtues of the British soldier displayed magnificently in this difficult theatre of operations. We get a glimpse of their bravery and devotion to duty in citations for gallantry medals, but the public knows full well the guts and discipline of the vast majority of soldiers go unreported. The British public have been greatly moved. As a result they have supported military charities with huge spirit and generosity. But sadly, as the stories of gallantry fade in the memory, we will be left with two uncomfortable questions that just won't go away. If it was winnable, why didn't we win?  If it was unwinnable, why did we go?

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