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Friday, August 31, 2007

Basra to Helmand: from the frying pan into the fire

Basra to Helmand: from the frying pan into the fire
By Philip Stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 31 2007 03:00 | Last updated: August 31 2007 03:00

Britain's government has a problem. It wants to get out of Iraq without reneging on its international obligations or rupturing its relationship with Washington. The answer, some think, is simple. Withdraw the troops from Basra and redeploy them in the fight against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

George W. Bush would still be miffed. But the US president is isolated now even among Republicans. By sending reinforcements to Afghanistan, Gordon Brown would avoid the charge of shirking Britain's responsibilities. Better still, the prime minister would leave behind an unpopular, and hopeless, war to strengthen Britain's contribution to a conflict that can still be won.

That, anyway, is the theory. Sounds neat? In some respects it is. Most obviously, the much-reduced British force in Basra cannot quell the bitter struggle between rival Shia groups in southern Iraq. Iraqi government forces likewise are no match for the local militias. For all their skill and courage, the remaining 5,500 British soldiers, soon to be confined to a single base at Basra airport, struggle to defend themselves.

It is clear too that their 7,000 comrades in Afghanistan's Helmand province are in sore need of reinforcement. Nato is fighting a high intensity war against a resurgent Taliban. Most members of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force baulk at sending forces to the south. The Americans aside, that leaves the burden with the British and Canadians.

Britain's over-stretched army lacks the resources to fight on two fronts. As casualties mount - running at a higher rate now in Afghanistan than Iraq - its commanders want Mr Brown to choose his war.

Politics draws the same conclusion. Iraq belongs to Mr Bush and the departed Tony Blair. Afghanistan is in a different category. The Taliban provided the safe haven from which al-Qaeda planned the atrocities of September 11, 2001. The west's intervention in support of Hamid Karzai's government has the vital legitimacy that flows from the backing of the United Nations.

Thus Menzies Campbell, who as leader of the Liberal Democrats has been one of the most consistent and trenchant opponents of the Iraq war, backs further deployments to Afghanistan. If Iraq is a bad war, Afghanistan is a good one.

As it happens, Islamist extremism in that part of the world also has a particular relevance to Britain. As David Miliband, Mr Brown's foreign secretary, said the other day, most of the domestic terror plots in Britain can be traced back one way or another to the Pashtun tribal lands straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At this point seemingly impeccable logic collides with dismal reality. It is one thing to say that Britain can do little more in Iraq. That the war in Afghanistan is "winnable" is a much more debatable proposition. The answer depends on, among other things, the definition, never spelt out, of what constitutes victory.

A reasonable assumption would be that winning means the establishment of a stable state with the political structures and the security capabilities to deal with violent Islamism. Not a shiny new democracy on the western model - Afghanistan's tribal roots run too deep - but a moderately pluralistic society operating under the rule of law and with a functioning economy.

By that yardstick, Nato and its allies are losing. Tactical military successes against jihadi fighters in southern Afghanistan have been just that - tactical. The strategic advantage lies with the Islamists. The Taliban has a chilling adage: its enemies have watches. It has time.

A measure of the west's failure came this week with the latest UN figures on Afghanistan's opium production. Concentrated in the south, and nurtured by the Taliban, this year's crop rose by 34 per cent. On the UN's estimate Afghanistan is now the source of more than nine-tenths of the world's heroin. Opium accounts for more than half of Aghanistan's economic output and more than three-quarters of its exports. The Taliban takes a large slice of the profits.

The explosion in poppy cultivation speaks to a longer litany of strategic errors since 2001. Washington started out well enough. The initial victory of the Northern Alliance was followed by a determined effort to hand over the country to an Afghan government. At the Bonn conference, the US actively engaged Afghanistan's neighbours - notably Iran and Russia - to underwrite stability. Security, it was promised, would be underpinned by massive economic reconstruction.

Hubris replaced common sense once the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. Little effort was made to establish security south of Kabul, aid flows were reduced to a trickle and civilian reconstruction was neglected. Iran was cast into darkness as part of the axis of evil. Little wonder the Taliban and its allies regrouped.

There is more, though, to the west's failure than the Bush administration's arrogance and incompetence. I have often heard European politicians describe Afghanistan as an existential test of Nato's, and thus of the west's, resolve in the fight against violent Islamism. They are right.

What is missing is the shared strategic analysis and resolve to turn tactical victories into long-term advantage. That would mean admitting that the war is rooted as much in the tribal and religious politics of Pakistan as in Afghanistan; or that final resolution will depend as much on settlement of the half-century-old dispute over Kashmir as on military victories in Helmand.

All this is too complicated, too long-term, too hard to explain to impatient voters. The west's politicians know that they cannot afford to lose to the Taliban, but are not prepared to ask for the sacrifices needed to win. They talk of victory but will not admit the price in blood and treasure. Nato's forces are thus hamstrung by theological wrangling over the alliance's mission. Civilian aid is a fraction of what it needs to be. And while the west looks impatiently at its watch, the Taliban can afford to bide its time.

So Mr Brown should think hard before being seduced by seemingly neat solutions. As it happens, I do not think he is about to announce a sudden exit from Iraq. The prime minister will seek an orderly withdrawal from Basra. Before he despatches these brave soldiers to Helmand, though, Mr Brown must think hard about their mission. Without clear strategic purpose, the west is destined to discover that legitimate wars can also be lost. It would be more than a pity if, two or three years hence, we are witnessing another ignominious retreat.


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