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Six years after a war was launched to overthrow the Taliban, British solders are still being killed in bloody skirmishing in a conflict in which no final victory is possible.
Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, Britain and allies, an operation codenamed Enduring Freedom. But six years on, Britain is once again, as in Iraq, the most junior of partners, spending the lives of its soldiers with little real influence over the war.
The outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan will be decided in Washington and Islamabad. There is no chance of defeating the Taliban so long as they can retreat, retrain and recoup in the mountain fastnesses of Pakistan.
Yesterday, we learned of the death of another British soldier. Although his identity has not been released, it is believed that the dead man acted as a mentor to Prince William.
Two others were injured when their vehicle was caught by an explosion west of Kandahar, bringing the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan to 82 since 2001.
The drip-drip of British losses underlines how little has been achieved in the past six years, and how quickly any gains can be lost. Most of southern Afghanistan was safer in the spring of 2002 than it is now and at no moment during the years that have elapsed is there any evidence from the speeches of successive British ministers that they have much idea what we are doing there and what we hope to achieve.
This week, the Conservative leader David Cameron told supporters that he would restore Afghanistan to the “number one priority in foreign policy” . The remark highlighted how this conflict has all but slipped from the political agenda.
Yet, Afghanistan is filled with the bones of British soldiers who died in futile campaigns in the 19th century and beyond. The lesson of these long forgotten wars is that military success on the ground in Afghanistan is always elusive and, even when achieved, seldom turns into lasting political success.
The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan through Pakistani support and it was when this support was withdrawn in 2001 that the Taliban abandoned Kabul and Kandahar in the days and weeks after 7 October without a fight. But six years later, the Taliban are back.
The violence shows no sign of ending. Suicide bombings, gun battles, airstrikes and roadside bombs have killed 5,100 people in the first nine months of this year, a 55 per cent increase over the same period in 2006.
I went to Afghanistan in September 2001 a few days after 9/11 when it became obvious the US was going to retaliate by overthrowing the Taliban because they had been the hosts of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
It was a very peculiar war that followed, distinguished, above all, by a lack of real fighting. When Pakistani support and Saudi money were withdrawn, the Taliban’s regime unravelled at extraordinary speed. By early 2002, I was able to drive from Kabul to Kandahar without feeling that I was taking my life in my hands.
But, for all the talk of progress and democracy and the presence of thousands of British, American and other Nato troops on the ground, it is impossible to undertake such journeys across the country safely.
Yet, back in 2001, from the moment I saw the first American bombs falling on Kabul and the sparks of light from the feeble Taliban anti-aircraft guns, it was obvious the two sides were completely mismatched.
Taliban fighters who expected to be targeted, simply fled before they were annihilated. The victory came too easily. The Taliban never made a last stand even in their bastions of support in the Pashtun heartlands in south. It was a very Afghan affair in keeping with the traditions of the previous 25 years when sudden betrayals and changes of alliance, not battles, had decided the winner.
Driving from Kabul towards Kandahar in the footsteps of the Taliban, I visited the fortress city of Ghazni on the roads south where the Taliban had suddenly dematerialised and received a de facto amnesty in return for giving up power without a fight.
Qari Baba, the ponderous looking governor of Ghazni province, who had been appointed the day before, said: “I don’t see any Taliban here”, which was surprising since the courtyard in front of his office was crowded with tough-looking men in black turbans carrying sub machine-guns.
“Every one of them was Taliban until 24 hours ago,” whispered a Northern Alliance officer.
One fact that should have made the presence of British, American and other foreign troops easier in Afghanistan was that the Taliban were deeply hated for their cruelty, mindless religious fanaticism (leading to the banning of chess and kite flying) and the belief that they are puppets of Pakistani military intelligence. And unlike Iraq, the foreign presence in Afghanistan has had majority support, though that is slipping.
Drawing parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan is misleading because Saddam Hussein had sought to run a highly centralised state. In Afghanistan power had always been fragmented. But Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were mired in poverty. One reason why both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein went down so quickly is that Afghans, like the Iraqis, hoped for a better life.
They did not get it. Lack of jobs and services like electricity, clean water, hospitals and food continued or got worse.
Iraq is potentially a rich country because of its oil wealth. In Afghanistan the only equivalent to oil money is the money from the poppy fields on which impoverished farmers increasingly depend. One of the reasons the Taliban lost the support of Pashtun farmers in 2001 though this was hardly highlighted by the victors is that they enforced a ban on poppy growing which was highly effective. If the US adopts a policy of killing the poppy plants by spraying them with chemicals from the air, then they will also be engulfed by the same wave of unpopularity. The opium trade is fuelling lawlessness, warlordism and an unstable state.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq are notoriously difficult countries to conquer. They have for centuries, been frontier zones where powerful neighbours have fought each other by proxy.
Victory in Afghanistan six years after the start of the war to overthrow the Taliban is not likely. Even massively expanding troop levels would just mean more targets, and more losses. Armies of occupation, or perceived occupation, always provoke a reaction.
Ultimately what happens in Afghanistan will be far more determined not by skirmishes in Helmand province, but by developments in Pakistan, the Taliban’s great supporter, which are wholly beyond British control. And the agenda in both the Afghan and Iraqi wars is ultimately determined by US domestic political needs Successes in faraway wars have to be manufactured or exaggerated. Necessary compromises are ruled out, leaving Iraqis and Afghans alike with the dismal outlook of war without end.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.